Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Hayyei Sarah 5760
Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
November 6, 1999 MarHeshvan 27 5760
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
The following comments were written originally in 1994
We don't pick spouses for our children anymore. But if we did, what trait would we single out as the best indicator of a happy marriage?
This is the task that Abraham, feeling the increasing weight of his years, gives to Eliezer, the steward of his household. Isaac, the son of his old age, is still without a helpmate. Under no circumstances is he to look for a partner among their Canaanite neighbors. Not much better than the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, they adhere to religious beliefs and values abhorrent to Abraham's new faith. They are to be, in due time, the object of holy war and not holy matrimony. Even Ishmael married an Egyptian woman, like his mother Hagar, and not a native Canaanite. Eliezer is to return to the place of Abraham's origins, to his clansmen to find a wife for Isaac. Our parasha opens on a note of gentle irony. "The Lord had blessed Abraham, in all things (Genesis 24:1)," but Isaac's unmarried state, with its implicit prospect of impermanence, rendered those blessings hollow.
Eliezer is a natural psychologist. On the road to Haran, he devises a character test that will identify a suitable wife for Isaac. By the well outside the city, he will rest his caravan of ten camels and ask a young woman for water for himself. If she responds by giving him a drink and then spontaneously watering his camels as well, she will have marked herself as a person worthy of his master's son.
God helps those who help themselves. The first woman Eliezer confronts is Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham's brother, and she indeed reacts with rare magnanimity. "Drink, my lord.... I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking (Genesis 24:18-19)."
The Torah regards this cameo portrait as so important that it indulges in an exceptional threefold repetition - first Eliezer's own musings, then the description of the event itself and, finally, its retelling by Eliezer to Rebekah's greedy brother, Laban. Such lavish attention should not go unnoticed by us.
By now the book of Genesis has made it abundantly clear that the treatment of strangers takes the measure of a society's moral code. On this score, both Abraham and Lot put their neighbors to shame. But Eliezer wants more. For Isaac's lifelong partner, the singularly human quality of compassion should extend to include all animate life. Rebekah is stirred by the sight of thirsting camels, and, unsolicited, volunteers and labors to end their discomfort. The ringing words of Shakespeare spring to mind, except for the offensive fact that in The Merchant of Venice he puts them into the mouth of Portia as she lectures Shylock, who is cruelly bent on attaining the letter of the law.
The quality of mercy is not strain'd. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
There is nothing strained about Rebekah's act. It is free of ulterior motive, unblemished by thought of recompense. Eliezer sensed that a person endowed with such expanse of spirit was incapable of violence, domestic or otherwise. Rebekah embodied a core value of the Torah which became known as gemilut hasadim - the doing of acts of loving kindness.
Judaism did not need Shakespeare, or anyone else, to lecture it on the ideal of mercy. The Torah had already put law in the service of curbing human aggressiveness. To stay with the subject of animals, I shall cite only its sensitive injunctions against inflicting gratuitous pain. We are bidden not to muzzle an ox, or yoke together animals of different sizes (such as an ass with an ox) for plowing, or kill on one and the same day a cow and its calf (Deut. 25:4, 22:10; Lev. 22:28). Similarly, when coming upon a bird's nest with eggs or fledglings still cared for by the mother, we are to release the mother (Deut. 22:6-7). Compassion for animals is also what seems to prompt the Torah to repeat in three different passages the prohibition against boiling a kid in the milk of its mother, which becomes the basis for the later talmudic separation of the consumption of meat and milk products. Indeed, the Torah even delivers the admonition not to extend our animosity to the animals of our enemy. When you see the ass of your enemy prostrate under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him (Exodus 23:5)." Culminating that deep-seated concern is the prophetic inclusion of animal life in the messianic vision, though no one quite matched Isaiah's imagery of the restoration of pristine harmony with man and beast bonded once again in lasting fellowship, a prophecy made part of America's cultural heritage by Edward Hick's primitive painting in 1848 of The Peaceable Kingdom.
On the basis of this thrust, Maimonides went so far as to posit that cruelty is utterly alien to Judaism. No Jewish community was to be without a society devoted to the fostering of deeds of loving kindness, cheering bride and groom, visiting the sick, burying the dead or comforting mourners. One of the sad symptoms of the shrinking of Judaism in the modern period is that these mitzvot came to be seen solely as rabbinic duties, just as the synagogue, enlarged and beautified, became the only arena for the practice of Judaism.
Nothing could be further from the spirit of Judaism than such surrogate religion. The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally. In between we are treated to an incomparable feast of striving for self-transcendence. Every Jew is called upon to add to the sum total of divine sparks in the world.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,