A Match for Yitzchak
Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )
Many years earlier, God had told Avraham that his descendants would be strangers in a land not their own.1 While this exile would unfold years later in the Land of Egypt, the description is just as apt for an earlier time as well: The Land of Canaan, the land that God promised would be inherited by his descendants, was a land where Avraham himself was a stranger.2
Perhaps Avraham had never felt these words as acutely as he did now. His wife had died, and as an immigrant he not only had no ancestral burial ground, he owned no suitable plot of land. He had no place to bury Sarah. Only as a result of a great deal of negotiation and large sums of money changing hands was Avraham able to acquire a suitable piece of property and give his wife a proper burial. Avraham was forced to overpay in order to acquire a parcel of land that had been promised to him by God.
His “strangeness” in this land is further highlighted by the lack of an appropriate match for his son. Rather than looking for a local girl, he sends his servant to a far-away destination to find an appropriate spouse for Yitzchak.
Tradition tells us that the name of Avraham’s servant was Eliezer, based on what we might describe as a “theory of preservation of characters.” Earlier in his life, Avraham lamented the fact that he and Sarah were childless and gave voice to his distress over the prospect that the only one who would inherit his legacy would be his majordomo, the head of his household staff – a man named Eliezer.3
Since that point, Avraham had produced two sons: Yishmael, who had been ousted, and Yitzchak, his true heir. Now, the erstwhile potential heir, Eliezer, has been returned to his natural status, and is once again merely household help. Avraham sends him on a critical mission – to find a suitable match for Yitzchak.
Various midrashic passages provide more background information about Eliezer, identifying him as being related in one way or another to Avraham’s arch-nemesis, Nimrod – either as a former servant of Nimrod4, or as Nimrod’s son or grandson.5
When the time comes to find a wife for Yitzchak, this person – whoever he is, whoever he once was – is entrusted with the mission of securing Avraham’s legacy, and according to the midrashic account, he suggests his own daughter for his master’s son. When his proposal is rebuffed, he sets out on his mission6 – and we might wonder whether his efforts were wholehearted: Would he, as a faithful servant, make his best effort to find a wife for Yitzchak from far afield, or would he prefer to fail, forcing Avraham to resort to his earlier suggestion and “settle” for Eliezer’s daughter by default?
These two possibilities color our reading of what transpires when the servant arrives at his destination:
(12) He said, “Eternal God, the God of my master Avraham, please give me success this day, and show kindness to my master Avraham. (13) Behold, I am standing by the spring of water. The daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. (14) Let it happen, that the young lady to whom I will say, ‘Please let down your pitcher, that I may drink,’ and she will say, ‘Drink, and I will also give your camels a drink,’ let her be the one you have appointed for your servant Yitzchak. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.” (Bereishit 24:12-14)
This is a prayer – and it may be read either as tainted by tremendous cynicism or as a testimony of his great faith: Not only does he “challenge” God and create a very specific test for a potential bride, he stipulates an almost impossible timeline:
(11) He made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water at the time of evening, the time that women go out to draw water. (Bereishit 24:11)
He arrives in the evening and prays that God should show compassion for Avraham “today.” With the sun about to set, we wonder how this request can possibly be fulfilled. To compound matters, the cantillation symbol (the traditional “trup” or ta’amei haMikra indicating the parsing and reading instructions for the Torah text) on the word vayomar (“he said”), with which this prayer is introduced, has a shalshelet ( ) indicating that this word is read in the most deliberate, most drawn-out manner of all, understood by many commentaries as an indication of hesitation or internal conflict. Our quandary remains: Does the servant hope to fail, and therefore provides only the smallest possible window for success, or is he so certain that God can and will do miraculous things for Avraham that the time constraints and probabilities are of no concern?
Either way, we should have no doubt why the sages identified the servant with Eliezer: This man truly lives up to the name which translates, quite literally, as “my God helps;” through him, God expresses His love for Avraham by immediately providing a wife for Yitzchak. By helping the servant, God helps the master7 – which is precisely the content of the servant’s prayer.
Rabbinic tradition suggests that this is a remarkable insight into life in the tent of Avraham, a snapshot of the household.8 The servant – Eliezer – has repeatedly seen miraculous things; in the life of Avraham, the impossible is not only possible, it is quite probable. Eliezer has seen Avraham walk out of the furnace; he has seen Avraham emerge victorious from the war of the kings. From his vantage point as an observer of Avraham’s life, the task with which he himself has been entrusted is, in a sense, an easy task. Eliezer had every expectation that God would help him to help Avraham, and enable him to fulfill his mission immediately so that he could return to Avraham with an appropriate bride to carry Avraham’s legacy forward.
The specifics of the test or task he sets up are no less instructive: He asks for God’s assistance in finding a young woman who will perform an act of unusual kindness, because only a person with an affinity for hesed9 could possibly join Avraham’s family, in which hesed is such an integral component.10
You have proven that it is she – She is fit for him since she will perform acts of kindness and will therefore be worthy of admission into the house of Avraham. (Rashi, Bereishit 24:12)
In a certain sense, the fact that Avraham sent his servant back to his hometown11 indicated that the successful candidate should be very “Avraham-like.”12 It should therefore come as no surprise when Rivka chooses to accompany the man back to Canaan; it is clear to all concerned that God had chosen her,13 and she is willing to leave her land, her family and her birthplace with “Avraham-like” resolve. Aside from the family connection, her behavior, her outlook, her essence, were “Avrahamic.”14
Avraham had made it very clear that he would not consider a Canaanite woman for his son; he had commanded the servant to find someone from Avraham’s extended family.15 What, we might ask, would have happened had Rivka declined? Were there other potential candidates who could have met the “job description?” The servant raises this issue in his discussion with Rivka’s family:
And now, if you mean to treat my master with kindness and truth – tell me; and if not, tell me, that I may turn to the right or to the left.” (Bereishit 24:49)
TO THE RIGHT – to take a wife from the daughters of Yishmael. TO THE LEFT – to take a wife from the daughters of Lot who dwelt to the left of Avraham. (Rashi, Bereishit 24: 49)
Rashi, based on the Midrash,16 understood that the servant was referring to other potential matches who met some, if not all, of the criteria: the daughters of Lot and Yishmael.
Interestingly, in an earlier comment, Rashi refers to a completely different set of alternative candidates – the daughters of Avraham’s comrades Aner, Eshkol and Mamre who were not from Avraham’s extended family – and does not consider the daughters of Lot or Yishmael.
THEN YOU WILL BE ABSOLVED OF THIS OATH YOU HAVE MADE TO ME – and take a wife for him from the daughters of Aner or Eshkol or Mamre. 17 (Rashi, Bereishit 24:8)
Despite the apparent suitability of members of the extended family, who ostensibly fit some of the criteria, in reality these candidates fall short of the mark. Apparently, to be truly suitable, the quality of hesed was not the sole criterion. To be a suitable wife for Yitzchak, the young woman would also need proper appreciation of Avraham and Sarah.
Yishmael did not value Sarah; this lack of regard began with his mother, from the moment Yishmael was conceived:
He went in to Hagar, and she conceived. When she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was diminished in her eyes. (Bereishit 16:4)
HER MISTRESS WAS DIMINISHED IN HER EYES – She said, "As regards this woman Sarai, her conduct in private certainly can not be what it appears to be in public: she pretends to be a righteous woman, but she cannot really be righteous since all these years she has not been privileged to have children, whilst I have had that blessing from the first union" (Bereishit Rabbah 45:4).
Hagar claimed that Sarah was an imposter, that she feigned righteousness but was in fact devoid of holiness. Hagar’s proof was her own fertility – one night with Avraham and she produced an heir for Avraham, which Sarah was unable to do for so many years. Hagar created an unfounded correlation between fertility and righteousness, claiming that the real Sarah – the person below the veneer of piety – was empty, corrupt, unworthy.
The Kabbalistic description of this phenomenon is called a klipah (literally, a shell or husk), a pretender, a profane shadow or echo of holiness, a cheap imitation of the real thing.
Hagar’s son Yishmael is cut from the same cloth as his mother; both display this klipah of hesed:
Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Avraham, mocking. (Bereishit 21:9)
…Another explanation is that it refers to immoral sexual conduct, just as it says (in reference to Potiphar's wife), "To mock at me." (Bereishit 39:17) …(Rashi Bereishit 21:9)
Yishamel’s mocking or laughter of is related to immoral sexual practices, as is evidenced by other uses of this word.18 But what exactly was Yishmael guilty of in this instance? Some commentaries accuse him of exploiting his father’s elevated philosophy of love and caring, turning it into a cheap “pickup line” to snare unsuspecting women among Avraham’s students who wished to practice hesed. Yishmael was the klipa of hesed; – rather than practicing loving-kindness, he espoused “free love.”19
Rabbi Akiva taught: AND SARAH SAW [THE SON OF HAGAR THE EGYPTIAN, WHOM SHE HAD BORNE TO AVRAHAM, MAKING SPORT.] Now 'making sport' refers to nothing else but sexual immorality, as in the verse, "The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought to us, came in to make sport of me.’ (Bereishit 39:17) This teaches that Sarah saw Yishmael ravish maidens, seduce married women and dishonor them. (Bereishit Rabbah 53:11)
Elsewhere, Rashi notes the midrashic account of the mean-spirited laughter and insinuations after the birth of Yitzchak, as ‘jokesters’ questioned Avraham’s paternity.
AVRAHAM BEGAT YITZCHAK – Just as Scripture wrote, "Yitzchak, son of Avraham" it felt compelled to say "Avraham begat Yitzchak", because the cynics of that time said, "Sarah became pregnant by Avimelech. See how many years she lived with Avraham without becoming pregnant from him." What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He formed Yitzchak’s facial features exactly like Avraham's, so that everyone had to admit that Avraham fathered Yitzchak. This is what is stated here: Yitzchak was the son of Avraham, for there is evidence that Avraham fathered Yitzchak (Midrash Tanchuma, Toldot 1). (Rashi, Bereishit 25:19)
Apparently Yishmael found this idle gossip amusing (or self-serving), and repeated it:
She assumed that the reason Yishmael made these disparaging remarks [about Yitzchak] was because he heard them from his mother. Our sages have a saying (Sukkah 56) that the prattle of children in public reflects either what they picked up from their father or what they picked up from their mother.
[Sarah heard Yishmael mocking]: Making fun of the feast in Avraham’s home, Yishmael claimed that surely Sarah must have become pregnant from Avimelech. The reason he had not made such remarks already at the time Yitzchok was born, was because he had only overheard wicked gossip about this at a later stage, and now he repeated what he had heard; if he had said these things at the time of Yitzchak’s birth, Sarah was unaware of it, as she was preoccupied with the birth. (Seforno 21:90) 20
There are two sides of the coin of holiness; both involve giving to others, both are called hesed, but one is real while the other is counterfeit:
(17) “‘If a man takes his sister, his father’s daughter, or his mother’s daughter, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness; it is hesed; and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people: he has uncovered his sister’s nakedness; he shall bear his iniquity. (Vayikra 20:17)
Illicit, incestual relationships are also labeled by the Torah as a type of hesed – albeit the artificial, unholy kind.21
This will help explain why another possible source for a mate was rejected. The daughters of Lot are also members of Avraham’s extended family. According to tradition, not only is Lot Avraham’s nephew, he is also Sarah’s brother, making him Avraham’s brother-in-law; this dual relationship should make Lot and his family the perfect place to search for a bride for Yitzchak.
One wonders if Rivka’s brother Lavan, who somehow insinuates himself into the middle of things, is worried that the unexpected visit by a representative of a long-lost family member was nothing more than a ruse, disguised as a marriage proposal, to lay claim to the family inheritance. Ironically, in the next generation, the son of Rivka and Yitzchak returns and does precisely that: Yaakov eventually walks off with all of Lavan’s wealth.
It is worth noting that Rivkah’s father Betuel was the son of Milkah and Nahor.22 Nahor was Avraham’s brother, while Milkah was Lot’s sister, Avraham’s niece (and, according to tradition, Milkah and Lot had a third sibling – Sarah).23 Rivka was related to both Avraham and Sarah, which would make her a perfect candidate.
Lot, like Rivka and Avraham, also practices hesed, but his hesed is tainted. When the marauding mob of Sodomites besieges his home demanding that he surrender his guests, Lot offers up his daughters to placate the crowd, confusing true hesed with warped sexuality.
After Sodom is laid to waste, Lot’s daughters follow in the father’s footsteps, practicing a confused form of hesed by committing incest with their father. Their behavior – but even more so the warped philosophy that motivates and animates them, will ultimately place them beyond the pale; they and their descendants will not re-join the family of Avraham. They believe that the destruction from which they were saved was total and complete; to their minds, only they and their father survive, and the only way to reproduce and save humanity is through their father. However, this world view is based on a fatal error: How could they have imagined that Avraham, their righteous uncle who had removed himself from the influence of Sodom, was also wiped out along with their wicked neighbors? This is the precise inverse of Avraham’s outlook: When told of the impending destruction, Avraham pleads with God, assuming that there most be more righteous people in the world, and at least a handful of people worth saving in Sodom – but when Sodom is destroyed, it never occurs to the daughters of Lot that there are any righteous people who were spared. They never considered that Avraham had survived, when in fact they themselves had been saved only in the merit of Avraham.24 The world view which they had inherited from their father was distorted; Avraham, the greatest man of the generation, had been edited out of their family lore.
Just as Hagar underestimated Sarah, the daughters of Lot underestimated Avraham. The bride of Yitzchak could not come from either of these branches of the family.
Only Rivka, a person of true hesed, takes a leap of faith; like Avraham and Sarah, she leaves her birthplace, her home and family, to join the family of Avraham. She alone appreciated the greatness of Avraham and Sarah and was willing to be a part of the journey they had embarked on years earlier and to re-join that branch of the family. She was, in every way, the perfect match for Yitzchak.
He said to Abram, “Know for sure that your seed will live as foreigners in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and afflicted four hundred years.
See Talmud Bavli 9a.
But Avram said, “O Almighty, Eternal God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one member of my household is Dammesek Eliezer!”
Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer Chapter 16; Midrash Hagadol 24:2.
Targum Pseudo Yonatan Bereishit 14:14, Midrash Aggada Buber, Bereishit 16 siman 1, Hadar Zkainim 24:63. Hizkuni Bereishit 15:2, and Midrash Talpiot write that he was the grandson of Nimrod.
See Midrash Rabbah 59:9
See Midrash Rabbah 60:1
See Midrash Rabbah 60:8, Rashi Bereishit 24:42, Rav Dovid Zvi Hoffman Parashat Chaye Sarah
AND I CAME THIS DAY – Today I started on my journey and today I have arrived here. Hence we may infer that the earth (the road) shrunk for him (i.e. that the journey was shortened in a miraculous manner) (Sanhedrin 95a). R. Acha said: The ordinary conversation of the patriarchs' servants is more pleasing to God than even the Torah (religious discourse) of their children, for the chapter of Eliezer (the account of his journey) is repeated in the Torah (i.e. it is written once as a narrative and again repeated as part of the conversation of the patriarch's servant) whereas many important principles of the Law are derived only from slight indications given in the Text (Bereishit Rabbah 60:8).
See Chatam Sofer in Torat Moshe Bereishit 24:14, who nuances this suitability of this relationship somewhat differently.
See Bereishit 24:4, see Ramban Bereishit 11:28, and 12:1.
See Malbim Bereishit 24:14.
See especially Bereishit 24:56.
He said, "Do not delay me, when God has made my journey successful. Send me that I may go to my master."
He said to them, “Do not delay me, now that the LORD has made my errand successful. Give me leave that I may go to my master.
On the other hand, Rivka also takes the place of Sarah as evidenced by Bereishit 24:67, and especially the comments of Rashi on that verse.Yitzchak then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Yitzchak loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.
INTO HIS MOTHER SARAH’S TENT – He brought her into the tent and she became exactly like his mother Sarah – that is to say, the words signify as much as, [And he brought her into the tent] and, behold, she was Sarah, his mother). For whilst Sarah was living, a light had been burning in the tent from one Sabbath eve to the next, there was always a blessing in the dough (a miraculous increase) and a cloud was always hanging). over the tent (as a divine protection), but since her death all these had stopped. However, when Rebecca came, they reappeared” (Bereishit Rabbah 60:16)
Initially Avraham told his servant his servant to go to his land and birthplace (24:4). Subsequently the servant questions, if he were to fail to convince the perspective bride to come and marry a groom “sight unseen”, could he bring Yitzchak there, then Avraham responds and mentions how God took him from “his father’s home and birthplace” (24:7). The Servant apparently merges these two statements (which he understands is the meaning of the word “there” in 24:7) and tells Rivka’s family that he was sent to the home of Avraham’s “father and family” (24:38). See Abarbanel who catches this, and many other changes large and small in Eliezer’s soliloquy.
“…but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Yitzchak.”
The Eternal God, the Almighty God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from my native land, who promised me on oath, saying, ‘I will give this land to your offspring’ – He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there.
“…but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.”
Bereishit Rabbah 60:9.
For more on Aner, Eshkol and Mamre see Bereishit 14:13,24.
See the text and Rashi’s comments on Beresihit 26:8 and 39:14, and Shmot 32:6.
See Siftei Kohen Vayikra 12:3, Megaleh Amukot Parshat Mishpatim.
This idea is echoed by R’ Eliezer ben Eliyahu Ashkenazi in Maase Hashem, and in the Malbim Bereishit 21:9.
This type of relationship was needed to populate the world at the dawn of history, and it was part of God’s kindness – chesed which temporarily allowed this form of relationship – so the world could exist see Rashi Vayikra 20:17, Yeurshalmi Sanhedrin 9:1,Pirki D’Rebbe Eliezer chapter 21, and Rashi Psalms 89:3.
See Bereishit 22:20, and 24:24
(20) It happened after these things, that it was told Avraham, saying, “Behold, Milcah, she also has borne children to your brother Nahor: (21) Uz his firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, (22) And Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel.” (23) Bethuel fathered Rebekah. These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Avraham’s brother.
(24) She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.”
See Bereishit 11:29 and Rashi.
(26) Terah lived seventy years, and fathered Avram, Nahor, and Haran. (27) Now this is the history of the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Avram, Nahor, and Haran. Haran fathered Lot. (28) Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur Kasdim. (29) Avram and Nahor took wives. The name of Avram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran who was also the father of Yiscah.
See Bereishit 19:29.
It happened, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Avraham, and sent Lot out of the middle of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot lived.