Parshat Chayei Sarah
The Points Less Talked About, But Probably Most Thought About
This section of the Torah begins to transition and detail the lives of many people very quickly. It moves at such a breakneck speed that often times we can get carried away by the torrent of this story. It moves so fast we can pass through it without taking too good of a look at the specifics of it. But I would like us to step back and examine parts of this narrative, allowing ourselves to ask questions that ordinary we wouldn’t entertain too long. But don’t feel bad, if you have thought about it then chances are so have our rabbis!
In our last look at this parsha we learned about the death of Sarah Immeinu – Sarah our Mother, and Abraham’s acquisition of the town of Chevron (Hebron). He did not only acquire the cave of Machpelah as a burial site, but he would also purchased the entire town and orchards that surrounded it as his permanent heritage. (see Parshat Chayei Sarah 2011)
“And Abraham was old,
he became advanced in age,
and Hashem had blessed Abraham
|| Ve’Avraham zaken
| ba bayamim
| va’Hashem berach et-Avraham
This is an odd statement considering that Abraham has just lost his life-partner, Sarah his beloved wife. This is a bad time to say he had it all. Even more odd to some is the Rashi for this text:
Had blessed Abraham with everything:
‘Bekol‘ (with everything)
is numerically equivalent
to ‘ben‘ (son).
Since he had a son,
he had to find him a wife.
ברך את אברהם בכל: |
עולה בגימטריא |
ומאחר שהיה לו בן |
היה צריך להשיאו אשה: |
|Rashi for Genesis 24:1|
How can someone who has lost someone so special to him be said to be blessed with everything? And what does this commentary by Rashi have to do with finding Isaac a wife?
The answer is kind of obvious if we consider it, sure Abraham has lost the true love of his life, his dear wife Sarah. But considering everything Abraham realized that he really had it all in this life. They not only got to spend their best years together, but she also gave him a proper son of noble birth to carry on a legacy. Even in her demise she extended a blessing, it was only through her death that Abraham was able to properly purchase land and establish himself and his descendants as true residents. (again, see Parshat Chayei Sarah 2011) He now had everything, his heart was full, he lacked nothing at all. Sarah had helped him acquire a son and a heritage to pass on to him.
The Rashi to this text draws our attention to the fact that the word “bekol” and “ben” have the same gematria, with the sum of 52. What does this mean? Some take the highly speculative meaning, that hints that he was complete having both sons and daughters as progeny, he had all (kol) forms of children. Others suggest more simply, as Rashi seems to be saying here, that his son (ben) was his all (bkol); this son Isaac was his everything. He was given this legacy and heritage by the sacrifice and partnership of a good wife, Sarah. Therefore he considered it, his son was now his all and he wanted him to have everything there was to be enjoyed in life. He need to find him a life-partner as well, he needed a suitable wife as well. Abraham would marry again as we will see if we were to jump to the next chapter (see Genesis 25:1), he wasn’t just being romantic in his old age because of his lack of action. Isaac needed the happiness of a life-partner.
And as elderly Jewish parents tend to do, it is true that he started meddling in order to find his son a wife. This task was not to be taken lightly so he asks his chief servant, identified by the Talmud and Rashi as Eliezer the personal servant of Abraham. He had to turn this task over to someone close to him, because this was a special task with special considerations.
Abraham had come to possess a land, but only now and finally after his wife’s death. Before he was just a squatter. It was important that Isaac not leave the land behind so that others could come and occupy that land. The only way he could keep the land was by successfully settling it. However, the inhabitants of the land did not seem suitable for his son in marriage. Their ways of worship were known to be brutal and their ways inhospitable towards others. He needed someone closer to his own temperament and that of his wife Sarah in order for his son to respond and succeed in marriage. He needed to arrange a marriage to someone from his own cultural background, without letting his son go there to their place of origins in person to find this wife. They could not risk becoming displaced as absentee landlords. They had to go find Isaac as wife with just a handwritten list of his possessions; think about that, Eliezer had to arrange a marriage with just Isaac’s credit report score on hand and thousands of years before he could even take a Poloroid picture of what the boy looks like!
Now for a moment I need to bring our attention back to the idea of religious worship playing an issue here. Abraham is the founder of a new monotheistic faith, he has a small following but much influence. Not everyone seems as convinced by all the facets of this Abrahamic faith, such as Abraham’s younger cousin Lot. But there were people who were true believers. Among them is Eliezer, the servant. (see Talmud Bavli, Yoma 28; Rashi) Let us look at this interesting person just for a second, he tends to be another person that gets too easily overlooked by simple readers.
The reason that we assume that it was Eliezer here is because the text tells us that this appointed man was, “zekan beito / the most senior in his house.” (Genesis 24:2) Though we most often think of Eliezer as a slave, he was more family than servant by this point in his life. So much to the point that in the previous chapter, before the birth of Isaac, Abraham attests that his heir will end up being this “Demasek Eliezer / Demascus Eliezer.” (Genesis 15:2-3) He’s not a relative, but he’s the closest thing to an eldest son that Abraham has once he separates from Lot until the birth of Isaac.
We must deeply consider the fact that at this point in Eliezer’s life he is thoroughly acculturated in this new Hebrew faith, and the ways they are to live. If we look at his actions we see him as almost an aloof Jeeves the butler, but instead he is actually more like Albert helping run the Bat-cave. He is dedicated to the mission and his values are in line with that of the Abrahamic way. We don’t need to look too far to see this. If we move forward into the story, to the point where Eliezer meets the potential bride’s father, you will see that he has to be pleaded with to come into their home, and for his camels to rest and loosen muzzles for food. It’s not because he is too good for their provisions, its something else all together. He is like his master Abraham that doesn’t take anything from anyone so as to deprive them, he keeps the animals muzzled to not have the appearance of stealing by eating from someones open fields. He allows them only when they offer. Secondly, he doesn’t come into the house until after they had cleared the house. Rashi says it doesn’t mean they cleaned the house but instead they cleared out the idols from the house. He wasn’t being snooty about their home he was being be particular about his faith. He was a true believer through and through. (see Genesis 24:31-32; Rashi)
Eliezer is not just anyone. He is part of the household, therefore was circumcised along with Abraham. Not just that, now at this time taking Abraham’s order he is forced to vow, and vow in a strange way. Now ladies I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, but we need to think about this like men. Something personal is going on here. Our text says that Eliezer is told by Abraham, “Sim-na yadeycha tachat yerechi / place your hand under my thigh.” (24:2) What do we suppose is going on here?
Now the Rashi for this text makes an interesting point while explain what is happening. He says we should take notice of how when one normally takes a vow they do so on a Torah. Even tefillin will do, as they are a ritual and holy object that are sanctified by a sacred act. Rashi says that the first mitzvah, and actually if we think about it ourselves it is the only mitzvah that was given to Abraham so far. Again I stress, this is was their only command to follow so far; circumcision. And it wasn’t just any sign of faith, it was a painful sign of faith. Both Abraham and Eliezer experienced it as aged men! It meant something to them. And since there was nothing else to swear on, that was their sign; in order to make a promise he was told to grab hold and swear by that scar.
Now before any of our delicate readers faint at the sight of some old men seemingly being primal, I need to remind us all that there is a more intimate act in this strange vow. It’s not just men comparing scars and junk. Later in the Torah when it speaks about the descendants of Jacob, called Israel, it is going to say that they emanated from his thigh. (Genesis 46:26, Exodus 1:5) He is trying to make Eliezer have a tangible connection to the reality it’s not just up to him to make this lineage succeed, it’s up to him to care for like it’s his own. He is reminding Eliezer that he is as intimate as it gets, it is up to him guard his seed through this marriage and also guard the symbol of their faith. They cannot go backwards, just forward. He has to promise and show his compliance in the most hardcore way.
Now it was indeed a great honor for Eliezer to be sent out with Abraham’s caravan and all his wealth at his disposal. But this was a truly treacherous and lengthy journey, and one that might have seemed unnecessary. The Rashi to this texts also colors this aspect of the story telling us that Eliezer had a daughter, he figured why not just have Isaac marry her then? According to that midrash Abraham would not allow it because she would be a slave as her father was a slave. He couldn’t marry a slave, he needed to marry a free person. (see Rashi to Genesis 24:39; also verse 5)
What’s interesting is that our Torah stresses the seeming reluctance Eliezer has for going on this great journey according to his recount, but he goes anyhow. He doesn’t believe that a woman is going to follow him from the heart of the civilized fertile crescent over to the backwoods of Hebron. He’s not sure how he’s going to find this wife, but maybe the midrash is right and he is a bit bitter. So Abraham wants a noble wife? Whats wrong with a wife that is a servant, he must be thinking. Where would he find as hard-working and dedicated woman as his daughter? With this in mind he put for his test to G-d, he will know it was a sign when a woman comes and offers him water and also offers to water his camels.
Now I want us to think about it for a second. It may seem like Eliezer’s approach is a simple request, but he’s actually asking for something that is quite unlikely. Eliezer seems to be playing it safe. Consider it, if he can’t find a woman willing to come back then he is free of his vow. (verse 41) He is coming to the fountain just outside of the city of Nahor, one that the women would come to in the evening. He knows that a woman, be it a servant or noble woman, she is not going to be primarily interested in showing hospitality to him let alone attend his camels after their long day of activity. Also keep in mind the fact that as an unknown traveler he indeed needed to have hospitality shown to him by someone of stature before he could just make himself at ease. The odds and constraints seem stacked against him, one can almost see him ready to turn right back around.
Now for a moment I got to wonder what type of woman was he thought he was going to find out at the watering hole. Furthermore when you consider it, he is facing the danger of night approaching and he doesn’t want to be caught standing there like a drifter. Anyone would do tonight, but still you have to wonder about the type of person he is going to meet.
But no sooner does he get his wild test of fate out than he sees a woman and he becomes fixated with her. He begins to lunge in her direction as he sees her coming, and the reason is clear; he loses himself because she is “tovat mar’eh meod / she was very good to look at.” (verse 16) He’s sure she’s available, probably noticeable because her head is uncovered so he can get a good look at her. As she is coming up from filling her pitcher he asks her for a drink. Not only does she lower her pitcher to offer him a drink, but she also offers to give his camels water until they are no longer thirsty. The Torah continues with these words to describe how Eliezer reacted to this all:
“And the woman astonished him,
and he kept silent in order to know whether
Hashem had made his journey successful
|| Veha’ish mishta’eh lah
| macharish lada’at
| hahitsliach Hashem darko
Now why is he so astonished? He’s all “hista’ah” which means that he is surprised and in wonder of her; he is gasping at her because she’s a true beautiful young woman. This is what catches his attention and trips him up even before he is further astonished that she goes so far as to give him the time of day. She not only takes down her heavy pitcher of water to give him to drink, but then she goes on to give him water for the camels. She stunned him with beauty, but the thing that astonished him even more must have been the watering of the camels.
Now lets look at this act for a second, this watering of the camels is worth gawking at. It’s true that camels don’t really need much water, they have these amazing adaptations in their body that makes them able to withstand needing water. They can survive losing up to 25% of their body mass in sweating. Though they don’t store water in their humps like people believe, they have an advantage that no other mammal has, they have oval blood cells that enables them to literally hold on to more water on a cellular level. They are amazingly hearty animals. But she feels they need to drink. And if they need to drink, they most certainly drink. When they need water they consume it 30 – 40 gallons at a time!
Now consider this for a second, here is this dainty little woman we suppose, someone who is a total knockout enough to have Eliezer stunned silent. She gives him some water and then starts bringing up some more for the camels, he has 10 camels. This is more than just a nice gesture. Honestly, I don’t know how much experience some of you souls have with manual labor, but water is exceedingly heavy. For those of you more pampered and cosmopolitan, a gallon of water weights over eight pound. Yes, water-weight is real. Shes not just laying a saucer out for your dog Toto. No these camels are some beasts, that are about to consume about 2,400lbs of water that she is going to draw herself. This is the real reason that he continues to gawk.
Eliezer must have forgotten all about his daughter. I’m sure she was lovely, and might have even had a strong back. But Eliezer found in this woman at the fountain the one that he wanted his master Isaac to have as a wife. She was both a beautiful and a strong person. Also, in this act she showed an amazing sense of hospitality as well that is only paralleled by Abraham and Sarah. So sure of the fact she is an appropriate match Eliezer seems to forget himself and places the jewelry upon her before he even asks who she is, he’s that convinced that she’s an exceptional woman.
Of course Eliezer fixes this fact in the story when he goes on his lengthy recount of it all. He’s in shock, he can’t help but ramble on. He faithfully tells every part, only correcting his foolish giving of the jewelry before asking who she was. He instead in his more composed, yet still awestruck account, he does the proper thing and asks her name before he starts giving her the equivalent of a wedding ring. It’s seems kind of punk rock to me, a nose ring and two gold bangles. But such is the custom to give a girl a token in ancient days, as in the present. Something to seal the deal, and in this case the ring was to be worn in the nose. (see Rashi to Genesis 24:47)
Yet I digress. We should not just ponder the character of this good man Eliezer. He was a truly faithful servant that was an upstanding man. One that through his deeds shows a true sense of duty to the Abraham’s cause, and faithfulness to express the message without theatrics. He is someone who gets no mention by name here but deserves a lot of honor.
And in this parsha we find not just a man worth taking a better look at, we also see a woman worth considering. This woman who has Eliezer so amazed further amazes him when he finds out that she actually a daughter of Betuel, a son of Nahor; she was a daughter of Milkah. She is a distant relative of Abraham, they are descendant from the same clan paternally. It is obvious that she is an appropriate match as they are even of the same culture so you can’t get better than that. She is a good apple off a rotten side of the family tree (Lot’s side of the family, see last week’s study), but has all the honorable traits that make her of the order of Abraham as well. Her name is Rivkah, or Rebekkah.
Interesting characters these two, Rivkah and Eliezer. Now just in case you aren’t convinced that Eliezer has made a good match, that he found some desert beast of a woman to drag back for Isaac to marry, we see that when she see Isaac walking in the field her delicate side comes out again. Rivka veils herself out of impulse. You have to wonder how big the grin was on Eliezer’s face as they approached, with him considering the entire way the strength of the character there was under that pretty little veil and tinny little frame.