Devar Torah Chayei Sarah: Being Intelligently Good

So, I think there’s a nice idea in this week’s parsha that’s worth expounding upon. We all know about the whole story of Rivka and Eliezer (identified Midrashically) at the well. Let’s look closely at the story, and see what we can pick up from it. As Eliezer approaches the well, he says:

 הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי נִצָּב, עַל-עֵין הַמָּיִם; וּבְנוֹת אַנְשֵׁי הָעִיר, יֹצְאֹת לִשְׁאֹב מָיִם.וְהָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי-נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתֶּה, וְאָמְרָה שְׁתֵה, וְגַם-גְּמַלֶּיךָ אַשְׁקֶה–אֹתָהּ הֹכַחְתָּ, לְעַבְדְּךָ לְיִצְחָק, וּבָהּ אֵדַע, כִּי-עָשִׂיתָ חֶסֶד עִם-אֲדֹנִי

So, let’s break down what is happening. Eliezer takes note of his location (by the fountain of water), and the situation (girls coming out to draw water). He then says, the girl to which I saw, “please, can I have a drink”, who then responds “have some water, and I’ll take care of your camels too”, will be The One (in “How I Met Your Mother” terms).

So, number one, what is significant about the setting that Eliezer describes, his location and the situation, and what is its relation to the test? Number two, notice, he does not say, the girl who comes over to me and offers. He says, the girl who I go over to and she responds with the desired response. That seems odd. Wouldn’t a better test be just to see who comes over to you and offers you water? Finally, what is this test supposed to prove? It doesn’t seem to be aimed at finding merely a “nice” person, otherwise, seeing who offers you would be sufficient. There seems to be something more here.

Let us now look at what actually occurs:

וַיְהִי-הוּא, טֶרֶם כִּלָּה לְדַבֵּר, וְהִנֵּה רִבְקָה יֹצֵאת אֲשֶׁר יֻלְּדָה לִבְתוּאֵל בֶּן-מִלְכָּה, אֵשֶׁת נָחוֹר אֲחִי אַבְרָהָם; וְכַדָּהּ, עַל-שִׁכְמָהּ.  וְהַנַּעֲרָ, טֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד–בְּתוּלָה, וְאִישׁ לֹא יְדָעָהּ; וַתֵּרֶד הָעַיְנָה, וַתְּמַלֵּא כַדָּהּ וַתָּעַל.   וַיָּרָץ הָעֶבֶד, לִקְרָאתָהּ; וַיֹּאמֶר, הַגְמִיאִינִי נָא מְעַט-מַיִם מִכַּדֵּךְ. וַתֹּאמֶר, שְׁתֵה אֲדֹנִי; וַתְּמַהֵר, וַתֹּרֶד כַּדָּהּ עַל-יָדָהּ–וַתַּשְׁקֵהוּ.   וַתְּכַל, לְהַשְׁקֹתוֹ; וַתֹּאמֶר, גַּם לִגְמַלֶּיךָ אֶשְׁאָב, עַד אִם-כִּלּוּ, לִשְׁתֹּת. וַתְּמַהֵר, וַתְּעַר כַּדָּהּ אֶל-הַשֹּׁקֶת, וַתָּרָץ עוֹד אֶל-הַבְּאֵר, לִשְׁאֹב; וַתִּשְׁאַב, לְכָל-גְּמַלָּיו.

So, let’s go through the process here:
1. Rivkah arrives (and she’s from Avraham’s family!), her jug on her shoulder, (and daaaamn (and available!))
2. She fills her jug, and walks up
3. Eliezer runs up to meet her
4. Eliezer asks for some water
5. She gives him water, and quickly takes the jug off her shoulder and lets him drink.
6. He finishes drinking.
7. She says, “I’ll give your camels too”
8. She runs back and forth to the well to do so.

Some observations: True to the statement of his test, Eliezer goes over to her, not the other way around. Why? The cynical, somewhat textually based answer is, “because she was mighty fine”. But being good-looking was not a requirement of this test. He did not say “any good looking girl I go over to…”. He said any girl, and part of the test seems to be that Eliezer is going over to her, rather than the other way around. Also, Rivkah does not pass the test in the exact manner that Eliezer wanted. She does not say “Drink, and I’ll give your camels to”. She says “drink”, lets him drink, he finishes, and then she says “I’ll give your camels too”. Yet, it seems to have been good enough, so what she did do must have fulfilled what Eliezer meant the test to evaluate. So, what is this test meant to evaluate, and what about Rivkah’s actions fulfill those?

So I think about it this way: The well, at the moment Eliezer talks about his test, is empty. The girls are about to come down to get water for their families, presumably for dinner, as evidenced by the fact that Rivkah is carrying a single jug with her. They are not getting water for their animals, it seems, and their mind is not on that task at all. What Eliezer wants is for the girl in question not just to be nice on an emotional whim, to give a guy something to drink when he asks for some, or even to notice the tired looking guy and give him some water. He wants the girl to critically evaluate how best to be nice to this individual, to stop and consider, “hey, wait a second, if he’s tired, that means his camels are tired too, maybe I should also help him out with that”. He wants someone who’s not just “nice” and reacts purely emotional to someone in need, but who has put work into being nice, who is able to take themselves out of their present mindset to do so, and has put real thought about the most effective way to do so.

So Eliezer goes over to this girl, as she’s coming up from the well, carrying her one jug of water, and asks for some water. Her first reaction, being as she’s a nice person, is to immediately and hurriedly take her jug off her shoulder and let him drink. But as he’s drinking, she stops, and she thinks, “but, wait, he has camels too. Those probably need water.”. But she only has one jug. Rather than interrupt him, and in her zeal to go do another good deed, rob him of quenching his thirst fully, she lets him finish before she tells him “and I will give your camels water as well”. Not only has she passed the test, she did it in a way that actually outperformed Eliezer’s expectations.

I think there’s an important lesson here. We tend to think about doing the right thing as a purely a matter of knowing there is a right thing to do, and doing it. I see someone in need, and I react by addressing it. I know there is a mitzvah to do x, and I do it. But there needs to be a critical evaluation of what exactly you are accomplishing, and how it will end up effecting other people.

Probably my favorite “gadol story” is a story told about R’ Yisrael Salanter, who once stayed with a student at the home of a wealthy person. When it came time for Netillat Yadayim, the student washed with the maximum amount of water possible, fulfilling the halakhic requirement as best as possible, and watched incredulously as R’ Salanter washed with the tiniest amount of water. So, naturally he asked R’ Salanter why he did so. R’ Salanter responded “I know that this house is on a hill. And that they get their water from a watercarrier, who carries it from a well. If I wash with the most possible water, I am causing unnecessary hardship for the watercarrier, who has to trudge up a steep hill because I decided I want to wash with the most water.”

What’s remarkable about the story is that netillat yadayim is not an unnecessary luxury, it is a mitzvah and it is definitely a good thing to wash according to the most machmir definition. But R’ Salanter stopped and critically evaluated how doing this good thing would effect other people, and determined that it would be better if he washed with a little water instead. This is an idea I see far too little of in the Jewish world, and my experiences in YU have been rife with people who never stopped and thought “maybe this good thing that I am doing will have negative consequences for others”. Yes, kumzitses are wonderful, and the fact you have been imbued with such spontaneous religiosity is great, but it is 2 am, and you are in a college dorm, and there are people trying to sleep. Yes, saying a long shmoneh esrei is great, but there are just 10 people in this minyan, all of whom are waiting for you, some of whom have class 5 minutes ago. Yes, learning b’chavruta on skype is a wonderful thing, but you are in the library, and other people are trying to study. Lots of these little things where people don’t realize that their quest to do the right thing has not been regulated by any intelligence. You can’t just do good things, or have good intentions, when your actions end up being stupid and possibly wrong. You have to critically evaluate whether the good things you are doing are actually doing good.

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