Thursday, October 28, 2010

Chayei Sarah

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, opens with Sarah’s death and the subsequent purchase of a burial cave in Hebron, a place that remains holy to this day, yet is still wrapped in controversy.  The portion concludes a few chapters later with the death of Abraham.   In between is the detailed account of the finding of a wife for their son, Isaac.  Here is that story.

Abraham tasks his most trusted servant, Eliezer, with the duty.  Abraham commands him: “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord…that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.” (Genesis 24)

In ancient times an agreement was solidified between men by placing the hand on the upper thigh.  I won’t of course discuss this at services but it is interesting to note that this practice and in particular the proximity of the hand to the testes provides the origins of the word testify.  I am sure all will agree that a handshake is preferred!  (By the way the origins of a handshake are found in demonstrating to another that you are unarmed.)

Back to the story!  Eliezer sets out to the land of Abraham’s birth.  He goes to the town’s well and waits there to find a suitable wife for Isaac.  In ancient times the well was the equivalent of a modern singles bar.  If you want to meet a young woman go to the well because their job was to go fetch water for their families and flocks.  Eliezer devises a test and prays in his heart.  The woman who offers him a drink and water as well for his camels will become Isaac’s wife.

Almost immediately Rebekah appears and says to him, “Drink, and I will also water your camels.”  Eliezer asks her about her family and asks to meet them.  He does so and showers them with many gifts.  (Abraham was apparently a very wealthy man.)  Eliezer then asks for permission to allow Rebekah to return with him to the land of Canaan in order to marry Isaac. 

Soon Isaac and Rebekah meet for the first time.  It is the Bible’s version of love at first sight.  From a distance Rebekah sees Isaac working in the field.  “Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac.  She fell off the camel (most translators incorrectly render this as alighted) and said to the servant, ‘Who is that man walking in the field toward us?’  And the servant said, “That is my master.”  So she took her veil and covered herself….   Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife.  Isaac loved her…”

Many times the Torah does not provide us with such inordinate detail. In this instance, however, it provides us with many details.  We will explore this story and even more of its details at Shabbat services tomorrow evening at 6:30 pm.  In particular we will examine the servant Eliezer’s test.

He quickly outlines for us a measure of a person.  A good person is he or she who offers others simple acts of kindness.  Eliezer does not highlight Rebekah's looks or her clothes.  He measures her instead by the act of providing water for his camels. 

In this Torah portion that tells the story of the deaths of our greatest patriarch and matriarch the real hero is instead their servant, Eliezer.  It is he who reminds us that the measure of a person is not their stature, wealth or good looks but instead their compassion.  Do you agree with Eliezer’s estimation of a good person?  How do you measure up a person in an instant?

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