Thursday, November 16, 2006

Just Do It

Chayei Sara contrasts two events, one tragic and one joyous. First we have the death and burial of Sara and then we have the story of how a wife was found for Yitzchak. The contrast is striking, but the differences go well beyond the obvious.

When Sara dies, Avraham needs a burial plot fit for royalty. Engaging himself in the search for and acquisition of the Machpelah Cave, Avraham must negotiate with the sleazy Efron. Undeterred, he pays top dollar to honor his deceased wife. In this story, Avraham is a man of action.

When it comes to finding a wife for Yitzchak, the storyline is quite different. Instead of Avraham taking the matter into his own hands, he sends his servant Eliezer to act as his agent. Avraham remains passively at home. This is strange. Eliezer was not sent to find a tomb for Sara – Avraham took care of that himself – but to find Rivkah he sends Eliezer?! Shouldn’t the choice of the next matriarch require more personal discretion than the choice of a burial plot?

This is no minor question. One thing we know about Avraham is that he hates to delegate his mitzvot. Nephew taken captive? Avraham leads his men into battle. Heat wave? Avraham sets up a free lemonade stand. Commanded to kill his son? Avraham saddles the donkey. When a mitzvah presents itself, Avraham is there. He does not write a check nor send a stand-in; he rolls up his sleeves. This kind of behavior is not some kind of extravagant righteousness practiced by the holy Avraham; the Halachah itself endorses it. “Rabbi Yosef taught: A mitzvah performed personally is greater than one performed through an agent. As we find Rav Safra singed the head [of the animal] and Rava salted the fish [in preparation for the Shabbat meal]” (Talmud Kiddushin 41a). (Indeed, in the rare instance that Avraham does delegate a mitzvah, there are negative consequences. Cf. Bereishit 18:4-7, Talmud Baba Metziah 86b.)

So why does Avraham opt out when it comes time to find a wife for Yitzchak? The Torah provides the answer:

Avraham was old, well advanced in years… and Avraham said to his servant… (Bereishit 24:1,2)

The answer is really quite simple. Avraham sent his servant Eliezer because he was just too old to make the trip to Charan himself. Equipped with this background information, we can now understand Avraham’s strange behavior when he gives his orders to Eliezer:
I will bind you by an oath to G-d, Lord of heaven and earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites… (24:3)
Why the need for an oath? Was Eliezer not a man of his word? Eliezer was the senior servant of Avraham’s household, in charge of everything that he owned (Bereishit 24:2). Moreover, the Talmud tells us that Eliezer was Avraham’s leading disciple and exponent of his master’s teachings (Yoma 28b). Avraham couldn’t trust him to do his bidding without an oath taken in the name of G-d?!

The truth is, Avraham is perfectly confident that Eliezer would do the job faithfully without an oath. There is something else going on here. Avraham is frustrated.

He doesn’t want to send Eliezer; he wants to go himself – but his infirmity won't allow it. So Avraham devises a plan that will transform Eliezer into his own right hand. If Eliezer’s free will could somehow be diminished and his ability to disobey Avraham eliminated, Eliezer would be reduced to nothing more than Avraham’s robot. It would then be considered as if Avraham himself had performed the mitzvah. This was the function of the oath – it forced Eliezer to do Avraham’s bidding. Now Avraham was controlling Eliezer remotely, in effect doing everything himself from the comfort of his wheelchair in Hebron.

Our parsha illustrates Avraham’s passion for mitzvot and his frustration with his inability to perform one. Avraham is not interested in excuses and he is not looking for leniencies. He just wants to do the mitzvah. It is telling that the test of Rivkah is on this very same trait.

When Eliezer arrives in Charan, he asks G-d for help in identifying the right girl. He will ask one of the shepherdesses for a drink and if she volunteers to provide both him and his camels with water, he will know that she is destined for Yitzchak. This is exactly what transpires; the girl offers to draw water for the camels and she does all the work herself – for all ten camels! The interesting thing is that Eliezer has able-bodied men with him who are more than capable to draw the water from the well (cf. 24:32). Rivkah does not ask for their help – she wants to do it all by herself. Little did she know that this demonstration of love for mitzvot would be recorded for all eternity and earn her a place among the matriarchs of Israel. She had an out, but she didn’t want out; she wanted the mitzvah.

There is more. The Midrash tells us that when Rivkah first approached the well, the water miraculously rose up to her (Bereishit Rabba 60:5). The Ramban explains that this teaching is not just a tradition; it is indicated by the text itself. When Rivkah initially went down to the well, the Torah simply states, “she filled her jug” (24:16). However, when she returns a second time to get water for the camels, the Torah says, “she drew water for all his camels” (24:20). The absence of the act of drawing water at her first visit to the well is the source for the Midrashic idea that the water rose up by itself.

The Kedushas Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Berditchever, 1740-1810) asks the obvious question. If Rivkah is so special that water miraculously rises up for her, why didn’t it happen again the second time?

In light of all that we have learned, the Kedushas Levi’s answer makes good sense. The first time, Rivkah was drawing water for herself. The water rose up in order to spare her the effort of lifting the heavy bucket. The second time, however, Rivkah was doing a mitzvah, getting water for someone in need. G-d did not want to deprive her of the great merit of doing it all by herself, so the water stayed at the bottom of the well.

Like her father-in-law before her, Rivkah knows that there is nothing more fulfilling in life than personally sweating through a mitzvah. Something to think about the next time a mitzvah opportunity presents itself. As in right now.


  1. Very nice d'var Torah!

    A classic question is: why did Eliezer rely on a sign in order to identify Yiztchak's future wife? Aren't we supposed to stay away from signs or omens? I would like to hear your take on this.

  2. In regard to Abraham delegating the mitzvah to Eliezer--I'm wondering if perhaps G-d, Himself, set a precedent. That is, in the Akedah, G-d "personally" tells Abraham to offer his son, but then sends an angel to tell him not to perform the sacrifice. Maybe Abraham is taking a cue from G-d?

  3. Whatever happened to Eliezer? I'm pretty sure that we don't hear too much of him after this. I've always felt rather sorry for him.

    Also, while I can understand Avraham not wanting his son to marry a Canaanite, in what way was the family of Rivka superior? Simply because they were related to Avraham? Laban, Rivka's father, was quite the rasha, and they were, presumably, idol worshippers. So what made them better than the Canaanites?

  4. Moshe Meir-
    You are correct that we are not supposed to create signs. In fact, when the Rambam codifies this law, he uses Eliezer as the example of exactly what we are not allowed to do! So why did Eliezer do it? I'm not sure. It was prior to Sinai, so technically there was no prohibition... Maybe the marriage of Yitzchok & Rivkah had to come about through an extra dose of divine providence.

    Interesting point. It is true that sometimes G-d does things himself and sometimes He utilizes an agent. But I'm not sure if this is something we should emulate. I've always thought that G-d uses angels because divine revelations are a bit much for people to handle. Think of the plague of the firstborn and Mt. Sinai.

    I imagine Eliezer and his descendants were righteous monotheists, maybe eventually converting to Judaism. Who knows?
    Yes, there is something special about Avraham's extended family, even if they are pagan. Note that Rachel and Leah also come from that same family. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi writes in the Kuzari that there was a special spiritual "gene" that was passed down from Adam through Shem through Terach... Although it lay dormant in many of his relatives, Avraham wanted Yitzchok to marry a carrier.
    BTW, Lavan is Rivkah's brother, her father is Bethuel.

  5. Eliazer requested the assistance of HaShem in finding the right woman for Yitzchak. Thus, HaShem had a direct influence in the story of Rivkah and the water.
    Is it possible that some of the water carried by Rivkah was not physical water but "Heavenly" water, and could have been much lighter than physical water? In this manner, Rivkah could have been aided by HaShem in fulfilling her mitzvah.

    I the beginning, the "heavenly " waters were separated from the physical waters. There appear to be many occasions in the Torah when "heavenly" waters seem to mix with physical waters to change the properties of the physical waters. For example, the water in Parashat Noach, the parting of the sea by Moshe,the water exiting from the rock by Moshe, the water supplied by Miriam in the desert, the Nile river turning to blood during the plagues, the floating of Moshe in the river as a baby.

    Is it possible that the "heavenly" water represents Torah and Mitzvot entering the physical realm to help raise man toward perfection?

  6. Al-
    The stories of the Torah clothe many deep secrets. There is no question that Rivkah's drawing of water from the well serves as a powerful symbol. What exactly it symbolizes I couldn't really say, but Torah is a safe bet. Look at this verse: "...his desire is in the Torah of Hashem and in his Torah he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree rooted alongside brooks of water..." (Psalms 1:2-3). Water is also used as an analogy for Torah in Devarim 32:2.
    This kind of parsha analysis would fall under the category of drush.

  7. Jonathan Gershater11/18/2006 7:39 PM

    Rabbi Gordon,
    I have a question unrelated to what you wrote. At the end of the 5th aliya in Chayei Sara, and I am paraphrasing because the chumash is downstairs (but you can give me credit for a reasonably good memory :)), Rivka comforted Yitzchak and "Yitchzak loved her". Apparently, this is the first expression of love in the Torah, from spouse to spouse. Incidentally, if I am not mistaken, last week, when Hashem told Avraham (again paraphrasing) "take your son your only son whom you love" was the first expression in the Torah of parent-child love.

    Question: Is there any signficance, besides the fact that she comforted him after his mother's death, that the love statement between Rivka and Yitchak is the first between spouses in the Torah? Why is there no such statement between Avraham and Sarah (or Adam and Chava or Noah and his wife)? There may be no commentary to this, but if there is I am interested to hear.
    Shavuah tov.

  8. Maybe because the marriage of Yitzchok & Rivkah was the first that was for a purpose other than mere procreation. There was a idealistic unifying factor here that was lacking in the earlier marriages.