By Rabbi Daniel Levitt
Parshat Chayei Sarah
Picture this: You work for an incredibly influential, powerful and famous family. Your boss has met with world leaders, defied emperors and defeated military superpowers. All of this is nothing compared to what he is most famous for.
The world knows him as a man with a vision that is changing the world and will continue to change the world long after he is gone. The vision he is working toward is of a unified moral world. He has a son who will continue his work after him, and he sends you on a mission to find a woman who will help his son do this.
This is the situation that Abraham’s servant finds himself in, in this week’s Torah portion. After burying his wife, the Torah says, “Abraham was old, advanced in years, and God blessed him in everything.” This is an image of man who, after the loss of his beloved wife Sarah, reflects on his life.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that when the verse says, “God blessed him in everything,” it means that God has blessed him in everything he was meant to do, and now he looks toward the future. For his son, Isaac, to continue the work he has begun, Isaac will need a wife who will help him raise a family that will continue to spread Abraham’s vision.
He was looking for nothing less than a person who would lead the second generation of Jews. Without specific instructions from Abraham of what to look for in this woman, his choice in a wife for Isaac will teach us an important lesson about being a Jew.
As the main disciple of Abraham and Sarah, and their most trusted servant, he observed them day in and day out. Through this, he developed his understanding of what it means to be a Jew from Abraham and Sarah themselves. He would draw from this experience to set the standards of what he needed to look for, and we can view these standards for ourselves as a concise model of what it means to be a Jew.
Abraham was not the first person to recognize that there was one God, before him was Adam, Noah and the lesser-known figure of Malkizedek. What made Abraham great was that his recognition of a one God translated into a way of life that he taught to others.
We see this in last week’s Torah portion, chapter 18 verse 19. God says, “I know that Abraham will command his children and his household after him to guard the path of the Lord, to do tzedakah u’mishpat, charity and justice.” In God’s own words Abraham’s greatness was not only that he recognized the path of the Lord, but that he and Sarah were raising a family to follow this path of the Lord and they taught their children to teach it to their children, and so on, even until today.
What is this path of the Lord? It is to do tzedakah and mishpat, literally translated as charity and justice. We can understand this to mean a life dedicated to doing right to your fellow man, looking out for others, helping those in need, treating all people kindly, and with respect.
The mission to find a woman who already embodied these values is hinted at in the text as Abraham’s servant departed on his journey. The Torah says that he took 10 camels, went on his way, “and all the goodness of his master was with him.” Meaning, his entire journey was framed by the fact that he was looking for someone of the same moral stock, and good nature as his master. A woman who would be an equal partner in continuing to spread the message of Abraham and Sarah.
And this is highlighted even more clearly in his prayer to God where he asks for assistance in finding the right woman. In his prayer he asks God for a sign that he would know he found the right woman when he saw her. She would offer to give him a drink, and then give water to his camels as well.
The sign he needed was for a woman who had a caring and compassionate nature, so caring and compassionate that it extended to all living things including his camels. Immediately, upon finishing his prayer, Rebecca arrives at the well and does exactly what he prayed for. This was his sign from God.
The Torah tells us that after meeting Rebecca, Isaac brings her into his mother’s tent, and only after bringing her into his mother’s tent is he consoled for the loss of his mother. Why does that have anything to do with Isaac being consoled for the loss of his mother?
It’s because he knew he needed a woman who could fill the role for him as his mother Sarah did for Abraham. Their servant’s description of the miraculous circumstances surrounding his meeting of Rebecca was not enough for Isaac. He needed to see for himself if she would be able to fill Sarah’s shoes. Only then would he be consoled for the loss of his mother.
This story of why Rebecca was a worthy choice to be one of the Jewish matriarchs emphasizes to us what being a Jew is about. Rebecca exemplified the character of Jews as first modeled by Abraham. She was kind, caring and generous, just as Abraham and Sarah were.
The lesson for us to learn from this is that we Jews, as children of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, must be people whose very essence is that of the kindness and commitment to justice that they embodied. We must do acts of lovingkindness, we must be people who treat others fairly, and give generously.
When we can accomplish this in our personal lives as a mission in life, we are fulfilling our birthright as Jews.
Rabbi Daniel Levitt is the executive director of Temple University Hillel: The Rosen Center. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.