Not So Random Acts of Kindness

By Rabbi Thomas A. Louchheim

4th Torah Portion for the Shabbat on October 26, 2013

Chaye Sarah, Genesis 23:1-25:18 (105 verses)

This analysis is based on a teaching by Barbara Binder Kadden

 Synopsis:

 Sarah dies at the age of 127. Abraham purchases the cave at Machpelah in order to bury her. Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac. Rebecca shows her kindness (and her fitness as a wife) by providing water for Eleazar and for his camels as well. Abraham takes another wife, Keturah. He dies at the age of 175. Isaac and Ishmael bury him in the cave of Machpelah (present day Hebron).

The Text:

“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.” (Genesis 24:14)

Commentary

This verse, with slight variations, is found four times in this parasha. The first time is when the servant, sent by Abraham to find a wife for his son Isaac, says these words in a private prayer to God. The second appearance is when Rebecca comes to the well and carries out the exact actions that the servant has prayed to witness. The third time we read the verse is when the servant recounts his private prayer to Rebecca’s family. The final repetition occurs as the servant describes Rebecca’s actions at the well to her family.

Eliezer’s prayer and the repetition of the events is to indicate to the reader something constant in Rebecca’s character. The midrash helps us understand the character that was revealed to Abraham’s servant:

As Eliezer waited by the well he saw a beautiful maiden approaching with a jug on her shoulder. She stopped next to a crying child, whose foot had been cut on a sharp stone. She washed the cut and bandaged it with her own veil. She comforted the child by saying the cut would soon heal. Then a woman who was nearly blind came to the well to draw water. Rebecca helped her carry the full pitcher home. When Rebecca returned, Eliezer asked her if she would give him a little water. She assented and then drew water for his camels. The other girls mocked her because she had served a stranger, but she ignored their taunts. Eliezer felt that she would make a suitable wife for Isaac because she was kind as well as beautiful.

Malbim, a 19th century Russian rabbi, taught that Eliezer was using a character test to determine the appropriate bride for Isaac. Once Eliezer chose the most beautiful maiden he wanted to find out more about her inner qualities. He did this by the “Drink and I shall water your camels too” formula. By fulfilling the tasks that Eliezer prayed to witness, he would know that she was hospitable and considerate. Malbim gave four examples of how Eliezer would know she possessed these qualities:

1. When Eliezer asked for some water, the typical reaction would have been, “You are standing by the well, help yourself to water!” Rebecca did not give this answer. 2. Several girls came at the same time to draw water. Rebecca could have said to Eliezer: “Why pick on me; I have already placed my jar on my shoulder ask someone who still has her jar in her hand.” She did not say this. 3. Asking Rebecca to tilt the jar herself to let Eliezer drink would require special effort on her part. She would be justified in being annoyed and saying to Eliezer: “Tilt the jar yourself from my shoulder and drink but don’t bother me to do it myself.” But she did not do this. 4. Her offer to water Eliezer’s camels would show her thoughtfulness and understanding; she would probably have thought to herself that this man must be impaired in some way, since he cannot even get water for himself, how could he possibly water his camels. By watering the camels, she also showed her kindness to animals. (Studies in Genesis, Nehama Leibowitz)

I see bumper stickers that entice us to perform “random acts of kindness.” Judaism seeks for us to be more purposeful. Allow us to reveal the Rebecca character within us to perform gemilut Hasidim when the situations arise and to arise each day with the intention of performing these acts.

Questions:

1. In Pirke Avot we learn, “Do not look at a flask but at what it contains.” How does this saying apply to Eliezer’s character test to determine if Rebecca was a suitable wife for Isaac?

2. What criteria do you use to determine someone’s character?

3. Have you ever met someone and made a judgment about him or her – based on first appearance – only to find out later that you were wrong? What influenced your first impression? What transpired that changed your mind?

4. Why do you think Eliezer would want someone who was kind and considerate for Isaac’s wife? What role would Rebecca be taking on when she married Isaac? In what ways would these qualities of kindness and hospitality influence the beliefs of Abraham’s descendants? Who and what influences your own values and beliefs?

5. Imagine you were Rebecca, how would you have responded to Eliezer’s request for a drink of water? Try the “Malbim” test: How would you respond to the four situations that Malbim described?

a. Being asked to do a favor for a stranger

b. Being singled out from a crowd by a stranger to do a favor

c. Making an extra effort for a stranger

d. Going beyond the bounds of the favor requested by a stranger

It might be easier to think of this “test” in the context of a situation that may have actually happened to you, such as being approached by a panhandler. What was requested? How did the request make you feel? How did you respond to the request? If you could replay the situation would you react differently? Why or why not?

6. How did your parents meet? Investigate your family history to find out how the couples in your family met. Ask these couples what qualities attracted them to each other and what their parents thought of the match. In some cultures arranged marriages are still the norm. What is your reaction to this institution? What are the differences between arranged and non-arranged matches? What qualities would you find attractive and what qualities do you think your parents would believe are important in a significant friend or future spouse?

WHY NOT TRY…an act of “gemilut hasidim” From Pirke Avot we learn that the world stands on three pillars: on Torah, on worship (“avodah”) and on deeds of lovingkindness (“gemilut hasidim”). Rebecca practiced gemilut hasidim when she reached out to help Eliezer. What act of gemilut hasidim can you do?