פרשת חיי שרה
In this week’s parsha we are introduced for the first time to our great mother, Rivkah, one of the progenitors of the Jewish nation. And our first glimpse of her is one that should shock us to the core. Of course, it doesn’t – not at all. But if we would read these words the way we should, with an eye on understanding the what Hashem is trying to teach us, these p’sukim would electrify our souls.
Here you have אליעזר עבד אברהם, and his large retinue of camels and servants, who after many days of traveling the long desert roads from Eretz Canaan, are finally arriving at the outskirts of the city of Nachor. Eliezer is parched from thirst and weary from travel, and he asks the first local he sees, a young girl, to provide him with just a bit of water. Eliezer hopes to refresh himself, regain his composure, and begin the process of unloading his men and provisions, settling his camels, and giving them all to drink. הגמיאיני נא מעט מים מכדך – “Please give me a bit of water from your pitcher,” says Eliezer to the young maiden.
Now, let us reflect upon the response of Rivkah to Eliezer’s pithy request. ותאמר שתה אדני – “And she said, ‘Drink, my master.’ ” Now, it’s important to realize that this verse is not said for itself; it is a model, a בנין אב. Rivkah always spoke respectfully, and she always sought to help others with all of her heart. Not only did she respectfully consent to give this stranger to drink, but she so did her best to make him comfortable, by honoring him with the title, “My master.” And that was only the beginning of what was about to turn into a most amazing scene, a scene that would amaze us if we would be willing to put any considerable thought into the words we read.
Immediately upon making her offer, ותמהר ותרד כדה על ידה ותשקיהו – “And Rivkah hastened, and she lowered her pitcher upon her hand and she gave him to drink.” In addition to her kindly and respectful words, she made haste to make good on her words, and she lowered the heavy pitcher down by herself, instead of merely allowing the stranger to lower it on his own.
And it was here that Rivkah began to reveal her greatness. Had we been there, we might not have been so considerate as to see her behavior as a greatness. Actually, we would have thought she was being too extreme, a bit over the top. But it was Rivkah’s behavior in the following p’sukim that crowned her with the title of being one of our אמהות, one of our holy mothers. ותכל להשקתו ותאמר גם לגמליך אשאב עד אם כלו לשתות – “And she finished to give him to drink,” – pay attention; it doesn’t say that “he drank,” or that “he finished to drink.” ותכל להשקתו – “She finished to give him to drink,” it says. She pressed him to drink heartily, and she urged him on until he could drink no more.
And that wasn’t enough. “And she said: ‘Also for your camels I will draw water until they finish to drink.’ ” Now, a kindly person would have consented to the request for a drink of water. After all, he’s a thirsty traveler who asked for a small favor. However, it would be quite extraordinary to volunteer of one’s own accord to give drink to the wayfarer’s camel. Eliezer wasn’t a disabled fellow. Here she sees a big husky man, and he has a whole retinue with him. You know people who travel on camels are not little boys. They’re camel-drivers; husky men, with no lack of muscles. They’re traveling in the dangerous desert. Surely they were armed men, prepared to fight off desert bandits. Strong healthy men. And she sees that this man, the head of this group, has the audacity to ask her to give him a drink. Ok, so maybe she’ll give him a drink. She has a kind heart after all. But that she should say, “I’ll give your camels to drink”?! Do you know how much a camel can drink?! A camel can drink a bathtub with one slurp. That’s not an exaggeration. A camel drinks a bathtub. And that’s only out of necessity; if there’s nothing more. But if there are more bathtubs around, he doesn’t stop!
These “ships of the desert” possess the instinct to load themselves with as much water as possible, and usually they must be forced to stop drinking. A small camel drinks as much as thirty men. And here she offered to give to drink to all of his camels, all ten camels. Higher mathematics would tell you that she had to draw enough water for three-hundred men. It would be quite a feat for this young girl to give even one camel to drink. It required a number of trips between the well and the watering-troughs. And for all ten camels?! עד אם כלו לשתות?! When a camel stops drinking of its own accord, you can be sure it has drunk exceedingly. Now we read this posuk in a few seconds, and then we move on. So we don’t notice. But it surely took Rivkah some significant time and effort to give the camels to drink. For us it’s one posuk in a whole parsha; but for her it was a great act of selflessness.
Understandably, Eliezer stood back and watched in shock. He was utterly astonished. והאיש משתאה – “And the man was amazed [at what he was witnessing].” I say “understandably” but really it’s not true. We are not shocked in the least bit. And why should we? We read all about it last year as well. We know all about it. But you must realize that Eliezer hadn’t read this parsha yet. He was astonished. It seemed meshuga. A normal girl should have said, “What’s wrong with you mister?! Are you sick or something?! You have a whole crowd of people with you. What am I running back and forth for?!” But Rivkah wasn’t just any ordinary girl. And that’s why she practiced such extraordinary deeds.
Now, we really should stop and ask ourselves a question here. From where did Rivkah learn such behavior? From where did such a rare spirit arise? Such extreme deeds are not merely the product of a kind heart. No, it can’t be only that. Such extreme and even fanatical devotion to the service of kindliness to wayfarers could have been learned solely from one model. And that was the great model of Avraham, her great-uncle in Eretz Canaan. This young girl was growing up in Mesopotamia, far away from Avraham, but she had an ear for important things. She listened carefully to the tales that wayfarers would relate about her uncle, Avraham. We know that there was communication between the family in Canaan and their kin in Mesopotamia. And that they were familiar with details about each other’s lives (see 22:20).The caravans traveling back and forth, brought tidings of Avraham’s behavior, and the fame of this “prince of G-d” as the Canaanites called him (23:6) had spread far and wide.
And the travelers’ mouths were full of praises about Avraham’s lavish hospitality. Avraham didn’t suffice himself with mere kindness. The travelers spoke of an orchard that Avraham had planted, into which he brought his guests. And he would treat them royally, like kings. He sat with them and served them. And from the trees he plucked fruit and gave them to eat. He searched for opportunities for chesed wherever he could. As an old man, he would run out into the scorching heat to find guests. It was non-stop chesed. Avraham was meshuga for chesed. Absolutely meshuga. And the stories of Avraham’s hospitality were so unordinary, so amazing, that they began to ring like a toxin throughout the inhabited world.
Now Rivkah listened to all these stories about Avraham’s practices. And she took them to heart. Her soul was set on fire with enthusiasm for chesed. The idealistic soul of Rivka absorbed with eagerness the stories of her exalted great-uncle. And not only the stories in general, but Rivkah payed heed to all the manifold details of Avraham’s behavior. And it is not for naught that the words describing Rivkah’s chesed are exactly the same words that the Torah used last week to describe the deeds of Avraham. ותמהר… ותרץ – “And she hastened…and she ran.”
Although Rivkah lived among the idolaters and tricksters of Mesopotamia (Bereishis Rabbah 63:4), she listened well to the teachings of Avraham that had made their way to her. She studied Avraham much more than we do. And she made something out of herself. Chazal tell us (Bereishis Rabbah ibid.) that Rivkah was a שושנה בין החוחים – “A rose among thorns.” And a rose can’t grow unless it is watered and cared for. And what was that water that Rivkah grew on? It was the lessons of Avraham Avinu.
But you must understand something very important. Everything we said until now is only an introduction to the true service of kindliness that Avraham practiced always, and that Rivkah always emulated. Because what we are learning about now is not merely that our Avos and Imahos practiced kindliness. It’s much more than that. It’s why they practiced kindliness that made them great. And that is what we are learning now. That is our topic for tonight.
The Rambam in his מורה נבוכים (Chapter 54) teaches us a most important point that will be the foundation of what we study tonight. And it is so important that the Rambam makes this the final lesson that he teaches in his sefer. Yirmiyahu Ha’navi says, כה אמר השם אל יתהלל חכם בחכמתו – “So said Hashem: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom” (Yirmiyahu 9:22). Now we always understood that the wisdom of the wise man that Hashem is speaking of here, is the knowledge of Torah and of the ways of the world. But the Rambam says that the wisdom of the wise man is the perfection of character which is expressed in the relationships between him and his fellow man. He is a man of perfect wisdom, meaning of perfect character. He is a בעל מידות טובות, a kindhearted man, loved and respected by all for his good deeds to his fellow men. And yet, Hashem says, that this is not the wisdom that a man should feel glory in. This perfection of character is not what Hashem ultimately desires. It is not what Hashem considers true greatness.
So what is the greatness that Hashem wants of man? כי אם בזאת יתהלל המתהלל השכל וידע אותי כי אני השם עושה חסד משפט וצדקה בארץ כי באלה חפצתי – “For only with this may one glorify himself; in understanding and knowing Me, that I am G-d who does kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth – for it is these that I desire (ibid. 9:23); which the Rambam explains as follows. “My desire, says Hashem, is that men should emulate Me and do kindness.” The man who has true knowledge of Hashem, performs kindliness to his family and neighbors and to friends and strangers – to all men – with the intent of emulating G-d’s ways. That is the true glory – the only glory – that a man can glorify himself in having achieved perfection. Perfection means doing good as an emulation, as an imitation, of Hashem’s endless good to man. And with that important idea, we can begin to understand tonight’s subject.
Avraham was the most original thinker who ever lived. And he knew this lesson of the Moreh Nevuchim a long time before the Rambam wrote it down. And he didn’t keep it a secret. When a person knows that he has found the truth, he doesn’t want to keep it to himself. He wants to let others know as well. You have to know that Avraham was a great teacher. He had tens of thousands of talmidim (Rambam Hilchos Avodah Zarah 1:3), and he spent his days in Eretz Canaan spreading the word of Hashem. Avraham used all the opportunities he could to teach people about Hashem and His chesed.
You know from reading the chumash that Avraham was always digging wells. Now, wells were of course a life-necessity for Avraham and his large entourage. But we would be underestimating Avraham if we would think that the wells were solely for the purpose of sustenance. Avraham used the wells as an opportunity to gather large crowds and speak to them. Wells were the meeting places where all travelers came. And just as Avraham used his orchard of trees to proclaim the name of Hashem (21:33) to those who gathered there, so too he utilized the wells as a place to teach about Hashem. Avraham would lavish hospitality on those who came there to drink and water their camels, and he would speak to the large crowds that had gathered. Avraham never tired of speaking and teaching, and thereby he was constantly disseminating the knowledge of the chesed Hashem. He traveled from one place to another and ויקרא בשם השם – “He called out in the name of Hashem (Bereishis 12:8). He would call together his disciples as well as the people of the vicinity, and he would speak about his favorite topic, about Hashem.
And what were his teachings? Avraham spent his days teaching everyone the important lesson of the Moreh Nevuchim that we learned earlier. Avraham was teaching the world that Hashem gives us rain, and that He provides us with our sustenance. He is providing for the whole world. הזן את העולם כולו. It is Hashem who is providing all the lavish hospitality to the “wayfarers” of this world. We are just wayfarers, passing through this world for a short time. And Avraham taught all who were willing to listen, that we have to lavish our own hospitality on everyone else, in order to emulate Hashem. Avraham preached the importance of giving value, giving life, to all the deeds of kindness by always keeping in mind that you are following in the ways of Hashem. When Avraham honored his guests with everything they needed, and with various foods and delicacies, he would explain that he was doing so as an imitation of the countless forms of chesed which Hashem showers upon man, who is the real wayfarer, invited into Hashem’s world to enjoy His hospitality. This is what Avraham was teaching! He said, ‘Hashem is handing all of the good of the world to us, and it is our job to emulate Him, and to always keep in mind that we are emulating Him.” We have to hand over, with our own hands, all the good of Hashem to others, in order to make them happy. “Make people happy,” said Avraham. “Hashem is making the whole world happy, so we must also do our best to make the world happy.”
You know that a person emulates, he imitates, the one that he admires. The one that you love is the one that you imitate. And it’s not me saying it. You know it from yourself. It’s an instinct that Hashem implanted in your neshama. Only that everyone is directing it in the wrong way. Walk on the street and you see it wherever you go. Uch in vei, when you are emulating a black man who can hit a ball with a stick. Here’s a boy, walking down the street, a good boy, with payos, and he’s wearing a shirt with the name of a goy on the back. This goy is a low fellow, a very low fellow – but he can run fast with the ball or he can throw very far – and so, this boy is imitating him. I see little boys, big boys, even adults wearing the stupid shirts of some gentile person, or dressing like some gentile fool. All over, people are imitating their heroes.
But the עם ישראל emulates only Hashem. Only Hashem! Even when we emulate the ways of Avraham and Rivkah, we are only emulating their ways because they were emulating the ways of Hashem. And there is nothing better than emulating the ways of Hashem. And therefore, when you are practicing chesed, you must always keep in mind that you are mimicking the ways of Hashem. The more you act like Hashem,the closer you are to Hashem. And the closer you are to Hashem, the more perfect you are in His eyes.
The Gemara in Kiddushin (32b) tells us the following story. At the wedding of the son of Rabban Gamliel, the guests were sitting at a table discussing Torah subjects, when there appeared before them the waiter to serve them their meals. And it was none other than Rabban Gamliel himself. And he begins to pour the drinks and hand them the goblets of wine. Now, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Tzadok were all uncomfortably surprised by the leader of the generation taking on the role of a waiter. Rabban Gamliel had many waiters at his affair; no question about it. It was a beautiful affair. But in any case, Rabban Gamliel chose to walk around, offering food and drink to his guests.
And Rabbi Elazar protested to his chaveirim, “How can we sit here and allow ourselves to be served by such an important and respected sage?” And Rabbi Yehoshua responded, “Is Rabban Gamliel any better than Avraham Avinu? Avraham was the leader of the generation, much greater than Rabban Gamliel. And he stood over the three wayfarers; and he always stood and served his guests. And so, Rabban Gamliel is only mimicking his great father, Avraham.”
And Rabbi Tzadok went even further. “Why do you say that Rabban Gamliel is imitating Avraham, when you can say even better. Rabban Gamliel was learning from Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself. Hakodosh Boruch Hu is the model for Rabban Gamliel! Hashem Himself is the one “who causes the winds to blow. And He brings the clouds over the lands that need rain. And He causes the rain to fall, and He causes the earth to produce. Hakodosh Boruch Hu is the one setting the table before every man” (ibid.)
And really, both Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Tzadok were saying the same thing. Because Avraham Avinu, all of the chesed that Avraham Avinu practiced, was merely an emulation of the chesed that he saw that Hashem was showering upon the world.
And Rivkah fell in love with this ideal that Avraham Avinu was practicing and teaching. Rivkah understood the important idea that Avraham sought wayfarers in order to bestow kindness upon them; not only because the wayfarers needed his kindness, but because he needed the wayfarers in order to emulate Hashem. And on this day that Eliezer arrived at the well in Nachor, Rivkah was asking Hashem, “Please Hashem, I don’t want this day to go lost. Please give me the opportunity to do something today, so that I should be able to walk in the footsteps of my great relative Avraham, and emulate him in his greatness. And by following in his footsteps, I’ll be able to thereby follow in Your footsteps, Hashem.”
And so she said to her parents, “Maybe I can draw some water this morning for you, for the family?” And her parents said, “We’re fine; We have enough water for the day.” So she took her pitcher and went out to the well in search of other opportunities to emulate Hashem. And in that zchus, that merit, of her seeking to emulate Hashem, Hashem presented her with the great opportunity of Eliezer עבד אברהם, and she thereby became the mother of the Holy Nation, that spends their days walking in the footsteps of Hashem.
Last week we began our talk with the important words of the Ramchal in his דרך עץ חיים. He told us that if we want to achieve greatness, if we want to succeed at our purpose in this world, we have to study well the deeds of our Avos and Imahos. And when we do that, we can move on to achieving success by saying ואעשה גם כן אני – “And I will do the same as them.” And now that we have spent time studying Avraham and Rivkah, we can begin the עבודה of ואעשה גם כן אני.
The Am Yisroel is a nation of chesed. No question about that. There is no nation in the world that remotely compares to us. And yet that is not enough. Because deeds that are empty of thoughts of Hashem, are almost worthless. Avraham didn’t practice hollow deeds. Rivkah didn’t do chesed without thinking. Every time they did an act of chesed – and you can be sure that it was all the time – they were thinking of the true בעל חסד. Every act that Avraham or Rivkah did, big or small, was because they knew that Hashem was doing the same thing, on a much more tremendous scale.
And that’s what we have to begin adding on to our lives. Our lives are also full of chesed, but we have to add on these thoughts that Avraham and Rivkah added. When you pass somebody on the street, and you smile at him – a smile is worth a lot of money by the way; it’s a very valuable chesed when you smile at someone – when you smile, you should be thinking that Hashem is smiling down at this world. Right now, Hashem is smiling at us – the warm sun, the beautiful blue sky, the refreshing breeze, and a thousand of other things – and just like Hashem is smiling at us, I want to emulate Him and smile at others. Ooohhh! Now it’s not just a smile anymore. It’s walking in the ways of Hashem!
When you prepare breakfast for your children, or when you serve them supper, don’t just feed them and finished. Mrs. DiAngilo, the Italian lady down the block, does the same thing with her children. Is that what you are?! Just an Italian mother feeding her children?! You’re much greater than that! You’re the child of Avraham and Rivkah whose chesed was all an emulation of Hashem. You have to add that thought when you feed someone else. So you’re thinking, “I’m just imitating Hakodosh Boruch Hu.” He is feeding us all the time. All the time! The whole creation revolves around food. Rav Sa’adiah Gaon says that. All the cycles of the world are for food. The oceans, the rain, the rivers, the earth, the ants, the insects, the animals. Everything! It’s פותח את ידיך ומשביע לכל חי רצון all day long. And so as you put the cereal into the bowl of your child, you’re thinking, “Hashem’s hand is feeding us; and my hand is just an extension of the hand of Hashem pouring cereal into the bowl.”
And when you put a child to sleep, all you’re doing is emulating Hashem. Every night, Hashem lays you down to a peaceful sleep. Every night He helps you drift off into a sleep that will energize you, that will refresh you. Sleep is fun! It’s a chesed Hashem. And you’re just imitating that chesed Hashem by helping your child go to sleep and regain his strength and stay healthy. But you must put those vital thoughts into your actions; otherwise they will remain the hollow deeds of Mrs. DiAngalo.
And because the chesed that we are always doing with the עם ישראל are almost endless, therefore the opportunities to mold your thoughts are also endless. Every act of kindness can be infused with the realization, and the כוונה, the intention, that you are trying to follow in the footsteps of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. He does good, and therefore I am doing good. Every smile, every quarter given to a fellow Jew, every helping hand, every kind word, and every word of encouragement – it’s not merely chesed. “I’m not merely doing chesed. I’m mimicking the ways of Hashem.” And it’s these thoughts, these thoughts of Hashem, that will take all the regular days of your life, and transform them into days of achievement of perfection. And by walking in the ways of Avraham and Rivkah, you are walking in the perfect ways of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and preparing for the great and intense joy of the Next World, where you will bask in the perfection of being close to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
Have a wonderful Shabbos