The Test of Rebecca
The bulk of Parshas Chayei Sarah deals with the famous story of Eliezer’s mission to find a wife for Isaac. The Torah tells us that Abraham sent his trusted servant, Eliezer, to Mesopatamia to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer traveled with ten camels to the town of Nachor (Abraham’s brother). He arrived at the town’s wellspring at the time when the women would come out to draw water. Eliezer then prayed that G-d should guide him with a sign to know which of the young women was the correct match for Isaac. Specifically, Eliezer prayed that if, when he would ask her to let him drink some water from her jug, she would not only agree to give him water, but she would also give water to his camels, then he would know that she was the woman destined to marry Isaac.
Eliezer’s prayer was successful. Before he had even finished praying, Rebecca came to the well with her jug. After she filled her jug, Eliezer ran to her and asked to drink some of her water. She agreed and gave him water to drink. When he finished, she offered to give his camels to drink as well until they were finished. She poured the water into the trough and ran to refill the jug until she had drawn enough for all of his camels. Seeing that the sign had been fulfilled, Eliezer knew that he had found the future wife of Isaac.
Many commentators ask how Eliezer was permitted to utilize such a sign, for such signs are usually considered forbidden superstitious practices. (Thus, for example, it is forbidden for a Jew to change his path because a black cat crossed his path.) The Maharal (Gur Aryeh) answers that the prohibition against superstitious signs applies only when the sign has no real relevance to the issue being decided. In this case, however, the sign that Eliezer chose was highly relevant, as it demonstrated that she was a generous and intelligent person and worthy of marrying Isaac.
The Beis HaLevi (Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, d. 1892) explained how this sign showed her good character and intelligence. She gave a stranger water to drink, demonstrating her generosity. However, now that the stranger had drunk from the jug, she could not simply bring the remaining water home, for the water might be contaminated. At the same time, if she would just pour out the remaining water and refill the jug, she would insult the stranger. Instead, she gave the remaining water to the stranger’s camels, demonstrating both her intelligence and her sensitivity to the feelings of others. (In fact, Rivka went even further, refilling the jug several times to water the camels.)
Thus, the sign was not simply a “sign” from above, it was also a test, to see how she would respond to a stranger asking for a kindness. And Rebecca clearly passed with flying colors, showing herself to be a kind and generous person, with a quick wit and an understanding heart. She was clearly an exceptional young woman.
But was she exceptional enough? What about her relationship with G-d? Was she a G-d-fearing woman?Shouldn’t that be at least as important as her character and intelligence? After all, the unique characteristic of the family of Abraham was their devotion to G-d, and the wife of Isaac would certainly need to be a deeply religious woman. Yet, not only is this not included in the sign that Eliezer prayed for, the whole issue isn’t even mentioned at any point in the story!
Rav Elya Lopian (d.1970) answered that this teaches us that if a person has truly good middos (character traits), then when he comes to the recognition of the truth of G-d and His Torah, he will quickly attain fear of G-d. Thus, even though, due to her environment, Rebecca may not have been a properly G-d-fearing woman, since she had demonstrated that she had exceptionally good character, it was certain that, once she came to live in the home of Abraham and Isaac, she would quickly develop into a genuinely G-d-fearing person.
This teaches us a profoundly important lesson. Our Sages taught, “Derech Eretz (i.e., civilized behavior; good character) is prior to Torah.” Ultimately, it is impossible to truly be a good Jew unless one is also a good person. Good middos are the essential foundation for all other spiritual achievements.
Eliezer C. Abrahamson