Translation by Yehoshua Siskin
Welcome everyone. This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sarah. We are going to study it almost exclusively with a single commentator – Rav Shlomo Wolbe, among the leaders of the Musar Movement. The focus of this movement, which began in Lithuania in the 19th century, was self-improvement through refinement of one’s character. While at the University of Berlin, the young Wolbe became religiously observant and would go on to learn at the Mir Yeshiva in Belarus. While there, he would derive inspiration from Rav Yerucham Levovitz, the legendary mashgiach ruchani, or spiritual advisor, at the yeshiva.
Later, Rav Wolbe, considered to be the spiritual successor to Rav Levovitz, would make Aliya and teach in many yeshivot in Eretz Yisrael.
Rav Wolbe described last week’s parasha, especially as it relates to Avraham and his hospitality, as the Shulchan Aruch of chesed, of how to practice kindness. This week he writes that the parasha is the Shulchan Aruch of derech eretz, of good manners or desirable behavior. And perhaps we can say with a smile that it is also the Shulchan Aruch of shadchanim or match makers, of how to find your soul mate, since the heart of the parasha involves the shidduch of Yitzchak and Rivka and we will focus on it.
1. A Full Life
At the beginning of our parasha, Sarah passes away. The first and, in fact, the only couple in history who lived the right way completely, were separated. The moments that follow this event are critical: will the revolution of introducing G-d and Torah to the human race continue? After all, this is a new and experimental idea. The world had only just begun to walk along the spiritually elevating track of tikkun – where rectification of sin is possible – and Torah. Rebbe Moshe Alshich HaKadosh writes: “We knew from the pious sages that Avraham and Sarah came along to repair what had been distorted by Adam and Eve.”
Just as the first couple had messed things up, this couple was called upon to straighten things out, but together, as a team. The holy Alshich describes in detail how Adam and Eve sinned regarding their relationship with food, while Avraham and Sara fixed this relationship, not only in teaching others how to eat, but how to bless and share their food, especially with the hungry, as well. Moreover, the people of those times were consumed with jealousy and had no sense of what being grateful meant, the complete opposite of Avraham and Sarah, who had no experience with jealousy and were forever filled with gratitude.
But the commentators add one more quality that was distinctive to Avraham and Sarah: optimal time management. The Torah addresses the manner in which Sarah and Avraham relate to time. In the first verse of our parasha, the Torah is very precise in listing the years of Sarah’s life, urging us to pay attention to our relationship to time – to years, to days, to every passing moment.
Let’s start with Sarah. Our parasha begins with a verse from which we can already learn how Sarah’s concept of time – and the passing of years – was unique. And it’s all about the formulation of the words. Sara’s life is described as “chayei Sarah” or “the lives of Sarah,” upon which the Or HaChayim Hakadosh comments “because the tzadikim give (an entire) life to (each of) their days.” And, in Avraham’s case, we learn:
וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַה' בֵּרַךְ אֶת אַבְרָהָם בַּכֹּל.
Avraham was old, advanced in age, and G-d had blessed Avraham in everything. (Genesis 24:1)
How did Sarah and Avraham elevate themselves to where each day in their lives was full of mitzvot and kindness, where every moment was full of G-dliness? What was their secret to living a full life? Rav Wolbe brings a wonderful answer from Rav Yerucham Levovitz of Mir. He begins with a famous quote from our sages: “If a rabbi is like an angel, people will request words of Torah from him.” A person needs to search for others who are like angels. But what do we know about angels? Has anyone here ever seen an angel? Rav Yerucham has an answer: We have one criterion that will help us find angels. We learned about it in last week’s parasha, Vayeira. Three angels came to Avraham Avinu, but why three? Rashi explains as follows: “One to bring the news of Isaac’s birth to Sarah, and one to overturn Sodom, and one to heal Avraham, for one angel does not take on two missions". But wait a minute. Why can’t one angel take on two missions? Because each angel has only one lifetime mission, a purpose for which that angel is uniquely qualified. Rav Yerucham explains: Whoever performs an act of kindness needs to be completely preoccupied only with that. In order to bring news to Sarah and to heal Avraham, two angels were needed. And so with each and every action, a person needs to be completely there, exactly like an angel.”
The message is that undivided attention must be devoted to every task. We need to search for people who are like angels and try, ourselves, to be like them. The guiding principle here is: “one angel does not take on two missions at once.”
And now let’s be honest, how many “missions” do we take on at once? The more, the better. As many as possible, and then we add a few more. How many screens are open at once, not only opposite us physically but in our heads, how many different subjects and how many different goals are clamoring for our attention at any given moment. Indeed, based on our behavior, we should be able to heal Avraham, give Sarah the good news, overturn Sodom, answer my kid’s question, answer a whatsapp question, wash dishes, and more and more and more…
Rav Yerucham calls upon us to ask ourselves: What are you doing right now? I tried several times this week to ask myself this question. The answer was not always clear.
Rav Yerucham writes about a life of purpose, a life that is a mission. Let’s begin with a 5 minute mission.
Many times I am asked how I combine career and family. The answer is that I do not want to combine them, I want to separate them. We need to put borders and construct fences between the different areas of life in order to focus properly.
2. You can laugh at everything
In last week’s, this week’s, and next week’s parasha, the commentators emphasize that Yitzchak has a physical resemblance to Avraham, or that Yitzchak nursed from Sarah. What difference does this make? Because of “the jokers of that generation.” There were people who claimed that Yitzchak was not Avraham’s son, but the son of Avimelech. Or they claimed that he was not Sarah’s son, that they just brought some baby next to her to trick people. Rumors get started along with gossip, slander and cynical winks and, therefore, the Midrash says, Hashem had made sure that Yitzchak was physically identical to Avraham, two peas in a pod. And Sarah had to nurse Yitzchak in order to prove that she was really his biological mother. Think about this for a moment. It’s shocking. People are living in proximity to Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu – two prophets – and yet these same people do not hesitate to laugh and mock and lie about the elevated, holy souls in their midst? Are there no limits?
Rav Wolbe tells us that this can even happen to us, heaven forbid. We need to be alert. He writes that: “it’s even possible to laugh at Avraham Avinu! And this is an important rule – that whatever is on the side of holiness, there is always something, of equal intensity, on the side of impurity. Just as there are Torah giants in every generation, so too there must be, on the opposite side, joker giants of every generation. Without this reality, there would be no free choice, since the foundation of choice obligates the existence of good and evil side by side.”
3. Caution: Assimilation Ahead
Sarah passes away, and now Avraham summons Eliezer and instructs him to go and look for a wife for Yitzchak. There is one guiding principle in this search that is crucial to Avraham Avinu: not to marry someone from another nation. He raises a new issue that -- with all due respect to the friendship and partnership with other nations in the region – there are some red lines that cannot be crossed. This is how he explains his most important criterion for Yitzchak’s bride to Eliezer:
אַשְׁבִּ֣יעֲךָ֔ בַּה' אֱלֹוקי הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא־תִקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ לִבְנִ֔י מִבְּנוֹת֙ הַכְּנַֽעֲנִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָֽנֹכִ֖י יוֹשֵׁ֥ב בְּקִרְבּֽו. כִּ֧י אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מֽוֹלַדְתִּ֖י תֵּלֵ֑ךְ וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִ֥י לְיִצְחָֽק. וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אַבְרָהָ֑ם הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֔ פֶּן־תָּשִׁ֥יב אֶת־בְּנִ֖י שָֽׁמָּה. ה' | אֱלֹהֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֨ר לְקָחַ֜נִי מִבֵּ֣ית אָבִי֘ וּמֵאֶ֣רֶץ מֽוֹלַדְתִּי֒ וַֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּר־לִ֜י וַֽאֲשֶׁ֤ר נִשְׁבַּע־לִי֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לְזַ֨רְעֲךָ֔ אֶתֵּ֖ן אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את ה֗וּא יִשְׁלַ֤ח מַלְאָכוֹ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֛ה לִבְנִ֖י מִשָּֽׁם
“And I will adjure you by the Lord, the God of the heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose midst I dwell. But you shall go to my land and to my birthplace, and you shall take a wife for my son, for Yitzchak." … And Abraham said to him, "Beware, lest you return my son back there.” The Lord, God of the heavens, Who took me from my father's house and from the land of my birth, and Who spoke about me, and Who swore to me, saying, 'To your seed will I give this land' He will send His angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there.” (Genesis 24:3-4, 6-7)
There are areas in which there is no room for compromise. I know that in the United States assimilation is not an ordinary subject. Perhaps it’s a lack of sensitivity on my part to come from Israel and speak this way since, in any room I enter there will be people whom this touches personally, deep in the heart. But publicly, in my opinion, we do not deal with this subject sufficiently. We are preoccupied with other matters. What is the major problem of the Jewish people today? There are those who will say anti-Semitism; there are those who will say internal strife. And there are those who will be more specific – the political system in Israel, the Kotel compromise. Many matters make up our Jewish agenda. But how much energy have we invested in this subject, in our disappearance by our own choice? More than 50% of Jews intermarry. There is also a new term – not assimilation, not intermarriage, but “blended couple.” It’s blended, like a milk shake. (And who assimilates the most in America? The confounding answer is: the Israelis.
More than orthodox, conservative, reform, or unassociated – the Israelis living here are at the top. Identity based only on Israeliness, on soup nuts and bamba, on a little Israeli music from the IDF radio station, does not last long. We were in Los Angeles, the capital of assimilation in America, and must make it clear in that city and everywhere else that the first mission in the Torah, enunciated in this week’s parasha, is to prevent assimilation.
Rav Wolbe worked during and after World War II in the framework of Vaad Hatzalah (Rescue Committee), to save Jewish refugees. He wound up in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, and was very fearful, spiritually speaking. He hung a sign on his door that read “House of Musar” or “Morality House.” He opened a yeshiva there with one student. In the end, our identity is focused around learning Torah.
Notice that Yitzchak is from Israel and Rivka is from the “America” of those times. Still, as long as there is a common identity, based on adherence to the Torah, nothing else matters.
4. Ideology is in the Details
Let’s pay attention to every detail in the development of this shidduch and we will see that Avraham and his people (Eliezer among them) are establishing an alternative culture. From the first moment that Eliezer, the servant emissary, sets out on his mission, we learn that there is something different about Avraham, his master.
וַיִּקַּ֣ח הָ֠עֶ֠בֶד עֲשָׂרָ֨ה גְמַלִּ֜ים מִגְּמַלֵּ֤י אֲדֹנָיו֙ וַיֵּ֔לֶךְ וְכָל־ט֥וּב אֲדֹנָ֖יו בְּיָד֑וֹ וַיָּ֗קָם וַיֵּ֛לֶךְ אֶל־אֲרַ֥ם נַֽהֲרַ֖יִם אֶל־עִ֥יר נָחֽוֹר
And the servant took ten camels of his master's camels, and he went, and all the best of his master was in his hand; and he arose, and he went to Aram naharaim, to the city of Nahor. (Genesis 24:10)
Rashi comments: of his master’s camels: (Gen. Rabbah 59:11). “They were distinguishable from other camels by the fact that they would go out muzzled to prevent robbery, that they should not graze in strangers’ fields.”
This detail will return when he reaches Rivka’s house.
וַיָּבֹ֤א הָאִישׁ֙ הַבַּ֔יְתָה וַיְפַתַּ֖ח הַגְּמַלִּ֑ים וַיִּתֵּ֨ן תֶּ֤בֶן וּמִסְפּוֹא֙ לַגְּמַלִּ֔ים וּמַ֨יִם֙ לִרְחֹ֣ץ רַגְלָ֔יו וְרַגְלֵ֥י הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּֽוֹ:
So the man came to the house and unmuzzled the camels, and he gave straw and fodder to the camels and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him. (Genesis 24:32)
And here Rashi comments: and unmuzzled the camels: He loosened their muzzles, for he would shut their mouths so that they would not graze along the way in fields belonging to others. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:8, Targum Yonatan]
Whoever has a good memory may recall a similar detail from parashat Lech Lecha, when Avraham first appears on the world stage. It’s one of the first things we hear about him, when Rashi writes that “Lot’s shepherds were wicked and would graze their animals in others’ fields, and Avraham’s shepherds would rebuke them for their robbery.”
And what happens? This is the backstory that leads to the separation of Lot and Avraham. On the words “and Lot journeyed mikedem (from the east),” Rashi comments “mikadmono (from the Ancient One [G-d]).” That is, the principles of Avraham were a burden to Lot, he wanted to distance himself from them, and goes to a place with opposite principles – Sodom. We always compare the hospitality of Avraham to the hospitality of Sodom, but the difference between these two perspectives is noted earlier in seemingly minor details, in the muzzling of an animal and in the direction Lot travels.
Rav Wolbe writes: “This is the innovation of Avraham Avinu in the world. Truth is not an abstract ideal, a nice theory alone. Truth is expressed in the smallest actions of a human being. Avraham Avinu introduced proper conduct to the world, how camels should walk about. And whenever people saw a muzzled camel, they would say: ‘This is a camel of Avraham Avinu.’”
When a Jewish household is established, this is a guiding principle. To put a muzzle, a restraint, on your camel’s mouth. And you can also apply this principle to your car, your residence, your cell phone. We are talking about the beginnings of an alternative lifestyle 4,000 years ago.
5. Real Prayer
הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי נִצָּב, עַל-עֵין הַמָּיִם; וּבְנוֹת אַנְשֵׁי הָעִיר, יֹצְאֹת לִשְׁאֹב מָיִם וְהָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי-נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתֶּה, וְאָמְרָה שְׁתֵה, וְגַם-גְּמַלֶּיךָ אַשְׁקֶה--אֹתָהּ הֹכַחְתָּ, לְעַבְדְּךָ לְיִצְחָק, וּבָהּ אֵדַע, כִּי-עָשִׂיתָ חֶסֶד עִם-אֲדֹנִי. וַיְהִי-הוּא, טֶרֶם כִּלָּה לְדַבֵּר, וְהִנֵּה רִבְקָה יֹצֵאת אֲשֶׁר יֻלְּדָה לִבְתוּאֵל בֶּן-מִלְכָּה, אֵשֶׁת נָחוֹר אֲחִי אַבְרָהָם; וְכַדָּהּ, עַל-שִׁכְמָהּ
Behold, I am standing by the water fountain, and the daughters of the people of the city are coming out to draw water. And it will be, [that] the maiden to whom I will say, 'Lower your pitcher and I will drink,' and she will say, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' her have You designated for Your servant, for Yitzchak, and through her may I know that You have performed loving kindness with my master." Now he had not yet finished speaking, and behold, Rivka came out, who had been born to Betuel the son of Milkah, the wife of Nahor, Avraham’s brother, and her pitcher was on her shoulder. (Genesis 24:13-15)
We say in our prayers “G-d of Avraham.” Who is the first person to pray to the G-d of Avraham? Eliezer. He teaches us about the importance of prayer in the shidduch process, and in every other process. This is not just a prayer for a prospective bride or groom, but a prayer for a shadchan as well. And notice something interesting, a detail that I did not notice until this week. It’s written “he had not yet finished speaking” – that is, before he finished praying, his prayer was already answered!
In his book “Alei Shur,” Rav Wolbe writes: “Prayer and pride are opposites. The strength of prayer is in surrender. In the midst of surrender, a different outlook -- a completely different approach to life and to all human affairs – is accepted from above. ‘I had not yet finished speaking to my heart’ – that is, he had already found G-d in his heart. As it says in the Zohar: my son, nothing is closer to G-d than the human heart.”
“And how do we approach prayer?,” Wolbe asks. “‘HaShem is near to all those who call out to him – to all those who call out to him in truth” (or sincerity). This is the opposite of what we are accustomed to think. We think that the tzadik is near G-d and that the evil doer is far from Him. And here it is revealed to us that the degree of separation or closeness to G-d does not depend on the spiritual level of the one praying but on sincerity. If the evil doer calls out to G-d with sincerity – he knows and is honest about his present situation and, even so, calls out to G-d – then he is near to Him. If we do not fool ourselves about who we are – then we will be close to Him.”
6. Kindness – for what purpose are you running?
וַיָּרָץ הָעֶבֶד לִקְרָאתָהּ וַיֹּאמֶר הַגְמִיאִינִי נָא מְעַט מַיִם מִכַּדֵּךְ. וַתֹּאמֶר שְׁתֵה אֲדֹנִי וַתְּמַהֵר וַתֹּרֶד כַּדָּהּ עַל יָדָהּ וַתַּשְׁקֵהוּ. וַתְּכַל לְהַשְׁקֹתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר גַּם לִגְמַלֶּיךָ אֶשְׁאָב עַד אִם כִּלּוּ לִשְׁתֹּת. וַתְּמַהֵר וַתְּעַר כַּדָּהּ אֶל הַשֹּׁקֶת וַתָּרָץ עוֹד אֶל הַבְּאֵר לִשְׁאֹב וַתִּשְׁאַב לְכָל גְּמַלָּיו
And the servant ran toward her, and he said, "Please let me sip a little water from your pitcher." And she said, "Drink, my lord." And she hastened and lowered her pitcher to her hand, and she gave him to drink. And she finished giving him to drink, and she said, "I will also draw for your camels, until they will have finished drinking." And she hastened, and she emptied her pitcher into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels. (Genesis 24:17-20)
What’s going on here? Hurry up, hurry up, run and run again. She goes above and beyond what’s expected, above and beyond what Eleizer requested. Of what are we reminded? Of Avraham’s running after strangers in the middle of the desert, of going above and beyond the wildest expectations of his guests.
וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, אָרְצָה.. וַיֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ--אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ. יֻקַּח-נָא מְעַט-מַיִם, וְרַחֲצוּ רַגְלֵיכֶם; וְהִשָּׁעֲנוּ, תַּחַת הָעֵץ. וְאֶקְחָה פַת-לֶחֶם וְסַעֲדוּ לִבְּכֶם, אַחַר תַּעֲבֹרוּ כִּי-עַל-כֵּן עֲבַרְתֶּם, עַל-עַבְדְּכֶם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֵּן תַּעֲשֶׂה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ. וַיְמַהֵר אַבְרָהָם הָאֹהֱלָה, אֶל-שָׂרָה; וַיֹּאמֶר, מַהֲרִי שְׁלֹשׁ סְאִים קֶמַח סֹלֶת--לוּשִׁי, וַעֲשִׂי עֻגוֹת. וְאֶל-הַבָּקָר, רָץ אַבְרָהָם; וַיִּקַּח בֶּן-בָּקָר רַךְ וָטוֹב, וַיִּתֵּן אֶל-הַנַּעַר, וַיְמַהֵר, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתוֹ. וַיִּקַּח חֶמְאָה וְחָלָב, וּבֶן-הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וַיִּתֵּן, לִפְנֵיהֶם; וְהוּא-עֹמֵד עֲלֵיהֶם תַּחַת הָעֵץ, וַיֹּאכֵלוּ
ּ And he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. And he said, "My lords, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant. Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet, and recline under the tree. And I will take a morsel of bread, and sustain your hearts; after[wards] you shall pass on, because you have passed by your servant."And they said, "So shall you do, as you have spoken."And Abraham hastened to the tent to Sarah, and he said, "Hasten three seah of meal [and] fine flour; knead and make cakes."And to the cattle did Abraham run, and he took a calf, tender and good, and he gave it to the youth, and he hastened to prepare it. And he took cream and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he placed [them] before them, and he was standing over them under the tree, and they ate. (Genesis 18:2-8)
Bingo. We have a match. Notice that this is not just reaching out to help another person. It’s more than this and it’s what this story is all about. To give a penny to a poor person who asks for one is common courtesy.To hear that someone wants a little water for himself and then speedily bring water for all his camels – that’s kindness.
Rav Wolbe gave his students a homework assignment: to perform three tasks with zerizut, with zeal. To wake up in the morning and jump out of bed without dawdling. Or to go to sleep as soon as you get into bed. He wanted his students to train themselves to act with zeal for good things. Everyone has zeal for certain things; it’s all a question of which things.
Later in the parasha, we see a different kind of zeal. Not every kind of zeal is positive. Here’s an example:
וּלְרִבְקָה אָח, וּשְׁמוֹ לָבָן; וַיָּרָץ לָבָן אֶל-הָאִישׁ הַחוּצָה, אֶל-הָעָיִן
And Rivka had a brother, whose name was Lavan; and Lavan ran to the man outside, to the fountain. (Genesis 24:29)
On this verse, Rashi asks: “Why did he run and for what did he run? . . . he set his eyes on the money” (since Rivka was wearing jewelry given to her by Eliezer).
Everyone is searching for something new and exciting. The question is all about what you are searching for and running after, what energizes you.
וַיְהִי כִּרְאֹת אֶת-הַנֶּזֶם, וְאֶת-הַצְּמִדִים עַל-יְדֵי אֲחֹתו וַיֹּאמֶר, בּוֹא בְּרוּךְ ה'; לָמָּה תַעֲמֹד, בַּחוּץ, וְאָנֹכִי פִּנִּיתִי הַבַּיִת, וּמָקוֹם לַגְּמַלִּים
And it came to pass, when he saw the nose ring and the bracelets on his sister's hands . . . And he said, "Come, you who are blessed of the Lord. Why should you stand outside, when I have cleared the house, and a place for the camels?" (Genesis 24:30-31)
Rav Wolbe interjects the following: “We confess on Yom Kippur “for the sin that we sinned before you by legs running to do evil.” By legs running? Yet I am the one who ran. But when passion rules a person, legs do not wait for the second-guessing mind to catch up. But is it possible to reach this same degree of passion, only to do good? Is it possible that the holy desire for doing good could take over a person to the point where his limbs don’t wait for the second-guessing mind to catch up but simply act on their own? This is an extremely high level: ‘legs running to do good.’ King David (Psalms 119:59) merited to reach this level: ‘I considered my ways and my feet turned towards your testimonies’ – Master of the universe, every day I would consider what I should do and say to myself, that I am walking to such and such a place or such and such a house, but my legs took me to houses of prayer and houses of study!’ David’s desire for Torah was so great that his very limbs were caught up in this desire, too, and brought him to a house of study before he was even aware of where his legs were taking him.”
And then the rav brings other examples. Avraham saddles his donkey by himself, without waiting for a servant to do it for him, on his way to the akeidah (“love throws everything out of whack”), Bilaam hurriedly saddles his donkey by himself in order to curse Israel (“hate throws everything out of whack”), Pharaoh rides at the head of his army in pursuit of Am Yisrael and in a similar, but holy context, Yosef prepares his chariot by himself to honor his father by traveling as quickly as possible to greet him.
“Among the wonders of the Hebrew language,” Rav Wolbe continues, “is the root of the word ratzon or desire, which is rutz, to run, since when a person truly wants something, he runs after it. ‘And Lavan ran after the man outside, to the fountain – why did he run and for what did he run? It was when he saw the nose ring and said: this man is rich and he set his eyes on the money.’ What we love – that is where we run.”
7. Kindness – more than what we ask for
Now we come to the true test, the audition, and Eliezer describes it like this:
וְהָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתֶּה וְאָמְרָה שְׁתֵה וְגַם גְּמַלֶּיךָ אַשְׁקֶה אֹתָהּ הֹכַחְתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לְיִצְחָק וּבָהּ אֵדַע כִּי עָשִׂיתָ חֶסֶד עִם אֲדֹנִי.
And it will be, [that] the maiden to whom I will say, 'Lower your pitcher and I will drink,' and she will say, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' her have You designated for Your servant, for Yitzchak, and through her may I know that You have performed loving kindness with my master." (Genesis 24:14)
And Rashi comments: her have You designated: She is worthy of him, for she will perform acts of kindness, and she is fit to enter the house of Abraham.
There is an interesting point in this verse that is pertinent to many relationships. When someone reveals a personal problem, a source of anguish, he sometimes needs a lot more than what he dares to ask for. See the details in the next verses.
הַגְמִיאִינִי נָא מְעַט-מַיִם מִכַּדֵּך.ְ וַתֹּאמֶר, שְׁתֵה אֲדֹנִי; וַתְּמַהֵר, וַתֹּרֶד כַּדָּהּ עַל-יָדָהּ—וַתַּשְׁקֵהּ. וַתְּכַל, לְהַשְׁקֹתוֹ; וַתֹּאמֶר, גַּם לִגְמַלֶּיךָ אֶשְׁאָב, עַד אִם-כִּלּוּ, לִשְׁתֹּת וַתְּמַהֵר, וַתְּעַר כַּדָּהּ אֶל-הַשֹּׁקֶת, וַתָּרָץ עוֹד אֶל-הַבְּאֵר, לִשְׁאֹב; וַתִּשְׁאַב, לְכָל-גְּמַלָּיו . . . וַיֹּאמֶר בַּת-מִי אַתְּ, הַגִּידִי נָא לִי; הֲיֵשׁ בֵּית-אָבִיךְ מָקוֹם לָנוּ, לָלִין... וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, גַּם-תֶּבֶן גַּם-מִסְפּוֹא רַב עִמָּנוּ--גַּם-מָקוֹם, לָלוּן
'Give me to drink, I pray thee, a little water from your pitcher.'
And she said: 'Drink, my lord'; and she hastened, and let down her pitcher upon her hand, and gave him drink. And when she had done giving him drink, she said: 'I will draw for your camels also, until they have done drinking.' And she hastened, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again unto the well to draw, and drew for all his camels. . . 'Whose daughter art thou? tell me, I pray thee. Is there room in thy father's house for us to lodge in?' She said moreover unto him: 'We have both straw and fodder enough, and room to lodge in.' (Genesis 24: 17-20, 23, 25)
And Rashi comments: he requested one night’s sleep (lalin) and she told him he could stay for several nights (lalun).
We are used to saying that Avraham chooses Rivka because she demonstrates kindness by bringing him water to drink. But if we pay attention to the details, we notice another quality of hers. Eliezer requests only a little water, yet Rivka brings him a lot, and also to his ten camels, and afterwards she is happy to host them in her family’s home. What she does may be summed up in the famous expression of “understanding one thing from the other.” That is, Eliezer only expressed mild distress, but she understood from his words that he needed much more and gave much more than was asked. And it was given not only in abundant quantity but with genuine caring from her heart. This is a wonderful hint for how to relate to other people in general and to our spouses in particular: when the person opposite you reveals a certain problem or deficiency, we are obligated to try and solve it or make it right. But it’s not enough to merely “plug the leak,” not enough to merely go “oy vey” but to think how to help in a way that goes beyond what is being requested. The person in distress obviously did not give us the whole picture. It is certainly possible to add considerably more to the contribution we make to solve this or that problem. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about taking a glass of water from a well or something more complex. Rivka, the young girl, later becomes Rivka Imeinu, one of the mothers of Israel, on the strength of doing more than what was asked.
Rav Wolbe tells a story about a certain rabbi who was asked just before Pesach if he could fulfill the obligation of drinking four cups of wine at the Seder by drinking cups of milk instead. The rabbi said no and gave the person who asked a nice donation. The rabbi’s wife then asked: Why did you give him so much money? Four cups of wine don’t cost that much? And he answered: I gave him enough for all the expenses of a proper Seder because from his question I understood that he had none of the Seder necessities. How is it possible to drink milk at a festival meal that includes meat?’ We can’t just be kindness robots but need to have the insight to see the whole picture in order to practice true kindness by responding appropriately through “understanding one thing from another.”
8. Noticing Great People
ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה לפנות ערב וישא עיניו ויראת והנה גמלים באים. ותשא רבקה את עיניה ותרא את יצחק ותפל מעל הגמל
And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at towards evening; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, there were camels coming. And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Yitzchak, she fell from the camel. (Genesis 24:63-4)
And what did she see? “That his hand was stretched out in prayer. She said: Surely he is a great man.” (Bereishit Rabbah)
A great person is distinguished by the manner in which he prays. But Rivka’s noticing this testifies not only to Yitzchak’s greatness but to hers as well, that she absorbs the significance of one detail. Rivka fell off the camel because she had never seen anyone of Yitzchak’s stature. She had no idea what prayer was, she had no idea there was a spiritual side to life. As opposed to the lies and devious activities that filled the world she came from (her father Betuel and her brother Lavan), Yitzchak was transmitting a holiness and purity that she had never seen before.
When we meet a great person we need to be able to appreciate their greatness and holiness. Moreover, we need to search for such people and to be moved by them.
Rav Chaim Navon once spoke about the first time he met Rav Lichtenstein. “Until that day,” he said, “I only knew cats, all the people I knew were cats. Now, for the first time, I met a lion.”
Rav Wolbe was fond of talking about his first meeting with Rav Yerucham when he arrived at Mir. He celebrated that day as a birthday since, on that day, he “was born anew.” He described Rav Yerucham as “reviving the dead through his words.” He arrived at the yeshiva during the week but when Shabbat came he did not recognize Rav Yerucham since on Shabbat his face was completely changed.
9. Life Within Death
ויבאה יצחק האהלה שרה אמו ויקח את רבקה ותהי לו לאשה ויאהבה וינחם יצחק אחרי אמו
And Yitzchak brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rivka, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Yitzchak was comforted for (the death of) his mother. (Genesis 24:67)
And Rashi comments: He brought her to the tent, and behold, she was Sarah his mother; i.e., she became the likeness of Sarah his mother, for as long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned from one Sabbath eve to the next, a blessing was found in the dough, and a cloud was attached to the tent. When she died, these things ceased, and when Rivka arrived, they resumed (Gen. Rabbah 60:16)
This is one of the most beautiful verses in the Torah, without Freudian complexes but simply “And Yitzchak brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rivka, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for (the death of) his mother. “The tent of Avraham and Sarah” is now “the tent of Yitzchak and Rivka.”
“And he took Rivka, and she became his wife; and he loved her.” In western culture, the movie begins with love and ends with marriage. First “he loves her” and then, maybe at the end, “she will become his wife.” According to the Torah, marriage is only the beginning of a story in which there is construction and creation of love. First “and he took Rivka and she became his wife” and within this framework, within this construction project, this investment of devotion – “he will love her.” Yitzchak and Rivka are married, and the parasha ends with closing of the circle:
ואלה ימי שני חיי אברהם אשר חי מאת שנה וששבעים שנה וחמש שנים. ויגוע וימת אברהם בשיבה טובה זקן ושבע ויאסף אל עמיו.
And these are the days of the years of Avraham's life that he lived: one hundred years and seventy years and five years. And Avraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:7-8)
Both of Yitchak’s parents pass away in this parasha. But he builds a new home. Rav Wolbe writes about what has happened. “There is a deep explanation (to what Yiztchak feels when his parents die): our sages say that there are three partners in a person’s life: a father, a mother, and G-d. A child is used to seeing only his parents. He does not see the third partner. But when his parents leave him and go on to the next world, then his heart tells him (with the power of imbedded belief that lives in the heart of every Jew!) to get close now to the third partner … ‘though my father and mother have left me, G-d will take me in.’ (Psalms 27:10) This is the truth. A person is consoled when he merits not to fall but to ascend higher and higher. So it is said of Yitzchak Avinu: ‘And Yitzchak brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rivka, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Yitzchak was comforted for (the death of) his mother.’ And Rashi writes: ‘He brought her to the tent, and behold, she was Sarah his mother; i.e., she became the likeness of Sarah his mother, for as long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned from one Sabbath eve to the next, a blessing was found in the dough, and a cloud was attached to the tent. When she died, these things ceased, and when Rivka arrived, they resumed.’ So Yitzchak was consoled for his mother, for he had found Rivka, who would continue what Sara left behind.”
This is the Jewish ethos from then until today: light within darkness, life within death.
This ends the commentary of Rav Wolbe on the parasha. Shabbat Shalom, shiduchim tovim, success at finding your match, and we will meet again, with G-d’s help, next week.