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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Hayyei Sarah
Genesis 23:1-25:18
November 6, 2004     22 Heshvan 5765

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

This week's parashah presents us with the first instance of a dating service. Advanced in years, Abraham sends his senior servant from Hebron back to the northern reaches of the Euphrates River where his brother resides, to find a wife for his son Isaac. But what constitutes a suitable mate? What is the single character trait that might serve as an indicator of future harmony? Certainly, it is not physical beauty. Though the narrator describes Rebecca as a maiden of exceptional beauty, Abraham's servant is unphased. That is not the trait he has decided to use as a test. Rather, he is looking for an inner quality, a young woman who when asked for water by a thirsty stranger at the well, will grant his wish instantly; and then offer on her own to also water his camels.

When Rebecca, Abraham's niece, appeared, she met the test gloriously. '"Drink, my lord,' she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink. When she had let him drink his fill, she said, 'I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.' Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels" (24:18-20). Rebecca was undeterred by the size of the task. Abraham's servant had traveled a great distance from Hebron and his small caravan included ten camels. They must have been consumed by thirst. Conventions of hospitality obliged Rebecca to slake the thirst of a stranger, but most assuredly not of his beastly entourage. Ironically, her deportment fully complied with Portia's rebuke of Shylock in .The Merchant of Venice: .

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. (IV:I)

Rebecca's hospitality was an unforced surge of empathy that extended to the discomfort of animals. It was that ethical impulse that the servant intuited as the most reliable harbinger of an enduring marriage. He tested for the unconventional, the humanity that enables one to identify with the plight of all living creatures, a quality that would relieve a lot of hurt and resolve many a disputes. Later, the narrative relates that Isaac "took Rebecca as his wife and loved her" (Genesis 24:67), as if to stress that as he got to know her, his love ripened. In contrast to beauty which grabs, it takes time to appreciate the character of your spouse.

The book of Genesis itself contains very few commandments. Yet its artfully wrought stories often foreshadow ordinances to come, a kind of narrative seedbed for legislative plants. Rebecca's empathy for animals anticipates a conspicuous concern the Torah which proscribes inflicting any pain on domesticated animals (tsar ba'alei hayyim) according to the Talmud - Bava Metzia 32b). For humans to be vegetarians is in fact the ideal, implicit at creation. The concession to eat meat is made explicitly only after the flood to No·ah (ibid., 9:1-8), and thereafter greatly curtailed by the laws of kashrut in Leviticus (chapter 11). So too, the cessation from all work, which is the hallmark of the biblical Sabbath, goes beyond the members of our household to include our livestock (Exodus 20:10; 23:12).

In the same spirit is a bevy of specific laws scattered throughout the Torah that turn on empathy for animals. We are instructed, for example, "that no animal from the herd or from the flock should be slaughtered on the same day with its young" (Leviticus 22:28). Nor should we yoke an ox and an ass to the same plow (Deuteronomy 22:10). If we come across a nest of birds in which the mother is hatching her eggs or guarding her young, we are not to seize the mother along with the eggs or fledglings (Deuteronomy 22:6). When threshing, an ox is not to be muzzled. And finally, if we chance upon our enemy's beast of burden teetering beneath its load, we must come to its relief (Exodus 23:5). Our animus should not cause us to punish his animal. Indeed, if we are ever to reach the ultimate expression of our humanity, to love the compatriots and strangers in our lives, these injunctions suggest that we start by treating the animals, for which we bear responsibility, with compassion. For mercy to flow naturally, it must be cultivated while young.

The Talmud picks up where the Torah leaves off- Rav, one of the founders of Jewish learning in Babylonia in the early third century, demands that we feed our animals before we feed ourselves. Scripture expects nothing less of us. That is why in the second paragraph of the Shema prayer, the order of the verse has God feeding the cattle before us: "I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle - and thus you shall eat your fill" (BT Berakhot 40a; Deut. 11:15). My aunt and uncle, who ran a very fine kennel for dogs, never sat down for dinner after a hard day's work, without first feeding their own beloved shepherds who lived with them in the house.

Nearly a millennium after Rav, the signature treatise of the Ashkenazi pietists, Sefer Hasidim, made the following distinction on the basis of our parashah: When it comes to thirst, humans drink first, for did not Rebecca give water to Abraham's servant before his camels? Similarly, in the wilderness when Israel was without water, God ordered Moses to bring forth water from a rock by speaking to it to "provide drink for the congregation and their beasts" (Numbers 20:8). Here too, the human need took precedence. But not so when it comes to hunger. Then we are to reverse the order, for this was the sequence in which Laban's household welcomed their guest from Hebron. First they gave "straw and feed" to his camels and only then did they set food before him (24:32-33; .Margoliot. ed. no. 531). The distinction may derive from the greater degree of urgency that can attend a state of thirst.

Elsewhere, Sefer Hasidim (number 666) asserted the principle that harming an animal for no reason does not go unpunished. The example it cited to confirm this claim was the fate of the Midianite prophet Balaam, who smote his ass three times as it tried to avoid the armed angel blocking its path. When God enabled the ass to rebuke his master, Balaam shot back in anger, "You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I would kill you" (Numbers 22:29). It was because of that insult and the cruelty that preceded it, that Balaam died by the sword when the Israelites later came to crush the Midianites (Numbers 31:8).

In brief, the marriage test set by Abraham's servant served as the narrative prelude and paradigm of a fundamental Jewish value. Proverbs got it right when it declared that, "A righteous person knows the needs of his beast" (12:10). How we treat those beneath us in station is the ultimate measure of our humanity.

Shabbat shalom,


Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Hayyei Sarah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.