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Parashat 11/16/2011

Parashat Chayei Sarah

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

The matter comes out from HaShem.  We can say neither bad nor good to you.  (24:50)

Let it be that the maiden to whom I shall say “Please tip over your jug so I may drink,” … she will be the one you have designated for you servant, for Yitzchak… (24:14)

There shall not be found among you … one who divines auspicious times, or divines by omens… You shall be straightforward with Hashem your Gd.  (Devarim 18:10, 13)

You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. (Devarim 6:16)


The bulk of our Parashah is taken up by the story of Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, and his trip to find a wife for Yitzchak among Avraham’s family, whom Avraham had left behind in Aram when he left for the Land of Israel.  Central to this story is the test that Eliezer proposes: Let it be that the maiden to whom I shall say “Please tip over your jug so I may drink,” … she will be the one you have designated for you servant, for Yitzchak.  One might ask, who is Eliezer testing?  On one level he appears to be testing the maiden, to see if she is a suitable mate for Yitzchak and someone who is capable of being a progenitoress of Gd’s chosen people.  On another level, perhaps Eliezer is testing Gd(!) as it says (in the continuation of the just-quoted verse) and may I know through her that You have done kindness with my master [i.e. Avraham].  Or, perhaps he felt he would need an explicit sign from Gd to convince the girl’s family that this was truly a match made in Heaven – as indeed the idolatrous Lavan and Bethuel exclaim The matter comes out from Hashem.


Both using signs or omens, and testing Gd, are serious prohibitions in the Torah, as the two citations from Devarim above indicate.  Our attitude is supposed to be one of trust in Gd’s goodness and mercy.  Gd created us, Gd loves us, Gd challenges us in order to bring out the best in us.  Trying to discern the future using occult means (which, incidentally, neither Torah, nor Talmud, nor thinkers through Ramban [13th century] and even into the modern age, denied were effective) is, in effect, trying to short-circuit Gd’s plan for our individual growth and for the unfolding of history.  This was simply the technology of an earlier age; just as we use technologies such as computer simulations to try and predict everything from the weather to the behavior of markets to the foreign policies of other countries, so the various occult practices were used both to predict and to influence the future.  I will return to this point in a bit.


Testing Gd is perhaps a more serious offense.  The context of the prohibition is of course Moshe Rabbeinu’s final charge to the nation before his death, where he reminds the people of Gd’s constant protection through the 40 years of wandering in the desert, and the miraculous victories over the kingdoms of Sichon and Og.  The message is that Gd has certainly earned our trust, and it is both wrong and foolish to doubt Him.


All this being the case, how could Eliezer have established this remarkably detailed set of signs that would identify the girl who was to be Yitzchak’s wife, and simultaneously would be asking Gd to provide him with this girl!  The commentators give a number of answers; the one that I find most satisfying is a very commonsense one: if it relates naturally to the requirements of the situation, it’s not an omen!  That is, the household of Avraham was built on the principles of lovingkindness and giving to others.  If Eliezer had asked for a drink and been rebuffed, surely this girl would have a very hard time in the atmosphere around the Patriarchal family.  Rather, Yitzchak’s bride-to-be had to be someone who could perceive a person’s needs (even when they were not expressed, as in and I will water your camels too) and take responsibility for fulfilling them.  This is not like taking a decision based on whether or not a black cat crosses your path, rather it is an opportunity for someone to display their true character (indeed this is why Eliezer emphasized that he was standing outside the town, by the well, away from family pressure and influence), and make a rational decision based on that character.  The fact that the test was passed so precisely was Gd’s gift to Eliezer, and allowed him to make a strong case to Rivka’s family that this match was bashert.


I think the deeper issue here goes to the place of technology, specifically objective technology, in the life of a person of faith.  We certainly see Orthodox Jews using technology – watches, cars, airplanes, computers, medical technology, etc.  Do these people not have faith in Gd?  Of course they do, but part of that faith is that Gd has given us various tools to provide for our needs.  Torah tells us that if we injure someone we shall surely cause him to be healed (Shemot 21:19), and our Sages take this verse as a license for the physician to heal the patient.  Of course, ultimately it is Gd who heals the patient, but Gd prefers to work through natural means – medicines, manipulation of the body, surgery, etc.


The fact that these “natural” means exist to take care of human needs is in itself the great challenge of human perception and human existence.  The purpose of creation, our Sages tell us, is to make clear Gd’s existence and His supervision of all aspects of manifestation.  In order to provide us with this challenge, Gd as it were “hides” Himself, cloaking His activity behind the veil of natural cause and effect.  It is up to us to recognize that Gd’s Hand is actually behind every form and phenomenon in the universe; there are no accidents in creation.


Indeed, as our realization of this reality grows, that is, as our faith in Gd grows from the level of intellectual assent to the level of lived reality, we become less and less dependent on natural cause and effect, and are able to live more and more “miraculously,” with our every need provided for automatically.  Note that this is a natural state of life when one has purified and sanctified oneself to a certain level; it cannot be “faked” nor can it be lived on the level of a mood, or of wishful thinking.  Thus Eliezer was able to specify this elaborate test, confident that Gd would send the exact right person for Yitzchak, in the merit of Avraham’s and Yitzchak’s exalted spiritual status.  For the rest of us, well, we know what goes into finding an appropriate marriage partner most of the time.  In Eliezer’s case, even Lavan and Bethuel could see that the matter comes out from Hashem.  What they are expressing, probably unknowingly, is the great truth that we each must realize and actualize: that in every action, great or small, in every form, in every phenomenon, the underlying truth is that the matter comes out from Hashem.