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Torah Sparks

November 22, 2008 – 24 Heshvan 5769

Annual: Genesis 23:1 -- 25:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 127; Hertz p. 80)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 24:10 -- 24:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 132; Hertz p. 83)
Haftarah: I Kings 1:1 – 31 (Etz Hayim, p. 143; Hertz p. 90)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Sarah dies at the age of 127. Abraham approaches the Hittites about acquiring a burial place and then bargains with Ephron and buys the cave of Machpelah and the field surrounding it from him.

Abraham sends his senior servant (unnamed here but known as Eliezer based on a verse in parshat Lekh Lekha) to his family in Aram-naharaim to find an appropriate bride for Isaac. Eliezer arrives at his destination and asks God for a sign – the woman who will become Isaac’s wife would be kind and generous and would offer to draw water for Eliezer and his camels. Almost immediately Rebekah arrives at the well and passes his test. Eliezer learns that she is the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor and realizes that God has guided him to the right woman. Eliezer is invited to Rebekah’s home, where he explains the purpose of his journey to her brother Laban and father Bethuel. They agree to allow Rebekah to go with Eliezer. Rebekah also agrees and accompanies Eliezer to Canaan, where she becomes Isaac’s wife.

Abraham marries Keturah and fathers six more sons, although Isaac is his sole heir. Abraham dies at the age of 175, and Isaac and Ishmael bury him alongside Sarah in the cave of Machpelah. The parashah concludes with the genealogy of Ishmael’s descendents.

1. Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Let the maiden to whom I say, “Please, lower your jar that I may drink” and who replies, “Drink, and I will also water your camels” – let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master. (Bereisheit 24:14)

  1. She is worthy of him, for she will be kind and worthy of entering the house of Abraham. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Eliezer was trying to find a woman who excelled in every area, whereas this test only proved that she had a good heart. How, then, did Eliezer know that the woman’s other qualities would also be superior? Rather, from this we can see proof to the Mishnah in Avot (2:13) where, when different sages gave their definitions of the proper path to follow, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai chose that of Rabbi Elazar, “a good heart,” as including all the other definitions within his own. (Zilah Ron, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)
  3. Eliezer wanted to put the maiden to the test to see not only whether she had good qualities but also whether she would use her virtues with wisdom and understanding. Accordingly, he asked her to give him a drink of water from that pitcher with which the water was drawn up from the well. What, he wondered, would she do with the water that would be left in the pitcher after he had drunk from it? If she were to take it home, she would not be acting wisely, for it should occur to her that he might be ill and that it might be unsafe for others to drink the water that had come in contact with his mouth. On the other hand, if she were to pour it out, it would be an insult to the stranger and would show that she was lacking in tact. The proper course for her to follow would be to say, “Drink, and I will also water your camels.” In this manner, there would be no insult to the stranger, nor would other people be exposed to danger by drinking water that might be contaminated. If she chose that alternative, it would be proof that she had not only good qualities but also sufficient intelligence to make the right decisions in unforeseen situations. (Rabbi Joseph Dov Halevi Soloveitchik of Brisk, 1820-1892, Lithuania)
  4. Although our modern urban society hardly lends itself to the sort of test Eliezer devised for Isaac’s future wife, his awareness of kindness as the supreme virtue in a spouse remains most relevant. Unfortunately, many people, both then and now, focus on other traits at a relationship’s outset. But, as Dennis Prager suggests, “When you go out on a date, it is more important to see how your date treats the waitress than how he (or she) treats you. Since it is important at the relationship’s beginning for your date to make a good impression on you, he will treat you well. But how he treats the waitress will reflect how he is going to treat you once he can take your love for granted.” Rebekah had no idea who Eliezer was. That is what makes her kindness to him so striking. Obviously, there are many additional traits that matter in a spouse – shared values, sexual attraction and compatibility, humor, and intelligence, among others. But kindness, this biblical text teaches us, is in a class by itself. Its presence alone does not guarantee that a relationship will work. Its absence, however, should guarantee that it won’t. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “The Book of Jewish Values,” p.26)

Sparks for Discussion

What should a person look for in a spouse? What do you think of Eliezer’s criteria? What about Dennis Prager’s advice? What other qualities draw a couple together? What qualities are necessary to sustain a marriage for many years and decades? Do you think most couples marry for the right reasons?

The Torah tells us not only that Rebekah passed Eliezer’s test, but also “The maiden was very beautiful” (24:16). What if she had been plain or even ugly – would she still have been an appropriate bride for Isaac? Do you believe our society continues to value women primarily by their appearance? How can we protect our daughters from the dangerous effects of this prejudice?

2. The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Then I bowed low in homage to the Lord and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who led me on the right way [literally, the way of truth] to get the daughter of my master’s brother for his son. (Bereisheit 24:48)

  1. As a rule, a marriage broker will use a little falsehood and exaggeration, without which it is not possible to make a match that will work out. And so, Eliezer gave thanks to “the one who led me in the way of truth,” that in brokering this marriage he was able to walk in the way of truth, without having to resort to any falsehood. Rabbi Hanina stated: “God’s seal is truth” (Shabbat 55a). Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook explained this as a wax stamp imprinted on the sealed envelope of a letter. When the stamp is broken, it no longer has any value. The letter is open to all. Such is the measure of truth. There is no such thing as a half truth, or a quarter truth. The truth must be whole, like the seal itself. He added: Just as our sages said “God’s seal is truth,” so is the seal of every person who was created in the image of God. People’s inner truth is the basis of their character and it is the seal of their lives. (Sincha Raz, “The Torah’s Seventy Faces: Commentaries on the Weekly Sidrah,” edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, pp. 33-34)
  2. Our rabbis taught: How does one dance before a bride? The school of Shammai says, “The bride [is described] as she is.” The school of Hillel says, “[Every bride is described as a] beautiful and graceful bride.” The school of Shammai said to the school of Hillel, “If she was lame or blind, does one say of her, ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’? Does not the Torah command, ‘Keep far from a false matter’?” (Shemot 23:7) But the School of Hillel answered the School of Shammai, “According to your words, if a person has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise it to him or deprecate it? Surely one should praise it to him.” Therefore the rabbis teach, “Always should one’s disposition be pleasant with people.” (Ketubot 16b-17a)
  3. Teach your tongue to say, “I do not know,” lest you be led to lie and be caught. (Berakhot 4a)

Sparks for Discussion

Must we always tell the absolute truth? According to the school of Hillel, whose opinion prevails, when are we permitted to lie? Are there other circumstances when lying is permitted? (Hint: what do you say when an abusive ex-husband asks you for his former wife’s new address?) Is there more than one possible answer to the question, “Do these pants make me look fat?”

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