Was the Test of Rivka Appropriate?

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Student Summaries of Sichot Delivered by the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Was the Test of Rivka Appropriate?
Summarized by Ramon Widmonte

And [the servant] said: Hashem, God of my master Avraham ... The girl to whom I say, "Please pour some water for me to drink," and who responds, "Drink, and I will also fetch water for your camels" - she is the one whom You have proven [to be the correct mate] for your servant Yitzchak. (Bereishit 24:12-14)

In its discussion of the definition of nichush (soothsaying), the Gemara (Chullin 95b) cites Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, as the archetype of a soothsayer, since he chose a wife for Yitzchak based on an omen. Tosafot respond vigorously, asking: How it is possible that Eliezer, who was prohibited from engaging in nichush, would do so? Obviously, they respond, Eliezer did not sin. Rather, one can see that Eliezer based his final choice of a wife on other considerations, since he did not give Rivka the bracelets until after she had explained her genealogy to him. Thus, he did not really rely upon a vacuous sign, but was convinced more by her parentage.

The Rambam (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 11:4) disagrees with Tosafot and writes that Eliezer did indeed sin. The Ra'avad (ad loc.) takes an entirely different approach, saying that the gemara was not at all discussing the parameters of what is defined as forbidden nichush, but rather was just debating what kind of signs are more effective. Thus, according to the Ra'avad, the gemara was simply saying that although Eliezer's actions did not fall under the category of forbidden forms of nichush, nevertheless it is not wise to rely on such a sign.

Obviously, it is illogical to direct one's actions according to phenomena which are not at all connected to the issue at hand - for example, a fox straying across one's path and other such omens which are listed by the Rambam. However, what Eliezer did was inherently logical and far-sighted, and quite relevant to the matter at hand. He set for himself a test which would gauge Rivka's personality; one might say that it reflected the essence of her soul.

Chazal state that Eliezer was seeking the kind of personality he had encountered in Avraham's home: a "ba'alat chesed," a person who embodied the kind of chesed (loving kindness) which was Avraham Avinu's central characteristic. (See Rashi on Bereishit 24:14.)

Let us ask ourselves what exactly Eliezer sought.

We can discern two directions in answering this question if we examine the dispute concerning Rivka's age. Rashi (Bereishit 25:20) states that Rivka was three years old at the time of this event; the Da'at Zekeinim Mi-Ba'alei Ha-Tosafot (following the Seder Olam Rabba) maintain that she was fourteen years old. As is true regarding the opinions about the age at which Avraham discovered God, this dispute too is not merely academic; rather, these ages symbolize stages in a person's spiritual development, and color our entire understanding of his personality.

Rashi's vision of what Eliezer sought is intriguing: children at such a young age tend to display an overwhelming egocentricity - they do not give, but are accustomed to taking and depending upon others. They do not yet possess the faculties to understand that the world does not revolve about themselves. Thus, a child who possesses the quality of chesed at such a young age has it almost inherently, instinctively, as part of her basic spiritual constitution. Usually, at the age of three one can speak only of very general directions in personal development; in the case of Rivka, however, she was so conspicuously different in this area that one would have had reason to believe that the trait of chesed was highly dominant in her makeup.

Secondly, if Eliezer was searching for a young child, this indicates that he sought a relatively unmolded person, one who would be unresisting to having the contours of her personality shaped by Yitzchak Avinu. This is Rashi's Rivka - the Pure and Passive Rivka, a personality to be molded.

Tosafot's view, however, differs on both accounts. A fourteen-year-old girl is a ba'alat chesed because she has decided to be one and has acted upon that decision; it is not an instinctive, supernatural spiritual boon.

Moreover, according to Tosafot, Eliezer was not looking for a timid child who follows her husband's lead; rather, he was looking for someone to lead Am Yisrael together with Yitzchak Avinu. Rivka's figure is a dominant, powerful one. This is Tosafot's Rivka - the Nation Builder.

If we set aside the dispute for a moment, we have presented here two facets of the test which Eliezer set for Yitzchak's potential bride:

a) the strength of her commitment to the specific quality of chesed;

b) her ability to take the initiative - this with regard to all of her qualities.

Firstly, the test gauged the extent of her commitment to chesed. Was she merely a person who did not resist the idea of chesed, perhaps she even admired it; or, was she a person who was "rodef chesed," one who charges after the opportunity to perform a kindness? According to both Rashi and Tosafot - regardless of whether her kindness was instinctive or decided-upon - the test was designed to measure its strength.

Secondly, Eliezer was trying to distinguish the level of her leadership initiative - he was searching for someone who was not just a cheftza but a gavra, not a passive object but an active subject.

Generally speaking, the ability to take initiative is a very positive quality. But when speaking of a potential mate for Yitzchak, it becomes crucial. Generally, Yitzchak is portrayed as a relatively passive character. When he decides to leave Eretz Yisrael in a time of famine (Bereishit 26:3), God tells him not to move, but to stay where he is. In the akeida, he is the archetype of sacrifice: Avraham is tested, but Yitzchak never reacts; he is sacrificed, quietly and willingly. Later, when Yitzchak digs wells, he gives them the same names his father gave them (Bereishit 26:18).

In short, Avraham is a spiritual revolutionary, while Yitzchak is far more passive, willing to walk in his father's footsteps and never feeling the need to step out of his father's shadow. Most indicative of his passivity is the fact that towards the end of his life, he becomes blind - to the extent that Rivka controls the entire issue of succession and the dispute over the birthright, working around him when necessary! Ya'akov, too, was transformed from the child who does as his mother bids him into a resourceful planner and executor of a broad strategy - as is evident in his conflicts with both Lavan and Esav.

Thus, we see that a highly motivated, active figure was needed to balance the more quiet and introspective Yitzchak.

Indeed, after reviewing Eliezer's actions, we would seem to side with the Ra'avad and also against him. Not only did Eliezer's actions not constitute nichush, but they were, on the contrary, a carefully planned, finely tuned test, designed to find a mate who would complement Yitzchak, who would carry on the values of Avraham, and who would lead Am Yisrael at its formative stages of development. As Eliezer says, "... She is the one whom You have PROVEN [to be the correct mate] for your servant Yitzchak" (Bereishit 24:14). It was PROOF Eliezer wanted, not an omen; and it was proof most specifically for a mate for YITZCHAK.

(This sicha was originally delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Chayei Sara 5757 [1996].)