How Eliezer Found Yitzchak the Right Wife

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akeydat Yitzchak, Sha’ar 22, Third Part

We’ve come to the section of the sha’ar where R. Arama asks questions about the parsha and answers them. He opens with Bereshit Rabbah 58, where R. Kahana wonders at Kohelet’s feeling the need to point out the obvious truth the sun rises and sets.

Flow of the World, Flow of the Righteous

The Midrash says Kohelet was drawing our attention to Hashem’s kindness to the world, only ending the time of one righteous person after a replacement has arrived. R. Akiva was not killed until R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi had already been born, etc., including Sarah not passing away until Rivkah was ready to step in for her. To hint at the point, Parshat Va-Yera ends with Betu’el fathering Rivkah, and Hayye Sarah starts with the passing of Sarah.

R. Arama thinks the Midrash means to alert us to a connectedness of the spiritual world with no fundamental difference from the natural world. Days flow into each other, continually, Providence creates chains of connection of parts of the world, including the presence of righteous people (who bring another kind of light to the world).

The Midrash included Sarah and Rivkah in its list of examples because they were the second match R. Arama has spoken of before, the pairing with their husbands crucial to the success of the Patriarchs. As Shabbat 25b says, true wealth lies in having a wife of good deeds. Loss of a wife of excellence deprives a man of all the good, aid, support, and peace she had offered until then, leaving him bereft and certainly demanding he mourn and eulogize her.

The Steps to Finding a Wife

I have skipped many of his interim comments, a point here and a point there, to use our space for his broader notes. The Torah devoted much space to Eliezer finding Rivka, spurring R. Aha to comment, Bereshit Rabbah 60, the conversation of servants of the Patriarchs seems more dear to Hashem than the legal sections of the Torah. Eliezer’s story is told as it happens and also his version of the story to Rivka’s family, where important halachic topics get only a hint.

R. Arama seems to think some of that stems from the significance of one’s choice of wife. He reminds us the Creation story placed the story last, a sign to make it the last stage of a  man’s self-development—Mishle 24;27 tells men to set up their livelihoods and then build their house (the Talmud often refers to a wife as a man’s “house,” and understands Tanach to do so also).

The tochacha, the section of the Torah warning of the punishments for national disobedience, puts betrothing a woman before planting a vineyard or field, Devarim 28;30, to R. Arama a sign the people who bring Hashem’s wrath upon themselves are foolish generally.

First, marriage without the man having a clear means of support jeopardizes his wife and future children, raises the specter of poverty. Second, it hinders the man’s own development, as Kiddushin 29b phrases it: reihayyim be-tzavvaro ve-yilmod Torah, he has a millstone around his neck and he will study Torah?

Yitzchak’s Preparations

Yitzchak does not get married until he is forty, a fact R. Arama takes to mean he had spent the time developing himself, ready to enter marriage at the top of his game. Avot tells us forty is the age of binah, insight, the age a man is developed physically and mentally. Yitzchak’s proper conduct and preparation for marriage earned him the divine providence to match him with Rivka, to guide Eliezer to find her.

[R. Arama moves to other issues, leaving me wondering about his support of late marriage. Did he want people of his time to wait more? Or, was he justifying their choice of late marriage? He does not explain how he would deal with Talmudic statements favoring early marriage as a way to avoid the promiscuity he has already said was an issue in his time, single men looking for sexual satisfaction in wrong places. He also does not consider the proper age for the woman to get married, and the meaning of the difference. Rashi assumes Rivkah was at most thirteen.]

The Qualities Eliezer Sought

Standing by the well, Eliezer prays to Gd because he knows a good wife comes from Hashem, according to the person’s actions [another line I hear as a comment to the people of his time, perhaps a reminder to think more about Hashem’s role in their marriage choices]. The test Eliezer devised would see how well Rivkah thought and how ready she was to put in the necessary effort.

To stand by a well and ask someone else for water, when Eliezer could have drunk directly or asked to borrow a water jug, opens the door to saying no. Even an ordinarily generous person might be unwilling to help someone too arrogant to help himself.

The good match for Yitzchak would instead assume Eliezer did not know how to draw water, was too wealthy to ever have done it for himself; had some illness or ache preventing him; or “koved ‘atzluto, the weight of his laziness.” [I included this last phrase because it shows R. Arama thinks it appropriate to help even someone who should be doing more for him/herself. Crippling laziness is still crippling, he seems to be saying.]

In addition, her readiness to help might start with compassion for the camels, suffering for their master’s inability/refusal to draw water. It’s the reason Eliezer’s test looked for her to say, gam li-gmalecha ashkeh, I will also give water to your camels.

He thinks Rivka camet to the well, filled the water her family needed, and was about to leave, her focus on the task at hand a first indication she might be the one, advanced enough not to indulge in any age-appropriate dallying. It’s why Eliezer has to run towards her, 24;17—she was already on her way home.

Family Still Matters

With all the indications of Rivkah’s excellence, 24;21 tells us Eliezer watched her silently, waiting to know if Hashem had brought him the right woman. The next verse tells us he took out gifts for her, nose rings and the like, and the verse after has him ask her family.

R. Arama picks up on the verse’s here never telling us when the gifts reached her hands (Lavan notices them on his sister, letting us know they were given). He takes Eliezer at his word in verse 47, he gave her the gifts only after she told him she was Betu’el’s daughter. He needed to know her family before he could be sure she was right for Yitzchak—to R. Arama, the family of the bride is essential to choosing a partner. His joy at hearing she was from Avraham’s family was because her lineage confirmed the indications of character she had shown.

[Jewish tradition does not seem impressed with Lavan or Betu’el as models of character. In the text itself, Avraham’s concern with his family could be about an underlying genetic connection. R. Arama is turning it into a matter of overall character, but I see little textual support.]

The Need for a Test

[His insistence Eliezer only confirmed his interest in Rivkah after he knew her family makes the whole water-drawing test seem unnecessary.] More, Ta’anit 4a records the view of R. Shmuel b. Nachmani in the name of R. Yonatan, Eliezer was one of two figures in Tanach who were given a good answer despite making in an improper request.

R. Arama thinks the problem lies in Eliezer having opened the possibility of asking a woman unfit for Yitzchak, who might still answer with the same generosity as Rivkah showed. [Ta’anit says he might have found a blind or lame woman, where R. Arama speaks of a slave or the product of a prohibited sexual relationship, a mamzeret.] Although the marriage would have never gone through (not least because R. Arama was sure Eliezer was going to check her family before betrothing her on Yitzchak’s behalf), there would still have been damage (he does not define it further; my guess is the embarrassment of having a prayer seem to be answered, only to find out it was a false alarm.)

R. Arama’s idea about Eliezer’s plan to check her family solves a problem posed by Hullin 95b. The Gemara defines nihush, prohibited attempts at divining the future, as acting as Eliezer did. R. Arama can now say the Gemara had a problem only with those who rely solely on the test (as was true of Yehonatan, the son of Sha’ul’ who seems to attack the Pelishtim also on the basis of a sort of divination. There too, R. Arama thinks he had other evidence shaping his decision.)

The Practical Wisdom of Eliezer

Hazal praise Eliezer in Yoma 25b, say he was an elder who sat in yeshiva. R. Arama thinks they mean the skill Eliezer showed in “selling” the match to Rivka’s family, omitting or altering details and some of the order of the story.

His adeptness at bringing matters to a successful conclusion is what makes the words of the servants of the Patriarchs so dear to Hashem, as the Midrash had noted. Servants, in R. Arama’s reading, symbolize the practical aspect of the human being, meant to serve the intellectual part, to put into practice the ideas the intellect has.

The Midrash had contrasted the words of Eliezer, included at length in the Torah, to legal issues, many of them only alluded. Although it sounds like a negative for those legal topics, R. Arama argues it shows the excellence of the Jewish people, for whom a hint or allusion gives them enough information to infer the intended rule. His examples are the source of a husband inheriting his wife (Baba Batra 111b) and money being a valid way to create the marital bond (Kiddushin 3b). These and other ways the Torah wants to train Jews about how to handle monetary issues could be given in hints.

Matters relating to the idea of Providence, Hashem’s bringing good to those He loves, had to be stated more explicitly, and twice. R. Arama closes the section with the claim his words will gladden those who would have understood them on their own, where keshe ha-da’at and kevede lev, people of difficult intellects, hard of heart, will not understand them. A reminder of his certainty true ideas do not always find their way easily into our minds and hearts, unless we have prepared ourselves to be receptive to them.

As always, I have skipped much. What we have seen were some of R. Arama’s feelings about the importance of marriage, the proper stage in life to get married, family as a way to check a prospective spouse, and the ways to invoke providence in seeking one’s marital partners. The last piece of a discussion of Hayye Sara focused on how much free will our life circumstances give us, the importance of mourning and burial, and marriage.

As this is our last installment before Rosh HaShana, let me throw in my own note these ideas can put on a productive path for the upcoming Yamim Nora’im as well, reminded to use our feewill for the good, and to build marriages supporting all of us in our service of Gd. Ketivah ve-Hatimah Tovah.

About Gidon Rothstein

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