INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
By Rav Michael Hattin
Parashat Chayei Sarah begins with a brief and fleeting account of Sarah's death, and the subsequent securing of a burial plot for her at the Cave of Machpela by Avraham. Sensing his own inescapable mortality in light of his beloved Sarah's demise, and fearing for the continuation of their spiritual legacy, Avraham summons his loyal servant Eliezer. He directs him to return to Avraham's birthplace and family in order to find a suitable wife for Yitzchak, their precious progeny. The servant dutifully undertakes the journey, and after a fervent prayer to the Creator, he chances upon Rivka the daughter of Betuel, Avraham's kinsman. After protracted negotiations with her family and subsequent to receiving her own assent, she accompanies him back to Canaan, soon becoming the wife of Yitzchak. The parasha concludes with Avraham taking another wife, producing more offspring, but ultimately selecting Yitzchak as his one true heir. Avraham's timely death and honored burial at Machpela are succinctly described. The concluding verses of the section briefly outline the descendents of Yishmael, Avraham's son by Hagar, Sarah's maidservant.
The main themes of the parasha are thus seen to revolve around the unceasing cycles of death and rebirth. Sarah dies, Yitzchak and Rivka unite, Avraham remarries, has children and expires, and Yishmael has descendants and eventually dies also. Marriage, the bringing together of a man and a woman who through the vehicle of their children will perpetuate their own memory, is cast as the abiding bond between both worlds. Thus, the pivotal (and textually central) event of the parasha is the marriage of Yitzchak to Rivka. In time, it is a moment that is preceded by the death of Sarah and succeeded by the passing of Avraham. In substance, it is the embodiment of something much more noteworthy, for the imperishability of those older two is bound up in the union of their son to Rivka, the descendent of Avraham's brother Nachor.
Eliezer's Journey and Arrival at Charan
The Torah devotes much attention to the account of Eliezer and Rivka's initial meeting, and this week we shall consider some of its more salient implications. Journeying eastwards from Canaan accompanied by ten camels heavily laden with tokens of Avraham's wealth, Eliezer eventually makes his way to Aram Naharaim, the city of Nachor. Located between the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, Aram Naharaim stands at the northern arc of the so-called Fertile Crescent, and is a fecund and well-watered region.
Arriving at the city's outskirts towards evening, Eliezer settles the camels at the watering hole, and offers a fervent and poignant prayer for Divine intervention in finding a wife for Yitzchak:
"Oh God, Lord of my master Avraham, chance before me this day, and act favorably towards my master Avraham. Behold, I am standing at the water spring as the daughters of the city dwellers go out to draw water. If I say to one of the young women: 'please tilt your jug of water so that I may drink' and she replies: 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' then she will be the one whom you have designated for your servant Yitzchak, and then I shall know that you have acted favorably towards my master." (Bereishit 24:12-14)
A Curious Prayer Quickly Answered
A stranger in unfamiliar territory, Eliezer settles the camels at the watering hole, for that location constitutes the natural gathering place of every ancient town and village. Turning to God to assist him in finding a wife for Yitzchak, he proceeds to ask for a Divine portent. If the unsuspecting maiden will not only offer water to him but will also volunteer to water his camels, then that will be a reliable sign that God has selected her as Yitzchak's wife! Sure enough, the supplication having scarcely left his lips, Eliezer approaches a young woman who has just filled her jug from the well and is ascending towards the village. Apprehensively, he requests a drink. The woman responds in the affirmative, and quickly offers him water. Allowing him to drink his fill, she then proposes to water his camels until they are satiated. Expectantly, Eliezer looks on, and only after she has completed the task of caring for the camels, he inquires as to her identity.
"I am the daughter of Betuel," she exclaims, "who is the son of Milka and Nachor. We have much hay and provender for the camels, as well as a place to sleep. The man (Eliezer) kneeled and prostrated himself before God" (Bereishit 24:26).
How remarkable is the narrative, how supernatural is its descriptive prose! Asking for a sign of Divine concern, Eliezer is immediately showered with a miraculous show of Providence. Not only does the first damsel he approaches offer him and his camels water, but as luck would have it, she is also a close relative of Avraham and Sarah, for her grandfather Nachor is none other than Avraham's brother! Additionally, the text points out, she is exceptionally beautiful and a virgin, additional qualities that will enamor her to her potential suitor.
The Quotidian Quality of God's Ongoing Involvement
Clearly, the Torah is first and foremost interested in communicating a fundamental axiom of its worldview: God is involved in the lives of human beings. Although seemingly often absent, unaware or deaf to our pleas, God is involved. He is at once transcendent and immediate, absolute but close by. The events of our lives and the choices that we make are of interest to Him, and His intervention and providence is constant. Sometimes, that intervention is more obvious, occasionally it borders on being overt, but most of the time it is hidden and almost imperceptible. In this unusual account, the Torah makes it emphatically evident that God is not oblivious to our prayers and is capable of granting them if that is His will.
Remarkably, although the account of Rivka's selection is what we might describe in hindsight as 'miraculous,' there is absolutely nothing miraculous in the episode itself. Eliezer requests a sign that is mundane in the extreme, considering the circumstances. He does not pray for any sort of omen that we might consider to be supernatural or abnormal. Having journeyed from afar, he is thirsty, the camels are thirsty, and water is what they need. As the heat of the day dissipates, and the cool evening breeze begins to blow, the townspeople are wont to go down to the well to gather their water. The onlookers at the well who see him approach the young woman can detect nothing unusual in his manner or peculiar about his words, because both are perfectly discernible and typical for the context. At the same time, Eliezer notices no magic halos around the head of the lucky damsel, no ethereal sounds of tingling bells in her gait or angelic figures dancing before her, in response to his prayers. In other words, the Divine response to Eliezer's entreaty is communicated with as much ordinariness as the entreaty itself.
We must therefore qualify our general principle of Providence that lies at the foundation of the Torah's teachings, for that qualification puts this teaching in direct variance to idolatrous and mythical conceptions of the gods. It seems that not only is the God of the Patriarchs aware of human affairs, cognizant of human needs, and ready to respond to human prayers. Additionally though, and perhaps more significantly, His response is more often than not a subdued and understated communication, customarily consisting of no more and no less than a 'fortuitous' confluence of events yielding a particular outcome. It is rarely if ever accompanied by supernatural wonders or announced by magical marvels. This stands in glaring contrast to the classical pagan formulation. There, when the gods deign to respond, they do so with a paranormal display of their prowess that can only be described in legendary terms.
Thus, a discerning student of the Torah may be able to detect an echo of God's response in the effect, but the less sensitive heart will only perceive a deafening silence. Therefore, those who impatiently wait for an unambiguous and obvious display of Divine involvement in the world wait in vain, for God's ways are much more subtle, but no less concrete.
Additional Aspects of Eliezer's 'Prayer'
Considering the matter of Eliezer's supplication further, we must raise other questions. Recall that Avraham his master specifically sent Eliezer on a mission to go back to his 'land and birthplace' in order to find a wife for Yitzchak. This Eliezer conscientiously does, returning to Aram Naharaim from whence Avraham had gone forth to Canaan some sixty years earlier. Recall also that Avraham's family is still to be found in Aram Naharaim, and that Avraham must have been in at least nominal contact with them, for at the end of last week's parasha he and Sarah had been informed of Milka and Nachor's offspring. In other words, by returning to Aram Naharaim, Eliezer knows that he is going to the place of Nachor, Avraham's brother.
When Yaakov makes the same trek eastwards to Aram in flight from his brother Esav, he too stops at an outlying well attended by the locals, in this case shepherds of the area. Aware that he is not far from his destination, he inquires of them if they are perhaps familiar with his uncle Lavan, son of Betuel and grandson of Nachor:
"Yaakov said to them: 'My brothers, where are you from?' They said: 'From Charan.' He said to them: 'Do you know Lavan descendent of Nachor,?' and they said 'We do...'" (Bereishit 29:4-5).
All of this makes Eliezer's conduct almost inexplicable. Why does he wait at the town's outskirts praying for some sort of Divine augury, when he can plainly approach Avraham's family and quickly ascertain whether there are any eligible and willing local damsels interested in marrying Yitzchak? One would have expected that the first question he would ask of those drawing water at the well is: 'Where is the house of Nachor, brother of Avraham?' In fact, Eliezer himself makes it clear that he understood that his master's oath was to be applied first and foremost to his own kin, for when Eliezer recounts to his hosts his master's words, he interprets 'land and birthplace' as 'father's house and family' (compare Bereishit 24:4-7 to Bereishit 24:38-40). In other words, Eliezer understands that his mission in returning to Aram is to specifically approach Avraham's family with the hopes of securing from among them a match for Yitzchak. Why then does Eliezer forego the obvious approach, and instead stand at the well to offer prayers for Divine participation?
A Test of Kindness
All of the above make it clear that Eliezer has another objective in mind in orchestrating his trial at the well, and it has much to do with the theme of ensuring spiritual continuity that we first recognized as being so central to this parasha. Let us consider Eliezer's test carefully, for although it is seemingly mundane and completely typical for the context, it is quite telling nonetheless.
"Oh God, Lord of my master Avraham, chance before me this day, and act favorably towards my master Avraham. Behold, I am standing at the water spring as the daughters of the city dwellers go out to draw water. If I say to one of the young women: 'please tilt your jug of water so that I may drink' and she replies: 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' then she will be the one whom you have designated for your servant Yitzchak, and then I shall know that you have acted favorably towards my master" (Bereishit 24:12-14).
Eliezer's sign thus revolves around thirst, weariness, and water. To ask someone for a cool and refreshing drink within the context of the circumstances here described, is to betray one's fatigue of travel and one's immediate need for hydration. Eliezer's words can therefore be understood as a request for a show of concern and compassion, and thus relate more to human kindness, and less to Divine providence. "I will ask for some water. If the maiden accedes to my entreaty by offering water not only to me, but to the camels as well, then I shall know that she is the one for Yitzchak." Recall that he is a stranger in Charan, obviously out of place at the well and vulnerable to the whims of its denizens. Why should any of the local inhabitants go out of their way for his sake? Recall also that he has arrived with ten camels. We do not know how long it has been since his last rest stop, but we do know that camels are voracious drinkers. The Arabian camel can survive for many days without food or water by converting the fat in its telltale hump into energy, losing up to a third of its body weight between meals. When it does drink, however, it can consume as much as fifteen gallons (65 liters) in less than ten minutes! The prospect of watering ten thirsty camels is therefore not one to be taken lightly, particularly when the text makes it clear that approaching the watering well involved a descent.
In other words, when Eliezer directs his prayer to God, he is not simply asking for some sort of inexplicable and mysterious intervention on God's part. In actuality, what he prays to find is a kind and considerate soul who will demonstrate that she is capable of acts of compassion, caring and concern. "If I say to one of the young women: 'please tilt your jug of water so that I may drink' and she replies: 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' then she will be the one whom you have designated for your servant Yitzchak" for a woman so inclined would make the most appropriate mate for the son of Avraham and Sarah, and would be most suited to perpetuating their legacy of justice and righteousness.
Echoes of Avraham and Sarah
A careful reading of the text in the original Hebrew emphasizes the connection between Eliezer's prayer, Rivka's exemplary conduct, and Avraham's finest character traits. When Eliezer prays to God, he asks of Him to show 'favor' to Avraham his master. In the Hebrew, 'favor' appears as 'chesed,' a unique Hebrew word laden with connotations of mercy, compassion, kindness and love. "Oh God, Lord of my master Avraham, chance before me this day, and act favorably (vASeH CHESED) towards my master Avraham," "and then I shall know that you have acted favorably (ASitaH CHESED) towards my master." In other words, Eliezer understands that God's response will be a function of 'chesed,' the very quality that is so intrinsically associated in post-Biblical traditional sources with Avraham his master.
When Rivka responds to Eliezer's request, the text underscores the alacrity with which she carries out her kindness: "She said to him: 'Drink, sir' and HURRIED (vateMaHeR) to lower her jug upon her arm to give him water. She finished giving him water and then said: 'I will also draw water for your camels, until they have finished drinking.' QUICKLY (vateMaHeR), she emptied her jug into the trough and RAN (vataRaZ) back again to the well to draw, until she had drawn water for all of his camels..." (Bereishit 24:18-20). This dense usage of verbs associated with haste and speed immediately calls to mind another passage, one that also describes an act of kindness to tired travelers: "...Avraham lifted up his eyes and beheld three men standing before him. He RAN (vayaRaZ) to greet them... Avraham HURRIED (vayeMaHeR) to the tent where Sarah was... he RAN (RaZ) to the flock and selected a good calf..." (Bereishit 18:2-7).
In other words, the text is drawing a deliberate parallel between Avraham's act of concern for the weary nomads and Rivka's deed of kindness towards the outsider Eliezer who has traveled from afar. In both cases, the protagonists act with selflessness and benevolence, foregoing their own interests for the sake of strangers. As Rashi (11th century, France) succinctly sums up the thrust of Eliezer's prayer:
"(the woman who will accede to Eliezer's request will show herself to be) suited for Yitzchak, for by doing acts of loving-kindness (CHASADIM) she demonstrates that she belongs in Avraham's household..." (commentary to Bereishit 24:14).
To sum up, Eliezer's prayer may in fact be an invitation for Divine involvement, but it is also a plea for human magnanimity. His prayers are answered not by the sudden appearance of some otherworldly apparition, but by a very tangible demonstration of goodness and caring. Significantly, God's involvement in human affairs is therefore highlighted by Rivka's conscious deed of altruism. The deaths of Sarah and Avraham are thus mitigated by the union of Rivka to Yitzchak, for through their deliberate modeling of their forebears' conduct, the latter two show themselves to be worthy successors to the mission of justice, righteousness, and kindness that Avraham and Sarah introduced to the world.