In the biblical narrative, Chayei Sarah is a bridge between the story of Abraham and Sarah and the story of Isaac and Rebekah. The story begins with Abraham purchasing the Cave of Machpelah in Hittite territory so he can bury his wife, Sarah. After caring for the dead with a permanent place in the land, Abraham turns his attention to the future and the living, sending his unnamed servant to go to the land of Abraham’s birth to “get a wife” for Isaac. The section concludes enumerating the lines of Abraham’s progeny through Keturah and Hagar (the line of Ishmael).
There are so many features of interest in this story, but in keeping with the task of this series, exploring the relationship between human beings, the rest of creation and G-d, the ecology of cosmos, I’m going to zero in on chapter 24. Rebeka’s character in chapter 24 serves as a dramatic counterpoint to the Esau’s character described in chapters 25 (his birth) and 27 (losing his birthright), both in the next portion, Toledot.
In chapter 24, Abraham sends his unnamed servant to get a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s family of origin. Abraham requires an oath from the servant not to take Isaac back to the land from which he came. Rather an “angel of the Lord” will lead the servant. Should the woman he choose refuse to leave her home and come with the servant, he will be cleared of the oath.
Taking ten of his master’s camels and ”all the bounty of his master,” the servant set out on his journey to Aram-Naharaim, to Nahor. When he arrives at the city, he causes his camels to kneel by the well outside the city at evening when the women of the city come out to draw water. The servant prays that he will find success on behalf of his master, Abraham. The words of the servant’s prayer provide the specifications for Isaac’s betrothed, as Dr. Nahum Sarna points out in the JPS Commentary to Bereishit:
“Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ — let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” (Gen. 24:13-14).
Sarna points out the significance of this first record in Hebrew scripture of an individual praying for guidance at a critical moment. It “implies the concept of the individual as a religious unit in his own right, as distinct from the community.” The servant’s prayer is answered immediately and completely.
At least as significant, though, is the extent to which Rebekah demonstrates the features of character the servant requires, leaving no doubt in the servant’s mind that not he but G-d chose this woman to move history forward. As Sarna points out, the criteria the servant establishes for the ideal wife are, “must be hospitable to strangers, kind to animals, and willing to give of herself to others.” — that is, responsive to a human community, to “outsiders” and to fellow creatures.
The extent to which Rebekah fulfills this ideal can only be understood from paying attention to the details of the text. As Sarna explains, “a single camel requires at least twenty-five gallons of water to regain the weight it loses in the course of a long journey. It takes a camel about ten minutes to drink this amount of water.” Remember, though, Gen. 24:10 provided the detail that the servant took ten of his master’s camels. Rebekah saw those ten camels and, undaunted, volunteered to draw water for the camels “until they finish drinking.” She emptied the water “quickly” into the trough and “ran” back to the well to draw more.
When the servant asks Rebekah if there is room in her house for “us” to spend the night (referring to himself and the men with him, mentioned in Gen. 24:32), she responds first (and gratuitously) on behalf of the camels, saying, “There is plenty of straw and feed at home, and also room to spend the night.” Similarly her family extends their hospitality to the camels equally with the men, preparing a place for the camels, unloading them and giving them straw and feed.
Rebekah cares for a stranger, extending hospitality and giving generously of herself — but it is her energetic labors on behalf of the ten camels that distinguishes her and provides us with a Torah ideal: while domesticated animals may work for humans (carrying them and their goods, as later in the story during the return to Isaac), they deserve full and compassionate care according to their needs. In this story, their care is at least as important as their human masters’ care, sometimes even coming before it.
Gone are the days in the Garden when animals, as much as humans, speak and act in the unfolding story of creation. Now humans are the only actors, and animals are either “beasts of the field” or domesticated, mutely serving humans in a variety of ways — but a test of character is the extent to which one respects their service and cares for them with energy and compassion.