Parshas Chayei Sarah: How To Choose A Wife

This week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, begins with Sarah’s burial process. The first section of the parsha describes the negotiation between Avraham and Efron for the ownership of Ma’arat HaMachpeila. Subsequently, the Torah tells the story of Yitzchak’s betrothal to Rivka — a process that would prove to be quite extensive. This saga begins with Avraham’s chief servant, Eliezer (according to the Midrash as well as other sources), being sent to identify a suitable wife for Yitzchak. Yet the process by which this happens is absolutely puzzling. The height of this confusing story is Eliezer’s first encounter with Rivka, and I will explain why.

The segment begins with the third aliyah, in 24:10. Eliezer arrives at a well and sets up shop there, anticipating that this may be the place where he finds the woman he is seeking. In 24:14 Eliezer prays for a very particular sign:

“Let it be that the maiden to whom I shall say, ‘Drink, and I will even water your camels,’ her will You have chosen for Your servant, for Isaac; and may I know through her that You have done kindness with my master.” Not a moment later, in 24:15, a woman materializes, and in 24:19 the exact sign he had asked for unfolds before him when she says, “…I will draw [water] even for your camels…”.

Eliezer should now be sold; this must be the woman he has come for. Yet Eliezer’s response is quite the opposite. As it says in 24:21, “The man was astonished at her, reflecting silently to know whether Hashem had made his journey successful or not.” How could this be? What is Eliezer’s hesitation? Has she not fulfilled the very sign that was to identify the woman he was seeking?

Rashi picks up on this very issue and aims to resolve it. Rashi’s commentary on 24:21 explains that the reason Eliezer was still unsure was because the sign had not yet been fulfilled; there was a second component. Eliezer still needed to wait and see if she was a member of Avraham’s family. What is Rashi’s basis for saying this? Look back to Eliezer’s prayer — the final part. The text says “…And may I know through her that you have done kindness with my master.” Here Rashi interprets these words as including her being family to Avraham as part of the sign. Seemingly, Rashi saw this same issue of Eliezer’s hesitation coming up and sought to answer that problem by including the familial requirement in Eliezer’s initial prayer.

While this Rashi might resolve the issue of Eliezer’s hesitation in 24:18, it proves problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, Rashi’s interpretation doesn’t seem to fit well with the text (see Ramban on this posuk; though he approximately agrees with Rashi’s idea, he acknowledges that Rashi’s interpretation does not read well with the text). Drawing out that she must be a family member from the words “That you have done kindness” is a tough pill to swallow. This is even harder to accept in light of the fact that Avraham himself never required that Yitzchak’s wife be of his family; only that she should be from his homeland. In Rashi’s defense, one could indeed justifiably interpret Avraham’s instructions to Eliezer in 24:3-4 to mean that she should be of his family, but Avraham certainly never said so explicitly. Thus, Rashi’s interpretation here requires us to accept that both Avraham required that she be a member of the family — though he never said so in a clear way — and also that when Eliezer said “…And may I know through her that You have done kindness” what he truly meant was that part of Hashem’s sign should be that she was of Avraham’s family. More than all of this though is the notion that her being a family member was part of the sign may not make sense in the flow of the story. This is because the next posuk, 21:22, makes matters even more confusing.

Just after Eliezer’s uncertainty in 24:21, in 24:22 Eliezer gives her the equivalent of 10 gold shekels in jewelry. What is the purpose of this interaction? The posuk does not say explicitly. There are two basic ways of interpreting this interaction. The first is that Eliezer is tipping her for tending to his camels or that he is pre-paying in some way for the lodging he is about to request (24:23). The second way to understand this transaction is as Eliezer’s confirmation that she is, in fact, the one he had sought. Based on textual support, the latter route — Eliezer gave her the gold as a confirmation that his sign had been fulfilled and that she was the one he had prayed to find — seems most compelling.

Why is this so? How is this claim substantiated? Later in the perek Eliezer finds himself telling the entire tale of his journey to Rivka’s family. In 24:47 he says

“Then I questioned her and said, ‘whose daughter are you?’ And she said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel son of Nahor, whom Milcah bore to him.’ And I placed the ring on her nose and the bracelets on her hand. Then I bowed and blessed Hashem…”.

In Eliezer’s recounting of the story he indicates clearly that the gold was in some way a confirmation of the sign’s fulfillment and the end of the search-mission to find a suitable wife for Yitzchak. Furthermore, when Eliezer first set out on this mission, he specifically took along Avraham’s wealth for this very reason (see 24:10 and Rashi on that posuk).

If this is true, and the gold is a confirmation of the sign’s completion, then our problematic Rashi from earlier (the one on 21:14) is even more problematic. According to Rashi, Eliezer’s hesitation in 24:21 was because he was waiting to see if she was a part of Avraham’s family. But if one interprets the gold-gesture as a confirmation that she is the “chosen one”, this reading no longer fits the storyline because Rivka doesn’t confirm that she is family until 24:24. Yet, in 24:22, before he knows if she is family, Eliezer has already apparently confirmed through the gold that she is the one.

Thus, one can understandably follow Rashi’s reading here by accepting both that her being a family member was part of Eliezer’s prayer, which requires the understanding that Eliezer’s transacting the gold was not an act of confirmation. However, for the reasons mentioned until now, I would like to explore the possibility that the gold was, in fact, verification of the completion of Eliezer’s sign and thus Eliezer’s hesitation in 24:21 was not because he was waiting to see if she was Avraham’s kin, but rather was for something else entirely.

With all of this in mind, let’s return to the passage and review the issues at hand. Not only does Eliezer remain uncertain in 24:21 despite the clear fulfillment of his prayer in 24:19, but in the very next posuk (24:22), despite this uncertainty, Eliezer seemingly confirms that she is the one. Eliezer has gone back and forth. His sign is fulfilled, yet he is not convinced. He is not convinced, yet he gives her the gold. What is happening here?

This confusion can be broken down into 2 organized questions:

  1. The sign from 24:14 is fulfilled in 24:19, so what is causing Eliezer to still reflect “silently to know whether Hashem had made his journey successful or not” in 24:21?
  2. If in 24:21 he is not sure, why is he suddenly sure in 24:22, as indicated by his presenting the gold?

I believe the answers to these questions may be embedded within the text. Methodologically, by questioning the assumptions of these questions, we will find how to approach finding the answers. Quickly review the 2 questions above. The following two conclusions must be drawn:

  1. Eliezer’s uncertainty in 24:21 must mean that his sign had somehow not yet been completed.
  2. Something must have happened between 24:21 and 24:22 that won Eliezer over, prompting his confirmation through the gold.

Let’s start with #1. How could Eliezer’s sign have not been completed? She said exactly what he was looking for her to say! The sign was fulfilled!

Or was it? By looking back carefully, we can see that Eliezer’s prayer did, in fact, have two components. However, because we are interpreting the gold as a confirmation and thus cannot view the second component as “family”, we need a different explanation as to what this second component is.

Let’s return to the text to see that there is, in fact, a second component:

“Let it be that the maiden to whom I shall say, ‘Please tip your jug so I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink and I will even water your camels,’ her will You have chosen for your servant, for Isaac.” (24:14)

This is the first and more obvious component; the one she so clearly fulfilled. So what is this second component Eliezer is waiting for in 24:21? The posuk continues:

“…And may I know through her that You have done kindness with my master.”

Eliezer is requesting that she act in such a way that “through her” Eliezer will know that she is a person of great merit. The second component/requirement to Eliezer’s sign is that the woman give some further indication that she is Hashem’s choice, befitting of his master Yitzchak — a component she seemingly has yet to fulfill.

Now we understand why Eliezer was still waiting in 24:21! Despite her having fulfilled part one by offering the camels to drink, Eliezer was waiting to see if she would take some sort of additional action by which he would know (“through her”) that she was worthy of Yitzchak.

But even if this is true, how could Eliezer be certain in the very next posuk? What has changed? To address this question we must analyze what did, in fact, change. Upon careful reading one can see that only one thing occurred in-between Eliezer’s uncertainty in 24:21 and his certainty in 24:22. Let’s look at the posukim:

“The man was astonished at her, reflecting silently to know whether Hashem had made his journey successful or not. And it was when the camels had finished drinking, the man took a golden nose ring, its weight a beka, and two bracelets on her arms, ten gold shekels their weight.”

The only thing that took place between his uncertainty and certainty was that the camels “finished drinking”. But what is the significance of this? How could this be what changed Eliezer’s mind?

Look back yet again at Eliezer’s prayer — this time focusing on exactly what Eliezer had hoped she would say:

“…Let it be the maiden to whom I shall say, ‘Please tip your jug so I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will even water your camels…’ (24:14)

Now look carefully at what Rivka actually says:

“When she finished giving him drink she said, ‘I will draw [water] even for your camels until they have finished drinking.” 24:19

Eliezer’s expected response and Rivka’s actual response are nearly identical, the one notable difference being that while he was only expecting an offer of “I will even water your camels,” Rivka exceeded that expectation with the additional “until they have finished drinking.” Perhaps this rise above the call of duty is why the next posuk, 24:21, begins with “The man was astonished…”. He was astonished by her exceeding generosity.

Perhaps now we can understand what changed between Eliezer’s uncertainty and certainty. Now we can understand why the seemingly insignificant “And it was when the camels had finished drinking…” in 24:22 is, in fact, the key to the completion of Eliezer’s sign.

She had completed “part one” of the sign by offering the camels water, but she even took on the additional kindness and patience of waiting until the camels were fully satisfied. This is why Eliezer was “shocked”. He saw that this had all the makings of the fulfillment of his sign. She had completed “part one” and had even offered the additional kindness that could merit the completion of “part two” — that he “know through her” that Hashem had done kindness.

That is why it was only after the camels had finished drinking that Eliezer could confirm that she was the one. Rivka had begun to complete the signs in 24:21, but it was only after she had followed through on the additional kindness, waiting for the satisfaction of the animals, that Eliezer could confirm that she was the one.

This tells us a great deal about the merit of Rivka. Eliezer devised a sign through which the woman he sought would have to set herself apart by surpassing standard kindness. She would have to not only answer his request for water, but on her own volition make the additional offer to water his camels. Eliezer was looking for a person to exceed standard kindness, and yet Rivka surpassed even that standard, introducing a level of kindness that “shocked” him. She not only made the additional offer to water his camels, but also went one step further in offering to see to it that they be fully satisfied. Of course, Rivka did all of this not knowing of Eliezer’s sign or mission. She did so simply because it was the greatest kindness she could offer him at that moment.

This conclusion presents us with a powerful message. Doing what is right, both interpersonally and in our relationship with God, should not be rooted in “expectations”. Not only should we not conform to the expectations of others, but I believe this parsha warns us not to be bound by our own expectations. It is easy to be trapped by the technical fulfillment of requirements (both religious and otherwise), and it is tempting to be satisfied with meeting our self-expectations. But expectations and standards can be dangerous and limiting. The difference between offering water to the camels and offering water until they are satisfied is the difference between doing what is right based on expectations and doing what is right to the best of our ability. We should not be limited by what we perceive as “right”, what satisfies our conscience, or what satisfies our moral obligations. Rather we should strive to go beyond that call of duty.

Expectations are meant to give guidance, but not to build ceilings. Not to let us say “I’ve done enough” when there is more to be done. It is essential that we not be satisfied by “good enough” because, unbeknownst to us, and just like we see from Rivka, sometimes that step beyond expectations is what defines who we are meant to be.

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Parshas Chayei Sarah: Burial And Misdirection