JTS Torah Commentary
Parashat Hayyei Sarah
November 26, 2005 24 Heshvan 5766
This week's commentary is written by Rabbi Lawrence Troster, Rabbinic Fellow of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL)
Psalm 24 asks: "Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place?" The answer given is: "He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life or sworn deceitfully" (Psalms 24:3–4). The medieval commentator David Kimhi of Provence (1160–1235) felt that the answer to the question lists three requirements: proper action (clean hands), proper thoughts (pure heart), and faith in speech (not swearing deceitfully). We might say that these characteristics constitute the complete person of religious integrity. In thought, action, and speech, such a person is in harmony with God and the world.
Who then has fulfilled these requirements? In Midrash Tehillim to this psalm, Abraham is mentioned because in all his actions, thoughts, and speech he had full integrity and faith. He has clean hands because he took nothing for himself when he intervened in the war of the kings (Genesis 14). He has a pure heart because he believed in God's promise at the covenant "between the pieces." He did not swear falsely before Nimrod (according to a midrash) and did not take God's name in vain before the king of Sodom.
Jacob is also identified by the midrash as one with all the proper qualifications to stand in God's holy place. He had clean hands because he did not steal from his uncle Laban. He has a pure heart because he did not know of Rachel's theft of her father's idols. And he did not take God's name in vain like Laban but swore truly by his father's faith.
But where is Isaac in this list? Why was he not counted by the midrash together with his father and his son? If Abraham was the first model of such a life of inward devotion together with outward action, how then did Jacob learn to follow this path? It could not have been through his father Isaac, for Isaac was not a person of balanced piety. He was someone who rarely acted. He reacted or was acted upon. He hardly spoke a word at the Akedah. He was bound and willingly gave himself to the knife, but he had nothing to do other than not resist. He did not even search for his own wife, it was done for him. And when it came time to designate his heir, he had not the foresight to choose correctly. So the choice was made for him by the true heir to Abraham's example, the one who fulfilled the requirements of the psalm and taught it to her son. Rebecca was the real link in the chain of the tradition, and all of her character and future actions are illuminated to us the very first time we meet her in this week's parashah.
Abraham's servant has traveled to Nahor in Aram-naharaim in order to find a wife for Isaac from among Abraham's relatives. After his arrival, the servant makes a strange request of God. He asks for a particular sequence of events to occur that will reveal to him the proper choice of bride for his master's son. Suddenly, Rebecca appears and miraculously fulfills the whole sequence, thus proving her to be the right choice. But it is not only the fact of her fulfilling the sequence that marks her out, it is also how she is described. All of the verbs in Hebrew referring to her are verbs of movement, action, and speed.
It is in this short scene, all seen from the servant's viewpoint, that Rebecca's character is revealed. The Torah does not allow us a picture of her mind. We do not know what she is thinking, but her actions are a window into her intentions. Ovadiah Seforno, the sixteenth-century Italian Bible commentator, said that Rebecca's hurriedness in getting the water reveals how important the action was to her. He felt that her speed revealed her hospitality. Since in the Bible mention of swiftness in the performance of an action always means the full voluntary acceptance of the act by the actor, Rebecca's speed shows her complete willingness to come to the aid of the servant. In her hurrying to help a stranger, her actions also hark back to the way in which Abraham greeted the three "men" at the beginning of last week's parashah. He, too, ran to gratify their needs.
Contrast Rebecca's actions with the reactions of her brother Laban. When he is told by Rebecca of what has happened, he too runs to the well, but not in hospitality. He runs only to look at the wealth and riches of the servant. It is only after he hears the story from Rebecca, only after he sees her jewelry, the servant, and his retinue, that Laban welcomes the servant and invites him to stay. The Torah never wastes words; the mention of Laban seeing the riches first is a sign of his future greediness in his relations with Rebecca's son Jacob.
If Laban's actions are omens of his future conduct, Rebecca's actions also portend her future behavior. She not only had the proper outward actions (the clean hands), but also the inner integrity (the pure heart). She did not flinch from leaving her family and following the servant. The midrash has her coming from a family and a country where guile and deceit were the norm. She knows she has to leave and she is willing to risk going with the servant. In the future, when she knows that Jacob was the one who had to inherit the legacy of Abraham (from the prophecy she heard when she was pregnant), she is willing to risk everything, even to the point of having the curse of her husband come down upon her. She is willing to suffer the consequences in order to save the future.
For her courage, her initiative, and her integrity, Rebecca is the real link between Abraham and Jacob. Like them, she teaches us how to ascend to the holy mountain in harmony with God and the world.