Parashat Chayei Sarah
Justice vs. Charity
-Rabbi Asher Sabag-
Parashat Chayei Sarah deals primarily with the journey of Avraham’s servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for Yitzchak, Avraham’s son. The story reaches its climax by the water spring, when Eliezer decides to test the young women coming and going to the spring by asking them for water. Eliezer resolved that the girl who not only offered water to him, but to his camels too, is the one who was fit for his master’s son.
At first glance it is difficult to comprehend the substance of the test, as providing water to a traveler seems to be a very trivial thing. Why did Eliezer choose such a simple test, one that ostensibly does not truly distinguish between true kindness and common manners?
There are those that emphasize the element of the camels, and there are even those who attempted to calculate the amount of water needed to quench the thirst of all of the camels. Nevertheless, the test still seems to elicit a response more reflective of common courtesy than anything else, since the girl would obviously know that Eliezer and his camels required water following their long journey. Most well-mannered people would not refuse such a request.
A review of the verses in the Torah shows that the intent of Eliezer’s test was to capture the essence of Rivkah’s inner qualities and to assess whether she belonged to the “justice” camp or the “charity” camp.
The conflict between justice and charity exists in every country that provides social services. Justice demands that social policies should be reined in or else people who don’t deserve to benefit from such policies will receive assistance that ultimately will cause them to refrain from entering the work force, thus generally causing higher unemployment rates. In these cases the middle class will receive almost no benefits whatsoever since it is perceived as able to take care of itself.
On the other hand, limited social policies enhance the class divide and may cause the lower classes to enter a “tailspin,” may erode the middle class so that it is weakened to the point of poverty and may cause a social reality in which someone who does not work is considered nonexistent. For these reasons, there are those who support a “charity” policy, one that advocates for giving even to those who are ostensibly not categorized as “weak,” so that the aforementioned issues do not arise.
When Eliezer assesses Rivkah he does so in a unique way.
“Behold, I am standing on the spring of water, and the daughters of the people of the city are coming out to draw water. And it will be, [that] the maiden to whom I will say, 'Lower your pitcher and I will drink,' and she will say, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' it is she who you have designated for your servant, for Yitzchak, and through her may I know that you have performed loving kindness with my master.” Eliezer emphasizes the fact that he is standing on the spring itself.
The continuation of the verse describes Eliezer’s view of Rivkah descending to the spring: “Now the maiden was of very handsome appearance, a virgin, and no man had been intimate with her, and she went down to the spring and she filled her pitcher and went up.” Rivkah descended to fill up her pitcher with water for her family with the intent of then returning home.
Theoretically, the most appropriate time to ask her for water was before she filled her pitcher, and Eliezer, as we have seen, was standing adjacent to the spring. Yet he was silent and waited for Rivkah to fill her pitcher and ascend from the spring, and only then did he run to her and ask to drink.
Imagine for a moment how you would feel if you approached a water fountain intending to fill your water bottle, while all the while a person is standing idly by the fountain. After you fill your bottle and begin walking away up the stairs, the person shouts at you from below and asks if you could bring him some water.
In the best of circumstances the response would be ‘why didn’t you ask earlier?’ Rivkah surely wondered why Eliezer allowed her to go all the way up the stairs away from the spring, carrying a heavy pitcher laden with water, only to have to go down again. He had been standing there the entire time! Moreoever, Eliezer did not offer to help her. He asked her to bring him water and then watched her run back and forth without offering to lift a finger.
From the subsequent verses it appears that Eliezer had something of an entourage of people, yet none of them offered any help either. Despite all this, Rivkah passes the justice vs. charity test and chooses charity, giving to another despite the fact that that person’s behavior seemingly does not justify this help.
The Rabbis in tractate Ta’anit alluded to this interpretation of Eliezer’s test when they state that “Eliezer asked not in a proper manner.” The Rabbis intent was that the test itself was an improper request from Hashem, but they imply that the purpose of the test was to find out how Rivkah would respond to such an inappropriate request.
As opposed to Rivkah, Yitzchak is perceived as someone who follows in his mother’s footsteps. He symbolizes the quality of valor, or the fairness of giving only to those who are deserving. Thus, the combination of Yitzchak and Rivkah creates one complete whole. At the end of the parasha, the Torah describes how Yitzchak brought Rivkah into his mother’s tent and “loved her.”
This is the first time that the Torah mentions the word love in the context of a relationship. This love arises out of the completeness of the combination of Yitzchak’s justice and Rivkah’s generosity, which togeother form a whole.
This completeness leads to the two figures trading places in the next parasha, as Rivkah is the one who waves the banner of justice and supports Ya’acov, while Yitzchak chooses the side of charity and supports his wicked son, Esav.
Only a social policy that succeeds in combining “justice” with “charity,” giving when it is correct to do so and even when not, will be able to create and sustain an all-encompassing social justice program.
Rabbi Asher Sabag, a member of the “Tzohar” organization, serves as community rabbi of “Har Moriah” in Rishon Letzion.