Trust and Refinement
The events recorded in Parshas Chayei Sara provide rich and obvious material for our continued discussion on the purpose of creation.
Following the death of Sarah, Avraham sent Eliezar back to Aram Naharayim to select a bride for Yitzchak. The manner and timing of the mission reflected Avraham’s deliberate decision to move the Jewish nation to its next stage of development.
The Medresh records some of Avraham’s reasoning for doing so in the immediate aftermath of the Akeidah. “What would have happened if G-d had not stopped the Akeidah? I have no guarantee that Yitzchak will survive! G-d always has alternative plans for accomplishing His intentions. Whether or not Yitzchak will merit being the next stage of the Jewish nation depends on factors only G-d can evaluate. The proof is the Akeidah! I could have never imagined that G-d would test me in such a way. What if He had not stayed my hand at the last moment? Where would Yitzchak, the Jewish nation, and I be then? Therefore, in not arranging for Yitzchak’s marriage before this time I have been negligent! Had Yitzchak married before this time and had a child, there would have been at least a survivor and heir to our mission and mandate!”
The Medresh is fascinating for many reasons. First, it challenges our assumptions regarding G-d, His promises, the power of prophecy, and our part in realizing our individual and collective destinies. Secondly, it reflects Avraham’s extraordinary humility. Imagine, having been tested in a manner that we yet struggle to understand, and having just buried his life’s partner about whom the Torah testifies that she never sinned, and knowing his son Yitzchak to have been worthy of being offered on the altar, Avraham still entertained the notion that his only son with Sarah might not be the realization of G-d’s promise! It means that in spite of knowing that in all of history he was unique and therefore chosen, it was still possible that Avraham’s assumptions for the future were just that, assumption and not guarantees!
More so than that, the Medresh does not suggest even the slightest degree of complaint as to the possible unfairness of Yitzchak’s not living to realize G-d’s promised plan!
Avraham did not believe that his service to G-d and humanity was anything more than the obvious and unquestioned work of a servant for his master. G-d was the Master. He was the servant. Whatever he did in that capacity was not a mater of choice but the only possible response he could have after recognizing the existence of the Creator.
Avraham’s quality of humility was the essential ingredient in his and Sara’s ability to completely subjugate their beings in service to G-d and humankind. It made it possible for them to become the quintessential paradigms of Chesed – kindness (doing what is in the best interest of others). It explains the somewhat enigmatic test used by Eliezar to find the “right girl” for Yitzchak. It was the reason why G-d chose them to be His partners in accomplishing the purpose of creation.
Chesed can reflect many different motives. How many times have we been treated to the glowing smile of a politician holding a little child in his arms as he shakes the outstretched hands of his constituency? Is it my imagination or does the political handbook demand that every public servant be caught on tape romping with his pet dog or dogs?
Furthermore, I cannot recall seeing the same images for female politicians? I do not know how sincere or insincere any one politician is; however, it is possible that a person must be perceived as compassionate and loving in order to be elected. Therefore, female politicians, who as women are automatically assumed to be more motherly and compassionate, focus on issues and business suits. On the other hand, male politicians need to bolster their less compassionate images by surrounding themselves with loving photographs of babies, children, family, and pets. (When was the last time you heard a female politician described as a “family woman?”)
Others engage in real Chesed because it makes them feel good about themselves to do good for others. It provides them with a sense of accomplishment and appreciation.
There are others who are compelled by religious convictions to do Chesed. Many of them are deserving of our praise and support. Among them are the few truly pious and humble. However, most view Chesed, selflessness, and service to others as religious devotion. Through their acts of kindness they earn redemption, salvation, and eternal reward. For some, it is the means for furthering their desire to spread their own beliefs and values. However, Avraham and Sarah were none of the above.
Avraham and Sarah’s motivation to do Chesed was a natural expression of their love for G-d and therefore for all of humanity. Their desire was to emulate G-d and embrace their own divine images. They truly loved their students because they were the creations of G-d. They truly loved the entire universe because it was an expression of G-d’s intention.
When Avraham and Sarah gave shelter to travelers and invited strangers to share their table they did so without any other agenda. True, they engaged many in discussions and debates about theology, monotheism, and values. True, they used the opportunity to teach about G-d and His loving expectations for all His children. However, even that was a reflection of their love for all others. Remember, Avraham and Sara had devoted 70 years to G-d before receiving the promise of children, nationhood, and country. Regardless of any reward or promise, regardless of personal gain or feelings, they had proven the purity of their devotion and Chesed. All this was possible because of their humility. (See Pirkei Avos 1:5)
Given Avraham’s not feeling uniquely entitled or deserving, we understand the Medresh referenced at the beginning of this essay. Avraham did not act based on G-d’s promises. He accepted the limitations of his time-bound intellect and did not question G-d’s demands. This complete trust and humility allowed Avraham to leave Canaan as soon as they arrived, listen to Sara when told to send away Yishmael, bind Yitzchak on the altar, and question himself for not having arranged earlier for Yitzchak’s marriage.
Eliezar was Avraham’s trusted servant and his attitudes mirrored Avraham’s humility, devotion, trust, and values. Regardless of personal interests, he accepted his restricted mission without question or complaint. (Remember, he too had a seemingly deserving daughter!)The Torah tells us that when he arrived at the well in Aram Naharayim, he devised a seemingly simple test to ascertain the acceptability of Yitzchak’s intended.
#1. Why did he think that the intended mother of the Jewish nation would magically appear at the well? There had to be other places, and many more girls in Aram Naharayim besides the few who would be drawing water at the well? Besides, the drawing of water was menial work. Would the wife of Yitzchak be a mere servant or second-class daughter? Considering Avraham’s wealth, world reputation and aristocracy, a girl of more delicate and sophisticated upbringing would seem more appropriate.
#2. Eliezar’s test seems so miniscule. “The girl who will say, “Drink my Master and I will also water your camels… she is Yitzchak’s intended!” Avraham’ instructions weere to find a wife, “from his family of origin.” The minimum should have been to first ascertain her lineage before applying any other arbitrary criteria!
Humility is how we see ourselves, not how others see us. Although Avraham had no expectations for reward or promises, Eliezar his servant viewed Avraham as greater than the angels. He had every expectation that G-d would watch over his mission and guarantee the proper wife for Yitzchak. Therefore, Eliezar knew that everything was within G-d’s power to accomplish and he expected that G-d would immediately send the right girl to him as soon as he arrived in Aram Naharayim. The only concern Eliezar had was to identify the most important characteristic of the girl deserving of becoming the wife of Yitzchak and the daughter to Avraham. That characteristic was Chesed founded upon humility.
Eliezar’s test was rather ingenious. First of all he expected the right girl to appear immediately. Secondly, the girl had to be modest, yet willing to help a total stranger. Thirdly, she had to be willing to help without expectation of personal gain.
The first part of the test was immediately apparent. Rivkah was physically beautiful. Like Sara, Avraham, and Yitzchak, physical perfection was a reflection of their inner potential and sanctity. (See Avos 6:8) The fact that she was the one drawing the water meant that she was had been trained to be active and helpful. It also meant that she accustomed to meeting strangers and doing Chesed outside the protection of her home.
Rivkah did not approach Eliezar. Eliezar greeted her first. Had she “run to see the stranger” that would have revealed a lack of inner dignity and modesty; instead, Eliezar ran to approach her. Rivkah did not run away from the stranger. She listened to his request and graciously gave Eliezar to drink. Chazal point out that her refinement was such that she only offered to water the camels after Eliezar had finished drinking. Had she offered right away it would have appeared as if she wanted to impress the stranger with her generosity with obvious expectations of being rewarded or being viewed as righteous.
The fact that Rivkah offered to water the animals revealed a basic concern and love for G-d’s creations; otherwise, she would have only done as the stranger asked and nothing more.
Lastly, Rivkah’s demeanor and the fact that she was a “working” girl, proved that her Chesed was the reflection of her humility. She did not see herself as above a stranger. She did not consider it beneath her to water the camels. She cared because she cared. She did so because it was the right thing to do. These were the Midos of a true daughter of Sara. These were the strengths of a woman deserving of marrying Yitzchak and becoming a daughter to Avraham.
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.