ויבא אברהם לספד לשרה ולבכתה
Abraham eulogized Sarah and wept for her (Bereishit 23:2). The letter כ in the Hebrew word, “and wept for her,” (v’livkosa) is written in miniature.
The Torah uses many devices on many different levels to communicate its eternal message to us. Certainly, the surface meaning of the text (known as “pshat”) conveys the primary message. However, there are many subtleties of meaning that are conveyed by other means (e.g. gematria—the numerical equivalence of words). In some cases, the Torah alters the size of a letter, sometimes writing a letter smaller than usual and sometimes even writing a letter larger than usual. In one place, a letter in the Torah is written as if it were broken in two. In several passages we find that words are written with dots over some of the letters. All of these anomalies are codes which evoke additional meanings, if we are able to decipher them.
Rav Hirsch (in his commentary to Mishpatim) explains by analogy this system of unusual markings that appear in the text of a Torah scroll. One who rapidly takes notes in a lecture devises his own system of shorthand jottings in order to remember the points of the lecturer. Some might use arrows, icons, slashes, or other marks to capture some of the speaker’s ideas. In a sense, the anomalous marks that we find in the Torah scroll are also similar to a shorthand system which conveys additional points to G-d’s “lecture” (His Torah), as it were. In the context of Abraham weeping over the death of his beloved wife Sarah, one of the commentators (Baal HaTurim) decodes the meaning of the miniature letter “chaf” in the word, “and he wept.” He explains that Abraham’s crying was reduced in intensity, just as the size of the letter “chaf” in the word is reduced in size.
In truth, many individuals have expressed surprise upon learning of Abraham’s reaction to his dear wife’s death, especially given the fact that Sarah was an absolutely righteous woman her entire life, as the first verse in the Torah portion relates. [“And it was that the life of Sarah was 100 years, and 20 years, and 7 years. . .” Instead of simply stating that she lived 127 years, the Torah divides her age into three units (hundreds, tens, and ones) and states the word “years” when mentioning each unit. Our Sages explain that the Torah broke down Sarah’s age into three units in order to compare each unit with the other. Sarah was as pure at 100 years as she was at 20 years and as beautiful at 20 years as she was at 7 years (she possessed a pure, child-like beauty).] Furthermore, the marital relationship between Abraham and Sarah is expressed in the highest terms by the Sages. The question therefore begs, “Abraham should have cried even more intensely for the loss of Sarah than most husbands do for their wives?”
Perhaps, the explanation is that there are two reasons why one cries over the loss of someone he or she was close with. First, they will never see each other again in this world and the joy of their ongoing relationship has been severed. Second, the survivor is concerned about the eternal repose of his relative or friend, for we know that there is judgment after death for each person who leaves this world. We hope that the judgment will be favorable for our friend or relative, but the uncertainty can create anxiety, which is also expressed by crying and mourning. It is for this reason that Abraham’s crying was reduced: knowing that his wife Sarah was a perfectly righteous individual all 127 years of her life, he was certain that Sarah’s judgment in the next world would be most favorable. Therefore, his expression of sadness was only for one reason—the loss of his personal relationship with his beloved wife. The Torah is hinting to this by use of the miniature letter.
ויאמר אברהם אל עבדו זקן ביתו המשל בכל אשר לו שים נא ידך תחת ירכי
“And Abraham said to his servant, the elder of his household who controls all that is his, ‘Place now your hand under my thigh.’” (Bereishit 24:2)
When Abraham decided that it was time to seek a wife for Isaac, he called his trusted servant Eliezer to instruct him regarding the mission. As we have already been introduced to Eliezer and his role as Abraham’s servant several times in the Torah (see e.g.Bereishit 15:2), why was it necessary to repeat and emphasize at this point that Eliezer controlled all of Abraham’s possessions?
Rabbi Chaim of Czernowitz (1760-1818), in his work Be’er Mayim Chaim, answers our question by comparing it to a case of a person visiting an unfamiliar town. If he is hungry, he will seek out a restaurant which advertises that it is kosher. For some people, this claim will be sufficient for them to enter and eat, while more religiously scrupulous individuals will inquire among the locals about the religious standards of the proprietor. Still others won’t suffice with information obtained from strangers, but would insist on speaking to the Rabbi of the town for his opinion about the reliability of the establishment.
On the other hand, if the visitor was pursuing a potential business partnership, these variations wouldn’t exist. When money is at stake, people do not rely on advertised claims regarding the integrity of the person in question, nor would he even consider accepting local people’s opinions. Rather, he would remain in town and do extensive research to personally ensure the integrity of the prospective business partner.
Abraham, however, was precisely the opposite. To him, material possessions were significant only as means to pursue his spiritual goals of serving G-d and spreading His knowledge throughout the world. On the other hand, spiritual matters were viewed and treated with the utmost care.
As a result, Abraham had no qualms about entrusting Eliezer with all of his earthly possessions. However, when it came to the selection of a wife for his spiritual inheritor Isaac, a new standard had to be applied, and Eliezer could be trusted only after swearing to adhere to Abraham’s instructions. Precisely at this time the Torah emphasizes Eliezer’s well-known position to contrast it with the concern which Abraham displayed in assigning him this new task and to teach us what Abraham’s true priorities and values were.
The Theory of “Relative”ity
ואשביעך ביהוה אלהי השמים ואלהי הארץ אשר לא תקח אשה לבני מבנות הכנעני אשר אנכי יושב בקרבו כי אל ארצי ואל מולדתי תלך ולקחת אשה לבני ליצחק
“And I (Abraham) will have you (Eliezer) swear by Hashem, G-d of Heaven and G-d of earth, that you not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. Rather, to my land and to my kindred shall you go and take a wife for my son, for Isaac.” (Bereishit 24: 3-4)
When Abraham instructed his trusted servant Eliezer regarding the selection of a wife for his son Isaac, he was very insistent that Eliezer not choose a wife from their Canaanite neighbors, but rather from Abraham’s original homeland and family in Charan. Abraham lived amongst the Canaanites and rejected the possibility of allowing Isaac to marry one of them due to their idolatrous ways. However, in light of the fact that the women in Charan worshipped idols just as the Canaanites did, what was the benefit of sending Eliezer to seek a wife from his homeland?
Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerona, known as the Ran (1320-1380), explains that Abraham’s objection to a Canaanite daughter-in-law wasn’t based on their idolatrous practices, but rather on the immorality and lack of proper character traits they exhibited in their behavior. Although Abraham’s relatives in Charan also worshipped idols, he knew that at the core their values and ethics were wholesome and intact.
As immodest and unethical behavior originates in one’s very essence and can be passed on genetically, the Canaanites were disqualified from marrying into Abraham’s family. On the other hand, matters of philosophical belief are taught, not inherited. The idolatry of Abraham’s relatives in Charan therefore could be remedied by simply educating and exposing them to belief in G-d.
The Ran’s point that intellectual knowledge and pursuits aren’t passed through the generations is illustrated by the following story. One of my Rabbis spent several years living in Jerusalem. As he was interested in the practical aspects of applying the knowledge that he had spent many years acquiring, he obtained permission to sit in the central Rabbinical Beis Din (Court) and observe the various proceedings. One day a woman came before the Beis Din for a proceeding. When asked for her last name, she replied, “Einstein.” Curious, my Rabbi respectfully waited until the end of the session and then approached the woman to inquire about her identity. Sure enough, she explained that she was none other than the great-granddaughter of the illustrious Albert Einstein.
At this point, with her ancestry clarified, my Rabbi couldn’t help but ask if she followed in the path of her famous great-grandfather and spent her spare time studying advanced physics and the theory of relativity. Albert Einstein’s great-granddaughter replied that she never understood these subjects and found his work totally uninteresting and incomprehensible.
The path that our children will take and the families they will raise are beyond our control. Although we will try our utmost to shape their goals and priorities in life, they will ultimately be influenced and determined by factors beyond our control. What is in our power, however, is to work on our own character traits and to encourage our children to marry those with similar giving dispositions, which will become a permanent part of our spiritual legacy as it is passed down from generation to generation, just as we learn from Einstein’s theory of “relative”-ity!
A Legacy of Caring
והיה הנער אשר אמר אליה הטי נא כדך ואשתה ואמרה שתה וגם גמליך אשקה אתה הכחת לעבדך ליצחק ובה אדע כי עשית חסד עם אדני
“Let it be that the maiden to whom I shall say, ‘Please tip over your jug so I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will even water your camels,’ (it must be) her (who) You have designated for Your servant…” (Bereishit 24:14)
The time had come to find a wife for Isaac, and Abraham understood that this would be no easy task. The wife of Isaac could not simply be a wife in the normal sense of the term, but would also have to possess the qualities of a matriarch of the Jewish people. Abraham entrusted this task to Eliezer, his faithful servant. His first stipulation was that Eliezer swear that he would not take a girl from the Canaanite nations, whose character was flawed. Instead, Eliezer was instructed to return to Abraham’s ancestral home and family, where he could be more secure in the basic qualities of the people there. (See Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Bereishit 24:3-4)
Eliezer put great care into devising an appropriate test to determine which girl would be suitable for Isaac. Upon arriving at his destination, Eliezer prayed for G-d’s direct assistance and included several conditions that would identify the type of girl he was searching for:
1. She would grant his request for water.
2. She would not just give him her jug, but would tip it over for him to allow him to drink.
3. Even though Eliezer would ask for water only for himself, she would proactively offer to give water to all of his camels as well.
Before Eliezer was done praying, Rebecca appeared and fulfilled his every condition. Amazed at the incredible Heavenly assistance, Eliezer gave thanks to G-d and set the wheels of the match in motion. (Bereishit 24:12 – 27)
Eliezer’s criteria, however, raise a fundamental question. Why was it necessary to be so specific? Why was it not sufficient simply to ask for water for himself, and his camels, and then assess her reaction?
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno explains that Eliezer understood that he was searching for a future Matriarch of the Jewish people. This person would have to possess a highly developed sense of kindness, above and beyond what would normally be considered exemplary. She would have to see beyond his verbal request for water, perceive his true needs, and then act accordingly.
This is why Eliezer specifically wanted Rebecca to tip her jug for him, rather than simply giving him the jug and allowing him take for himself. He hoped that his apparent laziness would not anger her, that she would judge him favorably and assume he must have some kind of pain in his hands that was stopping him from serving himself. Accordingly, she would then make the next calculation and realize that if Eliezer did not have the strength to hold the jug for himself, he certainly would not be able to draw water for his camels. This, in turn, would prompt her to perform the arduous task of watering the ten camels herself!
These are the qualities Eliezer was looking for in an appropriate match for Isaac and a mother to the Jewish people. It would not be enough for the Jewish people simply to inherit a trait of kindness. As G-d’s emissaries in the world, we would need to develop a much deeper awareness of the needs of the people around us, and learn to proactively seek to help them, rather than waiting to be approached.
A story involving one of the greatest Rabbinic scholars of the 19th century, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, illustrates this point:
One Seder night, Rabbi Soloveitchik was approached by a man who asked him if it was permissible to use milk instead of wine for the Four Cups of the Passover Seder. In reply, Rabbi Soloveitchik sent a generous amount of wine and meat to the questioner’s home. He understood that if this man was asking this question, he obviously didn’t have enough money to buy wine for the Seder. And if he was planning to drink milk, it was obvious he had no meat for the Seder as well. Thus, rather than simply answering the question, Rabbi Soloveitchik was able to meet the questioner’s true, unstated needs.
There is not a person we meet in our daily lives who is not in need of some act of kindness – a need that often goes well beyond and is much more crucial than a lack of money. Often, however, people may be too embarrassed to openly ask for assistance, just as we would be.
Developing the sensitivity and wisdom that allows us to probe beneath the surface will help us perceive the deeper needs of the people around us, and take action to fulfill those needs. Each time we do so, we carry on the legacy of Rebecca and the qualities she imbued in us as her children, the Jewish people.
You Need All Three
יאמר בת מי את הגידי נא לי היש בית אביך מקום לנו ללין ותאמר אליו בת בתואל אנכי בן מלכה אשר ילדה לנחור ותאמר אליו גם תבן גם מספוא רב עמנו גם מקום ללון
“And he said, ‘Whose daughter are you? Pray tell me. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?’ She said to him, ‘I am the daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah whom she bore to Nahor.’ And she said to him, ‘Even straw and feed is plentiful with us as well as a place to lodge.’” (Bereishit 24:23 -25
‘I am the daughter of Bethuel’ – She answered the first question first and the second question second” (Rashi).
Rebecca had shattered all records and standards for acts of kindness: providing water for Eliezer, his attendees and his ten camels. Eliezer then asked her two questions, to which Rashi comments that she answered in order. Why was the fact that she answered Eliezer’s questions in sequence so significant?
One of the traits that characterize a learned person, as taught in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 5:9) is that “he discusses first things first and last things last.” Clearly, this trait is not trivial. But why?
Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowitz of P’shischa, otherwise known as the Yid HaKadosh, said that a Jew needs three things to be complete: He should be wise, kindly, and religiously devout. He explained that each one of the three attributes alone, without the complement of the others, could potentially produce more harm than good.
One who is only wise, he elaborated, may be inclined to use his mind to become a thief and devise intricate schemes. Left to its own devices, brilliance and intelligence do not necessarily lead to making the right choices. Countless examples exist of people who have used their superior intellect as a tool or a weapon to promote their selfish interests and perpetrate both subtle and overt crimes.
The one who is only kindly, the Rebbe said, is at risk of becoming self-indulgent. Without boundaries and discipline, one can start being kind to his neighbor, but eventually be unable to refuse any request – even when it is detrimental to himself. Overindulging a needy person with kindness can sometimes be as damaging as being callous. True kindness therefore, must never be done on impulse.
Lastly, the Rebbe commented, a devout religionist runs the risk of being spiritually superficial, or a monk-like ascetic. To a person with a hammer, every problem is a nail. If moral discipline is the only tool available, then “no” is always the only option. Avoiding all temptation becomes the best defense, and therefore, life and love remain unengaged and unfulfilled.
In order for a Jewish person to be complete, he must simultaneously cultivate all three aspects of his personality. 1) Develop his mind and sharpen his thinking-process through study, 2) cultivate a passion to help and to perform acts of loving kindness for others, and 3) remain obedient to conscience and law, and develop the strength to avoid yielding to unproductive and capricious desires.
Rebecca encompassed the unity of the three personality traits. By answering the questions in order, she demonstrated that she was not impulsive (i.e., she did not instinctively respond at first to the last question, the most recent entry in her mental registry). It also showed that her kindness was tempered by intellect, and her desires and actions by modesty (see Bereishit24:65, describing the initial encounter with her future husband).
Rebecca’s kindness was refined and well-thought-out. As such, she was absolutely suited to be the mother of this great and holy nation.
ואמר אל אדני אלי לא תלך האשה אחרי
And I said to my master, “Perhaps the woman will not follow me?” (Bereishit 24:39)
We perceive ourselves as fair, balanced and generally objective people — but are we really? How much of what we do and say is really influenced by our own personal agendas?
Our forefather Abraham sent Eliezer, his chief servant and primary student, on a mission to find a wife for his son Isaac. The Torah describes Eliezer’s activities in great detail, enumerating every speech and remark he made during his mission, for a total of 61 verses! What can we learn from the Torah’s lengthy account of this mission?
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains that the Torah wants to teach us that we are not as unbiased as we think.
G-d miraculously helped Eliezer find Rebecca by a well, and then he went to her house to formally ask for her family’s consent to the marriage. In order to convince them of the correctness of this match, Eliezer recounted the miraculous signs indicating that Rebecca was meant for Isaac. However, there’s an interesting discrepancy between his words here and the original story.
When Abraham originally sent Eliezer, Eliezer asked his master what he should do in case the girl would not want to return home with him. In that conversation, the word ulai – perhaps – is written, with the letter vav: אולי. Later, when Eliezer repeated the story to Rebecca’s family, the word ulai is spelled without a vav: אלי. Rashi quotes a Medrash which says that without a vav, the word can be read elai — to me. Rashi explains that Eliezer also had a daughter whom he thought worthy of marrying Isaac. The Torah revealed Eliezer’s innermost thoughts — his hopes — that if he was unsuccessful in bringing Rebecca home for Isaac, Isaac would come elai, to him and marry his daughter.
But why is this message-laden variation written here, when Eliezer was just recounting the events? Shouldn’t it be hinted to during the actual conversation?
Rabbi Dessler answers that it was exactly at that point in the retelling that Eliezer realized how biased he had been when he’d spoken to Abraham. When it was one hundred percent clear that Rebecca was meant for Isaac, it hit him like a thunderbolt! Once his secret hope was dashed, he understood that his question had come from personal bias, not actual concern for Abraham and Isaac.
Human nature is such that when it comes to ourselves, we have a limited field of vision. Even with a healthy outlook and the best intentions, our ulterior motives can lead us astray. But if we stop and listen to ourselves speak, we stand a far better chance of weeding out our hidden agendas. And when we really aren’t sure what our true motivations are, we might consider seeking the counsel of a trusted friend or advisor. With improved self-awareness, we can be more honest not only with others, but with ourselves.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
Why is this week’s Torah portion known as Chayei Sarah, which means “the life of Sarah” when it begins with her death, and why is a later Torah portion known as Vayechi, which means “and he (Jacob) lived” when it discusses Jacob’s death? (Oznayim L’Torah by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin)
Q: The Parsha begins, “Sarah’s lifetime was 127 years, the years of Sarah’s life.” If Sarah lived 127 years, isn’t it clear that these were the years of her life. What is the seemingly redundant conclusion to the verse coming to teach us?
A: Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov Pam notes that Rashi writes (Bereishit 23:2) that the death of Sarah is juxtaposed to the binding of Isaac (at the end of last week’s parsha) in order to teach that the shock and fear from hearing that her son was almost slaughtered was the cause of her death. Realizing this, somebody might mistakenly assume that if not for this tragic turn of events, she would have enjoyed many more years, or even decades, of her long and productive life. In order to counter this erroneous conclusion, the Torah emphasizes that these were the years of life which she was allotted, and if not for this episode, she would have died in some other manner at the exact same time.
Rabbi Pam was known to use this message to comfort those grieving the loss of loved ones. Many times it seems that if they would have only tried a different medical treatment or if a certain accident could have been averted, the dead would still be alive, leaving the mourners feeling very guilty. Painful as the loss is, Rabbi Pam used the lesson of our parsha to teach that each person is given his unique lifespan for reasons completely beyond our comprehension, and there was nothing we could have done differently to prevent this person’s death, from one cause or another. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: The Medrash relates (Esther Rabbah 1:8) that Rabbi Akiva was once in the middle of teaching a class when he noticed his students beginning to doze off. He digressed from the subject he had been discussing and asked, “Why did Queen Esther deserve to rule over 127 countries? She merited doing so because she was descended from Sarah, who lived 127 perfect years.” Why did he interrupt his class to interject this specific tangent?
A: The Chiddushei HaRim, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Alter, answers that one could view Esther’s kingdom as simply a collection of countries, and for each year of Sarah’s life, she warranted to rule over another one. However, in reality, each country consists of states, cities, neighborhoods, streets, and houses. Similarly, a year can be subdivided into months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds.
Rabbi Akiva made the point that it wasn’t because Sarah lived a generally good life that Esther received the same number of countries. If Sarah would have let up for a week or even a second, it would have resulted in a corresponding deficiency in Esther’s empire, causing her to be lacking a city or even just a house. It was only because Sarah’s life was equally good from beginning to end – כולן שוין לטובה – every second of every day, for her entire life, that Esther’s kingdom was complete.
Rabbi Akiva’s students were obviously quite tired, and they assumed that if they took a short nap and missed a little of the class, it wouldn’t be the end of the world or have any real ramifications. Realizing this, Rabbi Akiva wanted to teach them that every second of our lives, every word we say and every action we take, has very real and direct consequences. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: It is interesting to note a substantial difference in the approach taken by Rebecca in her interactions with her husband Isaac as compared to the style chosen by Sarah in her dealings with Abraham. When Sarah noticed the evil ways of Ishmael, she directly confronted her husband Abraham and ordered Ishmael’s immediate expulsion (Bereishit 21:9-10). In next week’s parsha, although Rebecca was clearly aware of the difference between her sons, she never directly told her husband Isaac the truth about their wicked son Esau. Instead, she resorted to a backhanded scheme to ensure that Jacob, the righteous son, would receive the blessings. Why didn’t she confront Isaac in the same manner that her mother-in-law had previously exercised?
A: Rabbi Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, better-known as the Netziv, explains that when Rebecca first encountered Isaac, she was returning with Eliezer and his servants and observed Isaac in the field saying the afternoon prayers. When he prayed, he was so removed from this world as to appear totally angelic and spiritual. Hence, she slipped off her donkey and covered herself out of awe and reverence for this holy man (Bereishit 24:64-65). This initial encounter made such a deep impression on her that she found herself unable to directly confront him for the rest of their married life, due to the pure and deeply-ingrained respect she had for her husband. As a result, when she realized that Isaac erred in his judgment about which son to bless, she had no choice but to indirectly circumvent his intentions in order to bring about the proper outcome in which Jacob received the blessings he deserved. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
When it came time for Abraham to marry off his son Isaac, he appointed his servant Eliezer to find him a suitable wife. Abraham instructed Eliezer not to choose a Caananite woman. He also said that the bride would need to come to Isaac, as Isaac should not leave Israel. The Torah then describes in great detail how Eliezer waited at the well to find the girl who would be willing to provide water to a road-weary traveler and his camels (Bereishit 24:1-22).
Despite Abraham’s criteria of choosing a wife for Isaac based on her lineage, Eliezer seems to have used completely different criteria, focusing instead on the potential spouse’s character. How might Eliezer’s method be an appropriate fulfillment of his mission?
Why might Eliezer have limited his “test” of kindness to drawing water for his camels? Wouldn’t any offer of kindness be sufficient testimony to the goodness of a potential spouse?
Rashi writes (Bereishit 24:10) that Abraham wrote a will giving all of his possessions to Isaac so that the prospective in-laws would jump at the opportunity and allow their daughter to return with Eliezer and marry Isaac. Why would Abraham be interested in a potential wife for Isaac if she came from a family which was so absorbed in the pursuit of wealth and physical possessions?
Q: Eliezer established a litmus test which would allow him to determine whether a prospective match was indeed the intended spouse for Isaac. The test revolved around her dedication to doing kind deeds, which would be evidenced by her willingness to give not only Eliezer but also his camels water to drink (Bereishit 24:14). Although a generous nature is certainly an important quality to seek in a prospective spouse, why was this the most essential feature that he sought, and why was he willing to rely on this component without additionally testing her belief in G-d, wisdom, and moral values?
A: Rabbi Meir Rubman answers by quoting the Mishnah in Ethics of our Fathers (2:9), which relates that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai instructed his students to seek out the path in life which a person should choose and attach himself to. Rabbi Eliezer said the possession of a good eye, Rabbi Yehoshua answered to acquire a good friend, Rabbi Yossi suggested finding a good neighbor, Rabbi Shimon opined to see the consequences of one’s actions, and Rabbi Elazar posited the possession of a good heart. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai responded that the final suggestion (a good heart) was the best one, as it includes all of the other characteristics. Rabbi Ovadiah Bartenura explains that this is because the heart is origin of all of one’s actions.
Eliezer carefully designed his test to measure the prospective match’s love of assisting others. He understood that the amount of water needed to feed him and his ten thirsty camels was tremendous. A young girl who was asked by a healthy adult man to draw this water for him would typically respond by questioning why he couldn’t do so himself. If a girl instead jumped at the opportunity and drew the water with joy and alacrity, such as Rebecca who ran to bring the water (Bereishit24:20), it could only be due to her giving and generous heart. Once Rebecca passed this test, Eliezer knew with confidence – as the Mishnah states – that she possessed all of the other necessary qualities and there was no need to further test them. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
As King Solomon writes (Proverbs 31:30) that charm is false and beauty is vain, why does the Torah praise (Bereishit 24:16) the good looks of Rebecca? (Vilna Gaon quoted in Peninim MiShulchan HaGra)
We find in the Torah three different incidents where people meet their matches at wells – Eliezer and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and Moses and Tzipporah. What is the deeper significance of wells and meeting one’s match near them?
As Rebecca was leaving her home to marry Isaac, she was given a blessing by her brother Laban and mother, which was nearly identical to the blessing that G-d bestowed on Abraham after the binding of Isaac. Both blessings expressed two desires: that in the future, the Jewish people become great in number and that they inherit the gates of their enemies. (Bereishit 24:60; 22:17)
By blessing the Jewish people with the ability to overcome their enemies, G-d seems to be implying that they will in fact have to contend with enemies forever. Since G-d is capable of bestowing any kind of blessing, one might expect the Jewish people to be blessed to live in peace and harmony. G-d clearly believed otherwise. How might having enemies be desirable for the future of the Jewish people?
As can be seen from his behavior on several occasions, Laban was both dishonest and a sworn enemy of the Jewish people. Curiously, the Torah includes his blessing of Rebecca as if it was of value. What possible benefit could there be in receiving a blessing from an enemy and someone whose words lack sincerity?
“And these are the days of the years of the life of Abraham which he lived; a hundred years and seventy years and five years. And he expired and he died in a good age, mature and content. And was gathered to his people.” (Bereishit 25:7-8)
The description of Abraham’s life with the words “these are the days of the years of the life of Abraham which he lived” is in stark contrast to that which is written regarding Ishmael, “These are the years of the life of Ishmael.” How is living “the days of the years of the life” meaningfully different than merely living the “years of the life”?
What is meant by the added words “which he lived”? Of course he lived them! (Malbim)
The Torah tells us that Abraham was gathered up to “his people”! (The expression “gathered up,” as explained by the author of Gesher Chaim, is the stage when the soul goes is returned to its heavenly station.) As Abraham was the founding father of a new nation, who would be considered “his people”? (Rabbi Label Lam)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
AT ALL COSTS
“Abraham heeded Efron, and Abraham weighed out to Efron the price which he had mentioned in the hearing of the children of Chet, four hundred silver shekels in negotiable currency.” Bereishit 23:16
Four Hundred Silver Shekels – Each of these shekels was worth 2,500 ordinary shekels. Thus, Abraham paid a total of one million shekels for the Cave of Machpelah. – Talmud, Tractate Bava Metziah 87a
Abraham Heeded Efron… Four Hundred Silver Shekels In Negotiable Currency – Rabbi Yudin bar Siman says, “This is one of three places where the Torah attests to the Jews incontestable possession of their property. For the Cave of Machpelah, (the site of) the Beit HaMikdash, (the site of) the grave of Yosef (Joseph) HaTzaddik (were all paid for without haggling or requesting credit.)” – Medrash Rabbah Bereishis 79:7
In addition to numerous other important lessons that this account has to offer, it demonstrates Abraham’s exceptional love for Sarah, his life’s partner. He chose the finest plot for her, and paid an exorbitant sum of money to obtain it. The respect he showed Sarah throughout his lifetime is something the Torah refers to constantly [see Rashi Bereishit 11:29, 12:8], and another of the binding precedents Abraham set for his descendents.
CAANAN – CANNOT
“And Abraham was old, advanced in days, and G-d had blessed Abraham with all things.” Bereishit 24:1
With all things – The Hebrew word for this is “bakol,” and its numerical equivalent is 52. This is the same as the numerical equivalent for the word, “ben” which means “son.” Thus, the verse is telling us that G-d granted him a son for whom he would now have to find a wife. That’s why it precedes the story of Eliezer being sent to find a wife for Isaac. – Rashi
With all things – Some say this means that he also had a daughter and her name was “Bakol.” Others understand it to mean that he did not have a daughter and that this fact itself was a great blessing for him because he would have had no alternative other than to marry her off to one of the corrupt Canaanites in his neighborhood, and this would have doomed her spiritually. – Ramban quoting Medrash Rabbah
Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, a grandson of Rashi), points out that the reason the Torah prefaces the story of Eliezer’s long-distance mission to find a wife for Isaac with a testament of Abraham’s overwhelming success, is to reassure us that his reason for sending Eliezer to a distant land was not due to lack of interest among the locals. His wealth and prestige alone, virtually guaranteed that all the local girls and their fathers’ would jump at the chance to marry Isaac. Abraham could have arranged a match with the family of his choosing and attained acceptance and respect from all his neighbors. Nevertheless, aware of their considerable spiritual shortcomings, he chose to reject that possibility and insisted that Eliezer travel a great distance to find a suitable girl who would match Isaac’s intense desire to live a life of Divine servitude.
ABRAHAM THE ENVIRONMENTALIST
“And Abraham said to him, “Take care, not to bring my son back there.” Bereishit 24:6
Not to bring my son back there – The reason for this was because Isaac had been dedicated as a sacred offering before the Almighty (in the incident of The Binding of Isaac) and he therefore, may not leave the spiritual haven of the Holy Land. – Rabbeinu Bachya
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l drew attention to the logical conclusion of these instructions and its unmistakable message. Had Rebecca refused to return with Eliezer to marry Isaac, Abraham would have had no other choice other than to marry him off to a local descendant of Lot or Ishmael, even though they weren’t on par with him spiritually. His fear of allowing Isaac to depart his spiritual haven however, was so great that he felt that this would be a better alternative than to allow him to live amongst the corrupt and deceitful people of Charan. Abraham felt more comfortable with the prospects of a spiritually less-than-ideal wife than he did with a spiritually sub-par environment. One can sooner inspire a wife than he can withstand the negative influence of an environment.
TAKE TWO TABLETS
“And it was when the camels finished drinking and he took a golden nose ring, one beka was its weight, and two bracelets (he placed ) upon her hands, ten gold shekels were their weight.” Bereishit 24:22
And it was when the camels finished drinking – He waited until after the camels finished drinking, a significant amount of time after she had finished drawing the water for them, and he saw that all this time, she made no mention of payment for her efforts. This led him to believe that her actions were purely out of a charitable desire, and he knew that she was suitable for Isaac. – Sforno
Beka – This symbolized the Shekalim that the Jewish people later brought for the Sanctuary, one beka per head.
Two bracelets – These symbolized to her the Two Tablets that we received from G-d.
Ten golden shekels – These symbolized the Ten Commandments that were inscribed upon the two Tablets. – Rashi
Through these gifts, he hinted to Rebecca that by accepting Isaac’s marriage proposal, she would be a partner in bearing a nation that would one day partake of all these lofty activities. – Rabbeinu Bachya
The two bracelets that represented the Two Tablets contained another important symbolism as well. To demonstrate their value, he presented her with very heavy ones weighing ten golden shekels. Shouldn’t he have been concerned that their weight would be a turn-off for Rebecca? After all, who likes to carry around weighty objects? He knew that since they were jewelry and adornments, this would not be a problem, for a woman tends not to mind the extra weight of her jewelry when she considers their beauty and symbolism. Similarly, the mitzvot contained in the Tablets could be considered by some as mere annoyances that add needless “baggage” to our lives. They’re just an inconvenience and get in the way of enjoying life. Yet, if these people would consider them gifts from the Almighty to His people, given to us out of the purest love, they would immediately dismiss their weightiness and wear them with pride.
OUT OF OUR HANDS
“Then Laban and Betuel responded and said, ‘The matter stemmed from G-d! We can say to you neither bad nor good’” Bereishit 24:50
Neither Bad Nor Good – Since the match is obviously ordained by G-d, we have no right to say bad [i.e. reject it], or good. – Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, 1475-1550)
Neither Bad Nor Good – That they realized that there was nothing they could do to impede the match, was rather understandable. Why, however, didn’t they encourage and promote the idea, once they recognized its Divine underpinnings? Laban and Betuel understood that since the matter was ordained by G-d, not only were they powerless to thwart it, but their encouragement would likewise have zero effect upon its realization. Just as one cannot assist the current in propelling water downstream by paddling an oar in that direction, their encouragement would do nothing to speed along its fulfillment. When the Almighty ordains something, humans are powerless to intervene. – Reb Yosef Pagramanski hy”d
Laban was a protégé of his wicked father Betuel, an idolater and exceedingly deceitful person, not given to spiritual development. Yet, even these two depraved individuals, could not help but acknowledge the reality of G-d’s mastery over the universe in the face of such obvious verification. Nevertheless, as is typically the case when evil people are inspired, the inspiration is short-lived, and rapidly fades into the background. As Rashi (Bereishit 24:55) informs us, only a short while later, Betuel unsuccessfully attempted to harm Eliezer and thus prevent him from returning home with Rebecca.
“And the servant took out articles of silver, articles of gold and garments, and he gave them to Rebecca. To her brother and mother, he gave delectable fruits.” Bereishit 24:53
Delectable fruits – These were fruits from the Holy Land. – Rashi
The garments he presented her were sent along with him by Isaac for his future wife. How could Isaac possibly have known what size clothing she would need if he didn’t even know her identity? The Gerrer Rebbe zt”l explains that the purpose of these garments was not for her to actually wear. Rather, it was a message to his intended wife about the type of garments he would expect her to wear. Unsure of the environment in which she was raised, Isaac wished to impress upon her beforehand the importance of modesty in his home. Thus, he sent along examples of articles of clothing so that Rebecca would know beforehand the level of modesty expected of her.
MEANT TO BE?
“And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she was to him for a wife and he loved her, and he was comforted over the loss of his mother. Bereishit 24:67
Into The Tent Of His Mother Sarah – He brought her to the tent, and behold, she was like his mother Sarah. That is, she became the image of his mother Sarah. For, as long as Sarah was alive a candle burned steadily from Friday to Friday, a blessing was constantly in the dough, and a cloud (of glory) hovered over the tent. When Sarah died, these miracles ceased, and when Rebecca arrived, they abruptly returned. – Rashi
Why was it important for Isaac to see firsthand Rebecca’s spiritual greatness before consenting to marry her? Hadn’t he already been apprised by Eliezer of all the miracles that occurred in the process of locating her? Wasn’t that ample evidence for the suitability of the union? The Brisker Rav explains that one must never consider miracles and omens to be reliable indicators in selecting a spouse. For while omens and miracles are nice to experience, they’re poor substitutes for refined character traits, and Isaac was not content to rely upon them, in lieu of independently ascertaining that Rebecca possessed the sterling character traits that rendered her suitable to assume the lofty role of a Matriarch. His clearheaded example of how to select a spouse is a worthwhile lesson for us all.
WATCH WHAT YOU PRAY FOR
“And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebecca and she was a wife to him and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted over the loss of his mother.” Bereishit 24:66-67
The servant told Isaac all the things – He revealed to him the miracles that were done for him that the earth contracted for him (greatly shortening his journey) and that Rebecca appeared before him in response to his prayers. – Rashi
The tent of Sarah his mother – When he brought her to the tent of his mother, all of the special blessings that were present during Sarah’s lifetime returned. – Rashi
Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer) explains the sequence of events as follows: Eliezer harbored great doubt over his choice of Rebecca, because he feared that she might not actually be suitable for Isaac and only appeared before him because he had prayed with such devotion. It is possible, explains Chasam Sofer, for one to receive an answer to his prayers that isn’t necessarily in his best interest if he requests a quick rather than a sound resolution to his problems. Therefore, he shared the entire sequence of events with Isaac so that Isaac could make a more informed choice. To be absolutely certain of her suitability, Isaac waited until he saw that she merited the same blessings as his mother had, and he then accepted that she was his ideal wife, and he married and loved her.
THE END MEND
“His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Machpeilah cave, in the field of Ephron, son of Tzochar, the Chitite, which faces Mamrei. Bereishit 25:9”
Isaac and Ishmael – From here we may derive that Ishmael repented and allowed Isaac to go ahead of him. – Rashi
Ishmael was older than Isaac and yet he allowed Isaac to take a leading role whenever they were together, even when they buried Abraham. This indicates that he repented during his lifetime. – Rabbeinu Bachya
From what sin specifically did Ishmael repent, and what did it have to do with honoring Isaac? Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains in his commentary Meshech Chochmah that earlier in their lives, Ishmael, taking his cue from his mother, insisted that he was the rightful heir to Abraham’s legacy, and not Isaac. In fact, it was this insistence of his that inspired Sarah to drive him out of the home. Had he still maintained this fallacious belief, there’s no way he would ever have agreed to allow Isaac to precede him public matters, certainly not at the funeral of Abraham where all the discussion would center around who would assume his mantle. Therefore, the Torah points out that although he initially protested Isaac’s elevated status, he later came around and relinquished his claim to Isaac’s station. Our sages understood this verse as a preview of the Messianic Era at which time the nation of Ishmael will finally acknowledge the spiritual preeminence of the nation of Isaac and peace will reign among all men.
Hey, I Never Knew That
Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah and the surrounding fields from the Hittites in order to bury his wife, Sarah (Bereishit 23:3-20). Later on, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca, and Leah were all buried there as well. Hebron (Chevron) was the first capital city of the united kingdom of Israel, where King David was crowned as king and where he ruled for seven and a half years (Samuel II:2:11). Abraham paid 400 silver shekels for this holy place — an amount that the commentaries say was exorbitant. However, how do we know what the spending power of 400 shekels was at that time? Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (The Living Torah, footnote, Bereishit ad loc.) explains the value of 400 shekel. “A shekel was a unit of weight, equal to 22.8 grams or 0.8 ounces… Abraham therefore paid 20 pounds of silver… for the cave. Considering land values at the time, this was highly excessive. Thus, for example, King Omri paid only 6,000 shekels for the entire territory of Samaria (Kings I 16:25), and Jeremiah paid only 17 shekels for a property that was at least as large as the Machpelah field (Jeremiah 32:9). For comparison, according to the Hammurabi Code of the time, a year’s wage for a working man was between six and eight shekels!”
An important part of the traditional wedding is the bedekin, the veiling of the bride’s face before the actual ceremony under the chuppah (canopy). The origin of this custom is in our parsha, when Rebecca covered her face before meeting her future husband, Isaac, for the first time (Bereishit 24:65). Some explain that it is a gesture of modesty so that people will not be staring at the bride during the ceremony; others explain that it is a way of declaring that the bride’s beauty is for her husband alone. Another explanation is that the groom veils the bride to indicate that he is not primarily interested in her physical beauty, which will fade with time, but in her spiritual and moral qualities (Made in Heaven, Aryeh Kaplan, p. 125).
Word of the Week
“If it is your נפשכם — nafshechem to bury my dead…” (Bereishit 23:8). Rashi and Nachmanides translate נפשכם as “your will” or “your desire.” Normally the root נפש — nefesh means soul, but we find later in Devarim 12:15 that the word is associated with desire and will. It is interesting to note that nefesh is also used to mean prayer, which is an expression of one’s innermost desires. This is how Rashi (Brachot 5b) understands the phrase “and I will pour out my nefesh before G-d (Samuel 1:1:15).” Similarly, Rabbi David Kimchi identifies the nefesh with one’s innermost essence.
“And Isaac went out lasuach — לשוח — to converse in the field toward evening” (Bereishit 24:63). The simple translation of lasuach, from the root sichah, is “to converse.” The commentaries (Targum Onkelos, Rashi) explain that Isaac went to the field to converse with G-d, in other words, to pray. However, the word “sichah” or “siach” often means a plant or tree, so that the verse would be translated as “Isaac went to walk among the plants” (Ibn Ezra). What is the relationship of these two translations? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (ad loc) explains that prayer is an inner growth of spirit and feelings, so that plants are called “sichim,” as they are growing things, and prayer is called “sicha,” as it is inner growth
In Devarim (11:15) the Torah states, “And I will send grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be full.” The Talmud (Berachot 40a) deduces from this that one may not eat until one has first fed his animals, since the verse puts the cattle first, and only then states that “you will eat.” This law is in the Code of Jewish Law (Orach Chaim 167:6, MishnahBerurah ad loc.). The question was asked as to whether this law applies to drinking. May one drink before giving water to his animal? The Sha’arei Teshuvah (ad loc) rules that a person comes first regarding drinking, even though the animal has precedence in eating. The verse in the Torah portion this week (Bereishit 24:18-19) in which Rebecca offers water to Eliezer before she offers to give water to the camels is cited as evidence of this ruling.
Vayikra (19:26) prohibits the use of omens; however, Eliezer the servant of Abraham relied on an omen to choose a wife for Isaac. Eliezer proclaimed that the first girl who offered him and his camels water was the one G-d has chosen for Isaac. How could he do this? And may we rely on similar omens? Tosafot (Chullin 95b) maintain that Eliezer did not really rely on the omen and did not give Rebecca jewelry until after he had discovered to which family she belonged and hence there was no prohibition. Rabeinu Nissim (Chidushei Haran ad loc.) explains that if there is logic to the omen, then one may rely on it. Eliezer was choosing a wife for Isaac and basing that choice on the kindness that the girl would display. Since the omen was logically connected to the decision, it was permitted.
Parsha at a Glance
Sarah, the Matriarch of the Jewish people, died at the age of 127 in Kiryat Arbah, in Hebron. Abraham negotiated with Ephron the Hittite to buy a burial plot (Cave of Machpelah) for Sarah.
He made his faithful servant, Eliezer, swear to find a bride for his son, Isaac. He specified that she must not be from the Canaanites.
Eliezer kept his word and went to Nahor to find her. He rested by the well, creating a test for the future bride: She will offer both him and his ten camels to drink. Rebecca, the daughter of Betuel, passed the test – with even extra kindness and care than the test demanded. Eliezer gave her lavish jewelry. Only then did he ask who she was and whether there was room in her family’s home for him to spend the night. She answered his questions properly (see Parsha Perspectives).
Upon seeing the new jewelry Rebecca was wearing, as well as the ten camels, Laban (Rebecca’s brother) came out to greet Eliezer. Greedily, he invited Eliezer into his home, but the guest would not eat until he explained the purpose of his arrival.
Eliezer began by identifying himself as the servant of Abraham. He then described the vow he undertook and the way in which he chose Rebecca as the future wife of Isaac.
Laban and Betuel identified the circumstance as an omen from G-d, and agreed to the marriage. However, they asked that Rebecca remain at home for 10 months to one year. After Eliezer disagreed, they asked her if she would go with him immediately, and she said she would. They gave her a blessing, and she left with Eliezer for Canaan.
Isaac was praying in the field when he saw the camels approaching. Rebecca fell off her camel, and upon discovering that this man was her future husband, she covered her face out of modesty. They married.
Abraham married Keturah (some commentators say that she was actually Hagar). He died at the age of 175. The parsha lists the descendants of Ishmael, who died at the age of 137.