Regretting a Good Deed

November 13, 2011

6 min read


Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )

Regretting a Good Deed

Rashi writes (23:2) that the death of Sarah is juxtaposed to the binding of Yitzhak in order to teach that the shock and fear from hearing that her son was almost slaughtered was the cause of her death. The Targum Yonason ben Uziel (22:20) adds that she heard this information from the Satan, God’s messenger who is sent to challenge us spiritually. How was the Satan able to kill Sarah when his job is to entice people to sin, but not to kill them?

The Kehillas Yitzhak answers that the goal of the Satan is to tempt us to sin and create obstacles to prevent us from doing mitzvot. However, once a person has successfully performed a mitzvah, the Satan changes its tack. Just as a sin can be uprooted through proper repentance and regret, so too the Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) teaches that regretting a mitzvah which has already been performed costs a person the reward for the mitzvah. Some suggest that this is the intent of the request that we make during the evening prayers והסר שטן מלפנינו ומאחרינו – remove the Satan from before us and from in after us. The Satan who is before us refers to his attempts to prevent us from doing mitzvos, while the Satan who is after us refers to his efforts to convince us to regret the mitzvos that we have already done.

In this case, even after Avraham overcame the trial of the Akeidah, the Satan attempted to cause him to regret it and thereby lose his reward by showing him that the Akeidah indirectly caused the death of his beloved wife Sarah. He notes that the Baal HaTurim writes (23:2) that the letter kaf in the word ולבכותה (and Avraham cried over Sarah’s death) is written smaller than the other letters in order to teach that he only cried over her a small amount. He explains that although Avraham delivered a full eulogy of Sarah’s greatness, he didn’t permit himself to cry to the full extent of his pain so that people shouldn’t perceive his tears as regret over the Akeidah and its consequences.

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Choosing a Spouse

Rashi writes (24:17) that Eliezer saw that the water in the well miraculously rose to greet Rivka as she approached. Why did he proceed with his original plan to test her willingness to offer him and his camels water to drink after he already recognized her tremendous piety as demonstrated by her ability to perform miracles?

The Brisker Rav (Nesivos Rabboseinu 24:66) and Rabbi Shloma Margolis (Darkei HaShleimus) answer that the performance of miracles does not necessarily demonstrate a person’s piety. Even though the water miraculously rose to greet Rivka, Eliezer was solely interested in her conduct and actions, as this is the sole determinant of a person’s spiritual level and was the test by which Eliezer evaluated her fitness to marry Yitzhak.

Similarly, the Torah records (24:66) that when Eliezer returned with Rivka, he related to Yitzhak all of the miracles that he witnessed and experienced, yet the Targum writes that this didn’t impress Yitzhak. Only after Yitzhak saw that her actions were similar to those of his mother Sarah did he marry her.

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No Canaanite Wife!

When Avraham instructed his trusted servant Eliezer regarding the selection of a wife for his son Yitzhak, he was very insistent that Eliezer not choose a wife from their Canaanite neighbors, but rather from Avraham’s original homeland and family in Charan. Avraham lived amongst the Canaanites and rejected the possibility of allowing Isaac to marry one of them due to their idolatrous ways. However, in light of the fact that the women in Charan worshipped idolatry just as did the Canaanites, what was the benefit of sending Eliezer to seek a wife from his homeland?

The Derashos HaRan (Derush 5) explains that Avraham’s objection to a Canaanite daughter-in-law wasn’t based on their idolatrous practices, but rather on the immorality and lack of proper character traits they exhibited in their behavior. Although Avraham’s relatives in Charan also worshipped idols, he knew that at the core their values and ethics were wholesome and intact.

As immodest and unethical behavior originates in one’s very essence and can be passed on to one’s children, the Canaanites were thereby disqualified from marrying into Avraham’s family. On the other hand, matters of philosophical belief are taught, not inherited. The idolatry of Avraham’s relatives could therefore be remedied much easier by simply educating and exposing them to belief in God.

The Ran’s point – that intellectual knowledge and pursuits aren’t passed through the generations – is illustrated by the following amusing story. One of my rabbis spent several years living in Jerusalem. As he was interested in the practical aspects of applying the knowledge he had spent many years acquiring, he obtained permission to sit in the central Rabbinical Beis Din and observe the various happenings.

One day a woman came before the Beis Din for a proceeding. When asked for her last name, she replied, “Einstein.” Curious, my rabbi respectfully waited until the end of the session and then approached the woman to inquire about her identity. Sure enough, she explained, she was none other than the great-granddaughter of the illustrious Albert Einstein.

At this point, with her ancestry clarified, my rabbi couldn’t help but ask if she followed in the path of her famous great-grandfather and spent her time studying advanced physics and the theory of relativity. Albert Einstein’s great-granddaughter replied that she never understood the subject and found Albert’s work totally uninteresting and incomprehensible.

The path that our children will take and the families they will raise are beyond our control. Although we will try our utmost to shape their goal and priorities in life, they will ultimately be influenced and determined by factors beyond our control. What is in our power, however, is to work on our own character traits and to encourage our children to marry those with similar giving dispositions, which will become a permanent part of our spiritual legacy, passed down from generation to generation – just as we learn from Einstein’s theory of “relative”-ity.

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