Parshat Chayei Sarah: What are you running after?

“Now Rivkah had a brother whose name was Lavan. Lavan ran out to the man at the spring” (Bereishit 24: 29).

In Pirkei Avot (1:15) Shammai teaches: “say little and do much.” On a simple level, this teaches us that a person should never promise more than he can offer. But on a deeper level, Shammai is teaching us how to know ourselves in the most true and intimate way. The actions that we do tell us much more about ourselves than the words we speak. And as we read the stories of Bereshit, we can learn so much more about our forebears from their actions as opposed to their words.

To take this one step further, the great mussar master and author of Alei Shur, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, teaches that the Hebrew word larutz, to run, shares the same root as the word ratzon, desire. So do you want to know what you really want in life? Ask yourself, “What are you running after?” 

And in our parsha we see lots of running, so let’s look at who is running to where. But before that, let’s back up a bit so we can put together all the pieces. In order to find an appropriate wife for his son Yitzhak, Avraham has sent the head of his household back to his family, to Aram Naaraim, the city of Nachor. 

As the servant along with his large caravan arrives at their destination, they head to the central meeting place, the well. And as they approach, the servant sees a beautiful young girl carrying water, and runs to her, asking for water. 

Why does the servant run? Could he not have waited till she approached to ask for water? His running expresses the desire in his heart to fulfill his task. He cannot wait one additional moment to see if this young woman, who turns out to be Rivkah, is the woman for whom he is searching.

Rivkah not only offers him water, but she offers water to the entire group, as well as their camels. But even more importantly, the passage tells us that she ran back to the well in order to bring water to the camels. 

The story continues. Rivkah notices the man pulling out expensive jewelry from his bag. “Please tell me,” asks Avraham’s servant. “Whose daughter are you?” Without waiting for an answer, he makes a request: “Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?”

Rivkah answers the questions as they are asked; her father is Betuel, son of Milkah, who is Avraham’s niece. And yes, they have room to host, even a group this large.

The response she receives is unexpected. The man hands her three exquisite items, a nose ring and two bracelets, unlike she has ever seen. Suddenly, the man falls to his knees and starts to pray and praise God. 

Rivkah again runs, this time back home to prepare the food and lodging. And at this point in the story, she does not know the family connection to these travelers. As far as Rivkah knows, they are complete strangers. Yet she is running to and fro in order to offer them water, food, and lodging. Her desire is clear: she desires to give unconditionally.

But Rivkah is not an only child. We learn that Rivkah has a brother named Lavan. And Lavan also runs to meet the guests. Why was Lavan running? Rav Steinsaltz points out that Lavan is clearly the head of the household. And as the head, he is obligated to look out for his sister. He has to ensure that there is no inappropriate behavior going on with these mysterious guests. But as the text continues, we see a second, more central, motivation for Lavan’s haste: 

“When he saw the nose-ring and the bands on his sister’s arms, and when he heard his sister Rivkah say, “Thus the man spoke to me…” (Bereishit 24:30).

In these brief moments of introduction, we can already see Lavan’s true nature by what he is running after: the precious jewels in Rivkah’s hand. On the outside, Lavan praises God, and acknowledges God’s providence after hearing the details of the story. But if we take a closer look, Lavan’s true motives for offering his sister’s hand in marriage become quite clear. 

“The servant brought out objects of silver and gold, and garments, and gave them to Rivkah; and he gave presents to her brother and her mother,” (Bereishit 24: 52).

The Gemara used the following description for a true Torah Scholar: toco c’boro: that their inside is like their outside. There is a harmony between the way the person appears, and who they are on the inside.

Lavan’s name means white, usually identified with purity. That’s how he wishes to be perceived. But on the inside, something darker is at play. He wants to portray himself as the responsible head of the household; but in actuality he is mesmerized by the incredible wealth of the strangers. He frames the events as divine intervention, and if we look strictly at his words, we would imagine him as a deeply ethical and religious person. But he is not running out of love for God or even his fellow; his legs are running towards riches, and this tells us everything we need to know about Lavan.

If we take this lens through which we’re looking at Lavan, and we look at ourselves, what do we see? Do our insides match our outsides? Are our words and actions truly aligned, or are we at times more concerned with optics than ethics? Lavan and Rivkah teach us how to make this distinction, and know where our desires truly lie: we simply must ask ourselves honestly what we’re running after. 

What do you run after? And what does that teach you about yourself?

In memory of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, on the occasion of his first yahrzeit

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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