Q: What Made Rebecca The Right Match For Isaac? A: More Than Just Kindness
Q: What Made Rebecca The Right Match For Isaac? A: More Than Just Kindness
You know how Abraham’s servant chose Rebecca as Isaac’s wife, right? He settled at the well and waited for a woman who would offer him and his camels water… and sure enough, Rebecca came along and did just that — plus she was from Abraham’s family! Perfect. But when we step back to look at the way that the Torah tells us the story of finding Isaac's wife, it’s actually pretty odd. We read about what Abraham’s servant did, how he found Rebecca, what he said to her… but then we read the story once again — practically word for word — when the servant recounts it to Rebecca’s family. Why are we told the story twice??
But the thing is… it’s not exactly word for word. There are some key differences, and if you pay close attention, you’ll find that those differences reveal a hidden story: a story about why Rebecca was chosen as Isaac’s wife, who she really was – and why she was fit to be the daughter-in-law of Abraham.
David: Welcome to Parshat Chayei Sarah. Let's be honest. Compared to some of the exciting stories in these last few weeks, the stories in this week's Parsha seem much less exciting. We don't have anything grand like creation or the flood or the Binding of Isaac.
Immanuel: Let's take a look at what actually happens in this week's Parsha; bring up the clock, 20 seconds. Let's go. Sarah dies and Abraham buys a burial plot. There's a long and detailed story about the journey of Abraham's servant to find a wife for Abraham's son, Isaac. He finds Rebecca who returns with him to Abraham and joins the family. Abraham marries Keturah and has a few more kids and then Abraham dies.
David: Now the bulk of the Parsha is really the story of Eliezer trying to find a wife for Isaac and at face value it's not the most gripping story. Here's what happens.
The Story of Finding a Wife for Isaac – Twice RetoldAbraham charges Eliezer to find a wife, but not from where they live, not from Canaan, but back from Abraham's homeland.
Instead of just hearing how Eliezer actually finds Rebecca, we hear all about his journey; what he took on his journey, his prayer to God along that journey, a sign that he asked God to make for him so that he knows exactly who the right girl is. Then when he actually meets Rebecca, we expect the story to be over but then we hear even more details. We hear about the conversation he has with Rebecca, and then about the conversation he has with Rebecca's family. In that conversation he retells the entire story, and we hear it again, for the second time.
Immanuel: So the question is, why do we need to know all of this? It's a nice matchmaking story but who cares about these small details? Not only do we hear all those small details but we hear them twice. Why do we hear it with full detail for a second time?
David: And it's really strange because we know that the Torah can be brief when it wants to be. Here's an example. When Rebecca retells the story to her mother it says, "Vatageid l'beit Ima" - she tells her mother's household – "ka'devarim ha'eileh" - these things. We don't hear all the details of her retelling of the story. It just says that she retold it. So it's obvious that the Torah is purposely retelling this story for us again. The Torah wants us to know something.
Immanuel: Right, if you look at Eliezer's retelling of the story you will realize that Eliezer's retelling of the story is not identical to the narrator's description of what happened. There are some really important differences. I think it's possible that the Torah is trying to actually make you bored so that you notice those differences, that you realize that there are these small discrepancies, because hidden in those discrepancies is the real story. And if we figure out what that is we won't just get a deeper understanding of this story, we might understand why the story is here in the first place.
David: Let's take a look at some of those discrepancies. Now, we won't be able to get through all of them right now. This is a pretty short video, but let's try to highlight some of the larger ones and see what we can make of them.
The Discrepancies in Isaac & Rebecca's Love StoryImmanuel: The first major discrepancy is in Abraham's instruction to Eliezer not to take a wife from among the Canaanites but instead to go to his homeland. However, in Eliezer's repetition he tells him again not to take a wife from the Canaanites, but he adds something curious. "Im loh el beis avi teilech v'el mishpachti" - take a wife from my father's house and from my family. Eliezer shifts the focus; Abraham sends him to his homeland but never specifies where he should go, but in Eliezer's retelling, he tells him specifically, go to my father's house, go to my family. That's the place where you're going to find a wife for my son. But that's not true. The Torah doesn't describe it that way the first time around.
David: Here's another difference between the two stories. On Eliezer's journey he prays to God. He wants some kind of guidance to help him find a wife for Isaac. "Hakreih nah lefanai hayom" - God, be with me today – "v'asei chesed im adoni Avraham" - and do chesed - do kindness, for my master Abraham. But when he retells this, his prayer is different. He turns to God and says, "Im yeshcha nah matzliach darki asher onochi holech aleha" - God, if you will, please make me successful on my journey today.
The first prayer was him asking God to do kindness for Abraham, and in this one he mentions nothing of kindness. It just says, "Make me successful." What are we to make of that?
Immanuel: So immediately after Eliezer makes his deal with God, he finds a girl who fulfills the conditions. What does he do next?
David: Well that depends on which account you're reading. It's almost like a choose-your-own-adventure book. We have two options. In the actual account, after Eliezer gets water for him and his camels, he gives jewelry to Rebecca, and then he asks who she is. But when he retells the story he flips the order. He first asks who she is and then he gives her jewelry. The obvious question is why in the world is Eliezer switching the order?
Immanuel: The next difference takes place when Eliezer thanks God for helping find the perfect girl for Isaac. In a prayer to God he says, "Baruch Hashem Elokei adoni Avraham" - blessed is God, L-rd of my master Abraham – "asher loh azav chasdo va'amito mei'im adoni" - who has not abandoned His kindness and truth that He grants to my master. But, when he retells the story to Rebecca's family, the prayer changes. "Va'avarech et Hashem Elokei adoni Avraham" - I blessed God, L-rd of my master; "asher hinchani ba'derech emet" - who has guided me in a path of truth. He leaves out an important word; the word is chesed - kindness. And, as we saw above, this is actually the second time he leaves out that word.
David: What's going on here? Eliezer doesn't just add a few things, or take out a few things. He actually changes things. Does he just have a bad memory?
We want to suggest that Eliezer saw something that made him want to change the story. He realized something about Rebecca's family and when we figure out what that thing is, we might find that there's a rhyme and reason to all of the differences.
Securing Isaac's Wife Through Family ValuesImmanuel: We think the thing that Eliezer saw happens in a pasuk that most people might not have even noticed. After Eliezer meets Rebecca and Rebecca runs home to tell her family, Lavan comes out to greet him and he invites him to their home. "Vayomer" - he says – "Boh baruch Hashem" - come, blessed one of God. "Lamah ta'amod ba'chutz" - Why are you standing outside? "V'onochi paniti habayit u'makom l'gemalim" - I made room for you in the house and even room for your camels. Now pay attention. "Vayavoh ha'ish habayta" - the man came to the house – "vayiftach ha'gemalim" - he unties the camels – "vayiten teven u'mispo la'gemalim" - and he gives the camels straw – "u'mayim lirchotz raglav" - and washes their feet – "v'raglei ha'anashim asher ito" - and the feet of the men who were with him.
David: The question is who did all these things? Who un-muzzled the camels? Who gave them food? Who gave them water to wash their feet? When you look at it quickly it seems that it's Lavan. He's the one who just invited Eliezer to come inside, so wouldn't it make sense that he's the one doing these things in order to be a good host?
Immanuel: But if you take a closer look, it's actually not Lavan. The 'ish' that untied the camels and washed the feet, that word ish is used to refer specifically to Eliezer throughout this story. For example, two verses before this, when Rebecca is telling Lavan what just happened to her, it says, "koh diber eilai ha'ish" - this is what the man, seemingly Eliezer, just told her. Then Lavan runs out to greet Eliezer, and the verse says, "Vayavoh el ha'ish v'hinei omed al ha'gemalim al ha'ayin - he approached 'the man' who was standing by the well. Lavan obviously didn't approach himself. Who was standing by the well? That's Eliezer.
Which leads to the very strange conclusion that Lavan put on a show for Eliezer. He told him we've got plenty of room in the house, but once Eliezer gets there, Eliezer has to do all the dirty work. He's the one who has to wash the feet of his own men and wash the feet of his camels. And that's what Eliezer saw. Lavan put on a show for him and pretended that he valued kindness, but the truth is he only cared about how things look on the outside. He doesn't truly value chesed - kindness, the way Eliezer does. And Eliezer realized that he quickly needs to change his story. He can't just extol the virtues of kindness and talk about what a great fit Rebecca is going to be in Abraham's value-centered family. He needs to speak in their language. He makes just a few differences in the story to make this marriage more appealing to them.
David: Exactly! So look at what he does. Let's go back to those discrepancies and see what they might mean.
The Meaning Behind Rebecca & Isaac's StoryWhen Eliezer tells Rebecca's family about the prayer he made to help him find Rebecca for Isaac, he doesn't say, "God please do chesed for me, please do kindness for Abraham." He says, "Please make me successful." He totally takes out the word chesed because that's not the language that they speak. That's not something they value.
And, when he tells them about how he thanked God, he does the same thing. He doesn't say that God didn't withhold "chasdo va'amit"o - kindness and truth, like he did in the original version. He just says that God did emet for him - God did truth. He totally omits the words chesed - kindness. And instead of kindness Eliezer seems to focus on two things, family and wealth, much more so than the original story did, because that seems to be the currency that they really value.
Now take a look before the story begins, before Abraham commands Eliezer, the pasuk says, "V'Hashem beirach et Avraham ba'kol" - God blessed Abraham with everything. But that's all we hear about. When Eliezer retells the story he adds rich detail. He doesn't just say that God blessed Abraham with everything. He explains what "everything" means. He tells them that God gave Abraham sheep and cattle and silver and gold and servants and maids and camels and donkeys. And it's kind of strange. Why is Eliezer telling them all this? Then he continues and says that when Sarah eventually had a child, Isaac, who Rebecca is about to marry, Abraham gave all of his wealth to Isaac.
That's what Rebecca's family values. Eliezer realizes that they don't care about kindness. They care that their daughter is marrying someone who is really wealthy.
And it's the same thing in terms of family. In the first story, Eliezer gives her jewelry as soon as he sees the act of kindness. That's all he needs to see. And then he asks who she is. But in his retelling of the story, he first asks who she is, and then once he realizes that she is family, that's what compells him to give her all the jewelry. He makes it as clear as possible in his retelling that what he values in Rebecca has nothing to do with chesed - with kindness. It has to do with family. It has to do with wealth.
What Made Rebecca the Ideal Wife for Isaac?Immanuel: Before we read about these discrepancies, you read about Rebecca and you think she does kindness. That's a wonderful trait in a wife. But after you read the discrepancies, you realize something a lot deeper about Rebecca; she does kindness in a place where everyone around her does the opposite. She does kindness in a place of anti-kindness. Rebecca cares deeply even about Eliezer's camels, whereas Lavan, he couldn't care less. Now who does that remind you of? Someone who is able to do kindness when everyone around them values the opposite? Isn't that Abraham?
These past couple of weeks we spoke about how Abraham is the Plan C. He's the one who is going to create the model nation, a nation built on kindness, an example to the rest of the world. But now, as Abraham's story draws to an end and Abraham is about to die, his legacy, God's legacy, needs to continue in the next generation. Rebecca is the perfect woman to carry the torch of Abraham's legacy. She has the internal strength to model kindness in a place where there is none. She, like Abraham, comes from this land and is able to journey to a place she does not know in order to build kindness, even if the people around her don't share her values.
And this story becomes the perfect blueprint for the nation of Israel, who are meant to value kindness and to model kindness, and together with Isaac, they'll spread kindness to others and continue Abraham's legacy and God's legacy, and bring blessing to the rest of the world.
David: Join us next time on The Parsha Experiment.