“Natural Water” Parashat Chaye Sara 5777

Avraham commands his faithful slave, Eliezer, to find a wife for his son, Yitzchak. Eliezer must travel to Aram Naharayim, Avraham’s home town, where he must choose a wife from Avraham’s family. When Eliezer reaches Aram Naharayim he makes a deal with Hashem [Bereishit 24:13-14]: “Behold, I am standing by the well and the daughters of the people of the city are coming out to draw water. It will be, [that] the maiden to whom I will say, ‘Lower your jug and I will drink,’ and she will say, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’, You have designated her for Your servant, for Yitzchak, and through her may I know that You have performed kindness with my master.” The ending of the story is known by every child who has ever opened a chumash: Rivka appears, she does everything that Eliezer predicted, and she is taken back to Canaan as a wife for Yitzchak.

Not only did Rivka pass Eliezer’s test, but she completely and entirely exceeded his expectations. Eliezer required only that the potential bride “water his camels”. How much water? It didn’t matter. What was important to Eliezer was that she show kindness not only to humans but to animals, as well. Here is what Rivka actually told Eliezer [Bereishit 24:19]: “I will also draw for your camels until they will have finished drinking”. How much does a camel drink? The translator of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch’s commentary on the Torah claims that a thirsty camel can drink 10 US gallons, or about 38 litres. A National Geographic study from 2012, which I suggest is slightly more reliable, asserts that a thirsty camel can drink as many as 30 US gallons, or about 135 litres, of water in about 13 minutes. Eliezer had ten camels in his caravan, meaning that Rivka had to draw 1350 litres of water from a well and then to pour it into a trough. Imagine carrying two six-packs of 1.5 litre bottles of Coca Cola up a flight of stairs[2] and then pouring the bottles down the bathtub. Now do this another 74 times. In order to give the thirsty camels the water that they required, Rivka had to move extremely quickly [Bereishit 24:20]: “She hurried and she poured her jug into the trough, and she ran even more to the well to draw [water] and she drew for all of his camels.” My wife, Tova, gives a Bat Mitzvah class in which the eleven year old girls must fill Coca Cola bottles with water and run from one side of the room to the other side and then to pour them out into the sink. It is exhausting work, at the limit of human capacity.

Rivka’s actions can answer some serious questions about Eliezer’s behaviour and can give us some new insight as to what precisely Eliezer was looking for.

  1. Avraham has sent Eliezer to Aram Naharayim and not to, say, Aleppo, because that is where Avraham’s family lived. The first step that a logical Eliezer should have taken would be to find Avraham’s family and only then to begin narrowing down the search. It has been suggested that the entire town could have consisted of one extended family, similar to many Arab towns in which most people come from one “Hamula”. For this reason Eliezer did not need to narrow down his search. This suggestion is problematic because after Rivka passes Eliezer’s “Kindness Test” and Eliezer asks her who she is, he is explicitly relieved when she tells him that she is Avraham’s great-niece, i.e. a close relative. This leads to our next problem:
  2. Avraham tells Eliezer only that the girl must be [Bereishit 24:4] “from my land and from my birthplace”. Later, when Eliezer is retelling his story to Rivka’s family, he quotes Avraham as saying that the girl must be [Bereishit 24:38] “from my family and from my father’s house”. Eliezer repeats this requirement another two times. Was this requirement Eliezer’s idea, or did Avraham somehow allude to it?
  3. After Rivka finishes watering the camels, Eliezer puts a ring on her finger, certain that “she is the one”. Only afterwards does he ask her name.

As we suggested in 5766, Eliezer misunderstood Avraham. Avraham and Eliezer had completely different understandings on what makes a Jew a Jew. Eliezer believed it was nature[3] and Avraham believed it was nurture. Eliezer believed that a person attains his Jewish identity from birth and that his soul is qualitatively different than the soul of a non-Jew. He believed that a Jewish soul has certain characteristic traits, the most vital of them being kindness. The Talmud in Tractate Yevamot [78a] teaches that Jews have three innate character traits: they are understated, merciful, and they perform acts of kindness. Avraham, on the other hand, believed that a Jew is made, not born. Rashi teaches that Avraham and Sarah invested heavily in outreach. Anyone who identified with his message was welcome on board. The Rambam [Hilchot Avoda Zara 1:3] teaches that Avraham’s greatness lay in his willingness to “call out and to gather people [in the service of Hashem]”[4]. Avraham believed Judaism was open to all, while Eliezer believed it was for members-only.

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch explains Avraham’s motivation of sending Eliezer to his home town. Were Yitzchak to marry a Canaanite woman, even the most righteous one, he would be subjected to the constant influence of her family. He was the world’s only Jew in a sea of heathen. In this environment it would be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to raise his children as his successors. Therefore, Avraham’s first concern was that Yitzchak not marry a Canaanite. Eliezer must find a wife that came from far away and he must bring her back to Canaan, far away from the sphere of influence of her family. The reason that Avraham sent Eliezer specifically to Aram Naharayim was that in a world without internet or telephones or even newspapers, the only place that Avraham had a chance of finding a woman who would agree to leave her family to marry Yitzchak was in his home town.

Eliezer sees Avraham’s directions through the lens of his own world-view. Avraham wants him to find a wife for Yitzchak from his home town. Only a person with the same DNA as Avraham could serve as a fitting wife for his son. This person must come specifically “from my family and from my father’s house”. In Eliezer’s world-view, there was no better indicator of Avraham’s family then kindness. A person can run away from his parents, but he cannot run away from his persona. A person who performs random acts of kindness had to come from the same stock as Avraham. And so it wasn’t enough for Yitzchak’s future wife to offer Eliezer water – she had to water his camels, as well. Rivka, who shares her DNA with Avraham, takes this paradigm twelve steps further. She hurries. She runs to complete her task. She does the impossible. To Eliezer this is a clear parallel of Avraham’s treatment of the three “men” who visit his tent in the first verses of Parashat Vayera, in which Avraham [Bereishit 18] “runs” to greet his guest, “hurries” to tell Sarah to prepare food, and the “runs” to slaughter a cow so he can make fresh burgers. Rivka’s superhuman kindness was an incontrovertible sign that she came from Avraham’s family.

At the end of the day, the difference in the world view of Avraham and Eliezer had no bearing on the outcome: Rivka, Avraham’s blood relative and the kindest girl in town, was chosen as Yitzchak’s bride. But in the greater scheme of things, Eliezer is relegated to the sidelines of history while Avraham becomes the father of a great nation. While Judaism does not actively seek to convert, any person who actively seeks admission to “the club” is welcome to join the nation that flies the flag of kindness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Adi bat Ravit.

[1] This shiur gives another angle of our shiur on Parashat Chaye Sara 5766.

[2] Water in a well lies below ground level. The cisterns in old Yodfat, near my home, are between three and five meters below ground level. Let’s make Rivka’s job easier and assume that the water that she drew lay only three metres – one story – below ground level.

[3] See our shiur on Parashat Noach 5777 for an in-depth discussion on nature vs. nurture in Judaism.

[4] As opposed to other monotheists who preceded him but who kept their beliefs to themselves.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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