A Test of Character

  • Rav Zvi Shimon

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

PARASHAT CHAYE SARA

 

A Test of Character

by Rav Zvi Shimon

 

 

            In this week's Torah reading the spotlight shifts to the new generation.  Abraham is very old and primarily concerned with Isaac's future.  Sara is buried and the stage awaits the entrance of the next matriarch.  This role, however, is not easily filled.  To find a wife suitable for Isaac and the building of a household which will continue the covenant with God, Abraham registers the services of his most dependable servant.

 

24:1:  "Abraham was now old, advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.  2: And Abraham said to the senior servant of his household, who had charge of all that he owned. 'Put your hand under my thigh.  3: And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell,  4: but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.  5: And the servant said to him, 'What if the woman does not consent to follow me to this land, shall I then take your son back to the land from which you came?'  6: Abraham answered him, 'On no account must you take my son back there!'  7: The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father's house and from my native land, who promised me on oath, saying, 'I will assign this land to your offspring' - He will send His angel before you, and you will get a wife for my son from there.  8: And if the woman does not consent to follow you, you shall then be clear of this oath to me; but do not take my son back there."

 

            There are two restrictions with regard to the servant's mission.

 

1.  He must not take a wife for Isaac from amongst the Canaanites.

2.  Isaac must not leave Israel.

 

            If these conditions can not be met, then the servant's mission is annulled.

 

            Why does Abraham command his servant not to take a wife from the Canaanites?  What is the reason for Abraham's opposition to the women of Canaan?

 

            Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1600-1865) suggests that Abraham's motivation was political.  God's promise of the land of Israel to Abraham's descendants requires the appropriation of the land from its Canaanite inhabitants.  Were Isaac to intermarry with the Canaanites, then the people of Israel would be precluded from driving them out of the land.  They would have come under the same prohibition as the other kinsman nations, Moab, Ammon, and Edom, with whom Israel is forbidden to instigate a war (Deuteronomy 2:5, 9, 19).  Do you agree with this explanation?

 

            I believe Abraham's character as it emerges from the preceding chapters of Genesis impels us to search for a different type of answer.  Abraham's major considerations are undoubtedly ethical and value-oriented.

 

            Is Abraham's opposition, perhaps, rooted in theological religious considerations?  The Abarbanel (Don Isaac Abarbanel, Spain, 1437-1508) stresses that there was no fundamental difference in religious faith between the Canaanites and the Babylonians.  This is attested to by the verse in the book of Joshua which we recite at the Passover seder:

 

"Your forefathers - Terach, father of Abraham and father of Nachor - lived beyond the Euphrates and worshipped other gods" (Joshua 24:2).

 

            Theological considerations were evidently not the decisive factor.  The Abrabanel cites a fascinating explanation by the Ran (Rabbi Nissim ben Reuben Girondi, Spain, 1310-1375).  According to the Ran, the commandments can be divided into two categories.  The first category includes commandments related to the sphere of beliefs and affect the soul alone. The second category includes commandments related to actions and character traits and leave an impress on both body and soul.  This second category affects the physical make-up and will leave a similar impress on the man's descendants.  Therefore, such traits as hatred, cruelty and lewdness are passed on to children.  On the other hand, beliefs, however misguided, are not hereditary.  The Ran, then, concludes:

 

Therefore Lavan and Betuel's (Rivka's father) idolatrous beliefs left no impress on their children.  For this reason Abraham chose them and rejected the daughters of the Canaanites."

 

            Even if we reject the biological component of the Ran's explanation, we can still accept his basic differentiation.  The rejection of the Canaanites is not due to their idolatry but rather to their sinful behavior.  The Torah, indeed, denounces the inhabitants of Canaan for their abominable behavior.  It opens the chapter forbidding sexual perversions with a general warning:"... according to the deeds of the land of Canaan where I bring you, you shall not do." (Leviticus 18:3)  The deeds of the Canaanites disqualify them from marrying into Abraham's family.

 

            Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888) adds a practical explanation to Abraham's opposition to a Canaanite woman.  The influence of a Canaanite wife on Isaac would be all the greater since he dwells in the midst of the Canaanite people.  Not only the wife but her whole family and circle of friends and relations would have to be contended with.  Rabbi Hirsch concentrates on the clause "among whom I dwell" (24:3).  Abraham desires a wife for Isaac from a distant country so that he will not be affected by his wife's family and culture and his wife will be more likely to absorb Jewish values.

 

            So far we have dealt with Abraham's motivation for rejecting the Canaanites.  What remains to be clarified are the attributes of the woman who is to be Isaac's wife.  What type of woman does Abraham expect his servant to bring from Babylon?  You will find the answer to this question in the following text:

 

24:10: "Then the servant took ten of his master's camels and set out, taking with him all the bounty of his master; and he made his way to Aram-Naharaim, to the city of Nachor.  11: He made the camels kneel down by the well outside the city, at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water.  12: And he said, 'O Lord, God of master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham:  13: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water;  14: let the maiden to whom I say, 'Please, lower your jar that I may drink, ' and who replies, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels' - let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.  Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.'"

15: He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebekka, who      was born to Bethuel, the son of Milka the wife of Abraham's brother Nachor, came out with her jar on her shoulder.  16: The maiden was very beautiful, a virgin whom no man had known.  She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up.  17: The servant ran toward her and said, 'Please let me sip a little water from your jar.'  18: 'Drink my lord,' she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink.  19: When she had let him drink his fill, she said, 'I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.'  20: Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.

21: The man, meanwhile, stood gazing at her, silently wondering whether the Lord had made his errand successful or not.  22: When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring weighing a half-shekel, and two gold bands for her arms, ten shekel in weight."

 

            The character trait which Abraham's servant is seeking is not surprisingly "chesed" (kindness).  This is the identifying characteristic of the house of Abraham.  The litmus test is the willingness to exert oneself in an act of kindness on behalf of a total stranger.

 

            Most people are usually glad to help others so long as it is not particularly demanding.  Rivka's kindness, though, far outdoes what would be expected of the average person.  A stranger accompanied by other men (see 24:32, 54 and Rashbam 24:10) appears and asks a young lady, much smaller and weaker than he, to drink from the water which she has drawn.  Most people would surely find this request to be presumptuous.  Rivka, however, reacted differently.  She gave the stranger the benefit of the doubt; if the man asked for help, he obviously needs it.  She understood that he and his men are probably exhausted and dehydrated from their long journey.  It is this kind eye which set Rivka apart and proved her to be worthy of marrying Isaac.

 

            This overview analysis provides us with a general appreciation of Rivka's kindness.  However, only if we analyze the minute details of the servant's test, will we be able to grasp the full magnificence of Rivka's character.

 

            Rivka did not only comply with the servant's request.  She voluntarily offered to also give water to his camels.  This was not an easy task.  Although the Torah does not usually stress descriptive details it goes out of its way to mention that the servant had with him ten camels (24:10).  A camel, due to its large water storage capacity, can last many days without water.  However, once its water supply is depleted, its needs for replenishment are considerable.  The Torah emphasizes that Rivka watered the camels until they were fully satiated - "I will draw for your camels until they finish drinking" (24:19).  This must have required the drawing of many gallons of water.  This is all the more impressive when taking into account that the well was not in the same immediate location as the trough from which the camels drank.  Watering the camels required a descent to the well and then an uphill climb with a heavy jug filled with water.  "She WENT DOWN to the spring, filled her jar, and CAME UP" (24:16).  Rivka's volunteering to draw water for ten camels demonstrates her true love of "chesed."  Her kindness is not only a response to a request.  It is self-initiated, a product of her own flowing kindness.

 

            Her kindness is not only demonstrated by the extent of her willingness to help but also by the manner in which she performs her charitable needs.  Scripture stresses several times Rivka's swiftness in helping Avraham's servant: "She QUICKLY lowered her jar ... QUICKLY emptying her jar into the trough, she RAN back to the well to draw..." (24:28, 20).  Chesed is not regarded by Rivka as a chore but rather as an opportunity to be performed with dedication and enthusiasm.

 

            Rivka's response not only proves her kind-heartedness but also her intelligence and keen perception.  She independently realized that the camels must also be thirsty and that if the man could not draw water for himself, he surely couldn't draw for ten camels.  True "chesed" requires not only a kind but also a keen eye which is able to perceive and anticipate the needs of others.

 

            The commentators point to a slight difference between the test as formulated by the servant (24:14) and its actualisation (24:18, 19).  Compare these verses (quoted above) - can you spot any differences?

 

            According to the servant's prayer, Rivka's response should have been: "Drink and I will give your camels to drink as well."  Rivka, however, responded by first saying, "Drink my lord" and only after he had finished drinking did she offer to draw water for the camels.  What is the reason for this change?

 

            The Or Ha-chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) explains that had Rivka immediately indicated her intention to water the camels, the servant would have felt uneasy about burdening her and would have minimized his own drinking in order to lessen her work.  She therefore purposefully deferred offering to water the camels until the servant finished drinking himself and his thirst was fully quenched.

 

            Ha-ktav Ve-hakabala (Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, Central Europe, 1785-1865) offers a different explanation.  Had Rivka used the same words as the servant - "Drink and I will give your camels to drink as well," she would be equating him with the camels.  She delayed her offer to water the camels so as not to offend the man.

 

            Both commentators hold the change in Rivka's response to her credit.  According to the Or Ha-chayim Rivka showed deep concern for the servant's physical well-being and his drinking unreservedly, while according to the Ha-ktav Ve-hakabala she evinced sensitivity to his feelings and dignity.  Not only Rivka's actions but also her speech prove her to be worthy of Isaac.

 

            The commentators point to another difference between the servant's formulation of the test and its actualisation.  According to the servant's formulation, the response "Drink and I will give your camels to drink as well" should have sufficed to reveal that Rivka was the right lady.  In actuality, the servant reserved his decision till Rivka finished watering the camels - "The man meanwhile stood gazing at her, silently wondering whether the Lord had made his errand successful or not" (24:21).  Why wasn't Rivka's affirmative response sufficient?  (Before reading on, take a few moments to think about the question.)

 

            The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, Italy, 1470-1550) suggests that the suspension of the servant's decision was to verify that Rivka's actions were truly altruistic and without any ulterior motive.  Would she, upon completing her assistance, hint or ask for remuneration for her troubles?  Had she done so, this would have exposed her help as nothing more than a business enterprise.  Only upon the completion of her assistance and the absence of any such request could the servant be convinced that Rivka's actions stemmed from pure kindness.

 

            The Or Ha-chayim takes a different approach.  The servant's delay was to ensure that Rivka would indeed live up to her offer and persevere till it was completed.  Many people talk big and make all sorts of promises which they renege on the moment things become slightly difficult or tiresome.  Therefore, only after Rivka had finished watering the camels could the servant be sure that her kindness was real.

 

            The servant's seemingly simple test is actually a complex character analysis.  It demonstrates Rivka's supreme kindness, intelligence and sensitivity.  Isaac's reaction upon meeting Rivka, comes as no surprise:

 

"Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sara, and he took Rebekka as his wife.  Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother's death" (24:67).