A d’var torah for Shabbat Chayyei Sarah…
Even if all the dates were removed from this week’s handout, an astute observer might well be able to guess the season. With so many opportunities to give of one’s time, talent, and resources – mitzvah day, prepping a communal meal, supporting the Kelly Memorial Food Pantry, supporting our own youth through a Sisterhood fundraiser — it’s pretty plainly that time of the year when generosity and altruism come to the fore.
And as if on cue, Torah provides us with a striking example of generosity, altruism, and kindness, in one of the most touching stories in the book of Genesis: Rebekah’s introduction to the family of Abraham.
Let’s review: Abraham is aging, and knows he won’t live forever. His son Isaac, through whom the promise is to be fulfilled, is unmarried. Abraham wants to change that, and sends his servant Eliezer on a mission: to bring a bride for Isaac, someone from the Old Country, across a sea of sand. Heavy-laden with gifts and provisions for the journey, Eliezer sets out with his caravan, ten camels strong. After many days, we must presume, he arrives in Nahor, hundreds of miles from his starting point. He brings the camels to their knees in a resting position, and watching the young women drawing water, he devises a test: The woman of whom he asks, “Please, lower your jar that I may drink,” and who responds, “Drink, and I will also water your camels” — she’ll be “The One.”
Imagine his delight as the test works out so perfectly. No sooner had he finished expressing it than it came true. A beautiful woman, single and from a good family, immediately responds to his request for a sip of water, allowing him to drink his fill. He quenched his thirst in silence, and then, the magic words: “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.” She sets about doing just that. Ten camels who’ve traveled many days would drink something on the order of two hundred fifty gallons of water. It’s a Herculean task, and Eliezer can only watch in amazement as she completes it. In short order, he’s met the family, secured their and her willingness to make the match, and returned to the Land of Israel with a bride for Isaac, someone to comfort him after his mother’s death.
In this story, everything hinges on the camels. Camels make such a journey more bearable, and the camels’ prodigious thirst makes the beautiful Rebekah that much more impressive. The story is so reliant on the camels…which is interesting in light of our knowledge that camels weren’t domesticated until several centuries after the age of the Patriarchs! In telling the story of how Isaac and Rebekah came together, the biblical author has given us the equivalent of a tale set in Colonial times that turns on the bride-to-be’s ability to rebuild the servant’s engine and transmission while he waits. And, as biblical scholar Robert Alter points out, the anachronism is uncharacteristic of Genesis, which in nearly all other respects aims for a very accurate portrait of life in the age of the Patriarchs.
What’s going on here? Here’s my answer, which (not surprisingly, if you know me) hinges on a word-play. The Hebrew word for that newly-domesticated animal that was making the world a smaller place in the days when this story was first told around our ancestor’s fires is gamal. And no Hebrew-speaker can hear the word gamal without hearing an echo of the verb gomel chesed, which we usually translate as “perform acts of lovingkindness.” Rebekah, in watering those g’malim, becomes the very picture of g’milut chasadim. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, and teaches us a powerful message about what to look for in friends and teachers, to say nothing of the partners with whom we choose to share our very lives. Rebekah’s giving spirit, her energy for the task at hand, her willingness to go the extra mile…all these made her a fitting partner for Isaac, which is to say, a fitting Matriarch for us. No wonder the Torah tells us, a little further on, that Isaac loved her, and that she brought him comfort in the wake of Sara’s death.
Not totally convinced yet? I’ve got more. Remember how Eliezer made the camels kneel when they arrived at the well? In Hebrew, as in English, “kneel” is derive from “knee.” The Hebrew for that place where the femur and the tibia meet is berech, another word rich with spiritual meaning. B’rachah, blessing, shares those letters. Vayavrech hag’malim, “he caused the camels to kneel,” may just as well be vayavrech hag’malim, “a blessing to those who act out of lovingkindness.”
Our ancient forebears told stories about their ancient forebears, and they did it with purpose. From Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, they learned how to act (and sometimes, how not to act). Rebekah is the picture of decisive action, grounded in compassion and connection. She sees in Eliezer a fellow human in need. She sees in his ten thirsty camels fellow beings, worthy of her concern. Is the story deficient because it includes a historical impossibility, domesticated camels in the seventeenth century before the common era? On the contrary, it’s the anachronism that makes it charming, and carries the point. Baruch sheg’malanu kol tov. Blessed be the One who has lovingly taught us these stories, so filled with goodness!
“Eilu d’varim, these are things without measure, which cost us nothing and reward us without end… acts of lovingkindness, g’milut chasadim.” Like Rebekah, may we find our energy boundless when it comes to demonstrating our compassion and concern for the other. Your handout is your guide. Find a way to give, to bless, to generate kindness and compassion in this world. Not only in this season of giving, but every day of our lives, may we be mashkim hag’malim, the camel-waterers, the ones who give the parched places in our world their due…and more.