The Torah in Parashat Chayei-Sara tells the famous story of Avraham’s servant who was sent to Aram Naharayim to choose a woman as a wife for Avraham’s son, Yitzchak. When he arrived in Aram, the servant prayed that God should arrange to have the suitable girl at the well outside the city, and that she would offer to draw water for him and his camels after he requests water for himself. Sure enough, it was Rivka, the daughter of Yitzchak’s cousin, Betuel, who was at the well, and who graciously drew water for the servant and all his camels.
When the servant approached Rivka, he requested, “Hagmi’ini na me’at mayim mi-kadeikh” – “Allow me, please, to sip a little water from your pitcher” (24:17). The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 21:20) sees the servant’s modest request as an example of King Shlomo’s teaching in Sefer Mishlei (13:25), “Tzadik okhel le-sova nafsho” – “A righteous man eats to satiate his soul.” Rather than ask for a large amount of fresh water to drink, the servant instead humbly asked for just a small sip to quench his thirst. The Midrash notes the contrast between the servant’s request and the story told in the next parasha, Parashat Toldot, of Esav who arrived home after hunting in the field and asked Yaakov to feed him some of the stew he was preparing. Esav formulated his request with the word “hal’iteini” (25:30), which the Midrash explains to mean that Esav wanted Yaakov to feed him like an animal, pouring the stew into his mouth. The Midrash views Esav brutish conduct as an example of the second half of the aforementioned verse in Mishlei: “u-veten resha’im techsar” – “the belly of the wicked is lacking.” Whereas the righteous moderate their demands and expectations, needing only to satiate their hunger, the wicked are constantly “lacking,” always seeking more physical gratification, beyond what they need to sustain themselves. The Midrash sees Avraham’s servant as an example of moderation, as he requested just a small amount of water, and it saw Esav as an example of overindulgence, as he expected Yaakov to pour a pot of stew directly into his mouth.
Significantly, as some later writers observed, there is an important point of similarity between these two stories. Namely, both Avraham’s servant and Esav made their requests because were faint and weary. Avraham’s servant had been traveling from Canaan to Mesopotamia, and Esav had just returned from hunting, and is explicitly described as feeling faint (“ve-hu ayeif” – 25:29). Both men were in desperate need of food or water, but they expressed their requests very differently. The Midrash finds fault in Esav’s unrefined behavior, in order to teach us that we must strive to act in a dignified, respectable manner even when experiencing fatigue or other forms of discomfort or duress. It is natural for people to lose their composure and compromise their dignity when they feel weary, unwell, anxious, disappointed or aggravated. The Midrash here urges us to follow the example of Avraham’s righteous servant, who, even after a long, grueling journey, maintained his standards of dignity and self-respect, speaking and acting in an appropriate, composed manner despite his thirst and fatigue. And the Midrash teaches that coarse, unrefined speech and behavior – even when experiencing discomfort and stress – is a characteristic associated with Esav, which we, as the descendants and heirs of Yaakov, are to strive to avoid.