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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chayei Sarah: Finding a suitable spouse.
One of the most crucial choices a person has to make is looking for a spouse. “Charm is false and beauty is vain.” Our Matriarchs, as well as other women, are described in the Torah as being beautiful. Whoever gets attracted to marry someone due to their looks is establishing a very fragile marriage. One should not marry for financial gain. One should not marry to get into a family of power and influence in order to gain personal advancement in society. Abraham was by himself on one side and the whole world was on the other side. Who would be more suitable for Isaac’s wife than the daughter of his trusted servant Eliezer? It seems illogical that Abraham would look for a suitable spouse for Isaac from the very place he had been told to leave. The character traits of Abraham’s family were superior to the character traits of his disciples. When Eliezer prayed to G’d for Divine assistance that he should succeed in his mission, he asked for a sign. Only a person of extreme fine character and kindness would agree to provide Eliezer with some of her water. Rivkah had no way of knowing whether the stranger suffered from any kind of disease and had contaminated the remaining water in the jug. Rivkah passed the test with flying colours. Eliezer was blessed by G’d. The basic lesson of this whole episode teaches us on what to focus when one looks for a suitable spouse.
Find a suitable spouse
Everyone has to make choices in life. Some are daily choices of small significance. Others are major choices that affect generations to come. One of the most crucial choices a person has to make is when looking for a spouse with whom to share one’s life and establish one’s family. In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah relates in great detail how Abraham called upon his trusted servant Eliezer and sent him on a mission to find a suitable bride for Abraham’s son Isaac.
Beauty is vain
Rabbeinu Bachya mentions in his commentary on the Torah (Bereishis 24:1) that there used to be a custom in many places to read part of this week’s portion when the groom was called up to the Torah prior to his wedding. This was a time used to remind people on what to focus when they choose a spouse. He continues to discuss how to go about making this important decision in life. First of all, he warns that one should not look for beauty. As King Solomon says in his praise to “the woman of valour” at the end of Mishlei (31:30): “Charm is false and beauty is vain.”
Shining inner beauty
Our Matriarchs, as well as other women, are described in the Torah as being beautiful. In Parashas Lech Lecha (Bereishis 12:11), Abraham says to his wife Sarah: “I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance. In this week’s portion (Bereishis 24:16), Rivkah is described as a girl who has a very beautiful appearance. And finally, in Parashas Vayeitzei (29:17) it says: “And Leah’s eyes were tender and Rachel was beautiful …” The commentaries explain that this is not merely referring to outer appearance but rather a reflection of inner beauty that shone forth (see Torah Attitude: Chayei Sarah: Complete Beauty: November 14, 2006).
Fragile beauty marriage
Whoever gets attracted to marry someone due to their looks is establishing a very fragile marriage. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 5:19) says: “Any love that is dependent on a specific thing, when that thing disappears, the love also disappears.” Whereas a marriage should ideally last a lifetime, a person’s outer appearance inevitably changes with age. It is obvious that if the love one spouse feels for another is based on beauty that love will not last. This kind of love is comparable with someone who says “I love fish”. The truth is that this person really loves himself but gets satisfaction from eating fish. If he truly loved fish he would tend to them and look after them in an aquarium rather than eating them. In the same way, if one person loves another because of looks it means that the other person’s beauty satisfies him. On the other hand, true love means that one has an urge to look after and care for the other person due to that person’s qualities (see Torah Attitude: Parashas Kedoshim: True love lasts forever: May 5, 2005).
Unstable financial marriage
Rabbeinu Bachya gives another example of an unstable marriage. He warns that one should not marry for financial gain. In this case too the marriage is based on an ulterior thing that is likely to disappear, for money often gets wings and flies heavenward like an eagle. The Talmud (Kiddushin 70a) actually teaches that someone who marries for monetary benefit will be punished and have children who misbehave and the money will be lost in a short while. This should not be confused with Torah students who look for a wife from an affluent home to enable them to continue their studies. However, one must be very honest with oneself that the attraction is the ability to learn Torah and not the money.
Power marriage wrong
Rabbeinu Bachya gives a third example of a marriage based on the wrong premises. He says that one should not marry to get into a family of power and influence in order to gain personal advancement in society. A person’s primary concern in choosing a spouse should be to be able to establish a home that will please G’d. The way to do so is to look for a suitable spouse from a respectable family. This is especially important for a man, as he points out that the character traits of children mainly follow from the maternal side of the family. He says that one should ideally marry a spouse with the same background, as this is the best recipe for a harmonious marriage. For if one is from a higher social level than the other, chances are that there will always be some issues where one spouse will look down upon the other since the other does not come from the same level of society. Rabbeinu Bachya concludes that this is what the Talmud (Pesachim 49a) refers to when it says: “Grapes of wine with grapes of wine is a gratifying and suitable bond.”
The Torah refers to Abraham as the “Ivri” (see Bereishis 14:13). The Midrash Rabbah (42:8) gives various explanations for this title. One explanation is based on the literal meaning of the word which would translate as “side”; for Abraham was by himself on one side and the whole world was on the other side. When Abraham came to the realization that there is only one G’d Who created the world and controls everything that happens, the vast majority of his contemporaries were still serving idols. The Rambam (Law of Idol Worship 1:3) describes how he went from place to place preaching his new found faith of monotheism, slowly gathering disciples.
Now when Abraham wanted to look for a suitable wife for Isaac, we would expect that his first choice would be a daughter of one of his disciples who had embraced his belief in G’d. Who would be more suitable than the daughter of his trusted servant Eliezer? Eliezer was not just in charge of Abraham’s household. He was also involved in teaching his master’s beliefs to visitors and students.
As a matter of fact, Rashi (24:39) quotes the Midrash Rabbah (59:9) who relates that Eliezer was contemplating the possibility of his daughter being worthy to be Isaac’s wife. That, says the Midrash, is the reason for Eliezer response to Abraham when he asked him to travel afar to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer said (Bereishis 24:5) “Maybe the woman will not want to follow me to this land?” He was quietly hoping to influence his master to consider his own daughter as Abraham’s future daughter-in-law.
Abraham’s choice could also have been one of his local acquaintances, such as his friends Aner, Eshkol, and Mamrei, who he used to consult on various matters. So why would Abraham insist on sending Eliezer to his birthplace to seek a spouse from his family who were still idol worshippers? Had G’d not instructed him to go away from the land of his father (see Bereishis 12:1), leaving behind all his relatives? It seems illogical that he would look for a suitable spouse for Isaac from the very place he had been told to leave.
The Kli Yakar explains that character traits are hereditary and, as mentioned above, they mainly depend on the maternal side of the family. On the other hand, a person’s belief is an individual matter. Abraham was well aware that the members of his family back home were still idol worshippers. But he felt confident that he would be able to influence and change the belief of his future daughter-in-law. Just like he had taught thousands of disciples to accept G’d, he had no doubt that he could do the same to this young lady. At the same time, he knew that the character traits of his family, as descendants of Shem, were superior to the character traits of his disciples who mainly descended from Canaan, the son of Ham. Canaan had been cursed for his disgusting behaviour by his grandfather Noah, whereas Shem was blessed by him for his nobleness (see Bereishis 9:24-25). As a matter of fact, the Midrash (ibid) relates that when Eliezer hinted to Abraham that his daughter might be more worthy to marry Isaac, Abraham said to him, “You are cursed and my son is blessed. Someone cursed does not bond well with someone blessed.”
A sign for Eliezer
Eliezer understood the message extremely well. When he prayed to G’d for Divine assistance that he should succeed in his mission, he asked for a sign. When a girl would come out to the well, he would ask her to tip her jug and give him to drink. If she would reply “drink and I will also give your camels to drink” (Bereishis 24:14), this would be the Divine sign that she was the designated match for Isaac. Rashi (ibid) explains that this was not just a sign. Rather, with this reply she showed that she had the character trait of lovingkindness, and as such was worthy to become a member of Abraham’s household.
This seems to be a strange test to make sure that someone is suited to marry a specific person. It sounds more like a test to find out if someone is a candidate to tend to camels. However, the Beis Halevi explains that there was a lot of wisdom in this test. If we visualize the scenario how Eliezer stands by the well with his group of ten men travelling with him. A young girl comes out and draws water from the well and he requests her to serve him some of the water she has just drawn. Most people would rightfully answer “why don’t you help yourself or ask one of your men to get you water from the well?” Only a person of extreme fine character and kindness would agree to provide this stranger with some of her water.
The Beis Halevi further points out that Eliezer actually asked Rivkah to drink from her jug. It seems that there were no cups or other utensils available to drink from. This in itself would give Rivkah an adequate excuse not to fulfill his request. Since she would have to give Eliezer to drink from the jug itself, she would have a dilemma what to do with the rest of the water left in the jug. If she would just take the rest of the water home, or add more water into the jug, she could endanger the members of her household. She had no way of knowing whether the stranger suffered from any kind of disease and had contaminated the remaining water in the jug. On the other hand, if she would pour the rest of the water out she would put the stranger to shame by showing that she did not want to use the water that he had been drinking from. The smartest solution how to avoid this dilemma would be to use the rest of the water for the camels. In this way, she could get fresh water from the well to take back to her house without putting the stranger to shame.
The real test
This was the real test. Eliezer knew that it was important the she should have good character traits and be full of lovingkindness. But at the same time he wanted to make sure that she knew how to do acts of charity in a sensible way without endangering herself or others. Rivkah passed the test with flying colours. She responded to Eliezer’s request that not only would she give him to drink but also draw water for the camels till they were finished drinking (Bereishis 24:9). In this way, for sure no one would notice that the reason why she gave the camels water was to avoid taking the remaining water home.
Blessed by G’d
The Midrash Rabbah (60:7) tells us that in the merit of Eliezer’s loyalty and unselfishness in fulfilling this mission he was elevated and became blessed himself. This happened when Lavan came out and said (Bereishis 24:31) “Come in, G’d’s blessed one.” Although this was said by Lavan, it would not be recorded in the Torah if it was not true. At this point, Eliezer was blessed by G’d.
Rashi (24:42) brings that the Midrash Rabbah (60:11) points out that this event is described much more elaborately in the Torah than many commandments. The reason for this is that many important lessons are learned from every detail of how Eliezer was sent on his mission and how he fulfilled it. However, the basic lesson of this whole episode teaches us on what to focus when one looks for a suitable spouse. In this way the Torah ensures that every Jewish home that is based on Torah values will be a home of peace and harmony, happiness and satisfaction and true Jewish nachas.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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