Avraham Avinu sent his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak. Avraham made Eliezer swear that he would choose a girl from Avraham’s own family rather than from the neighboring Canaanite families.
Commentators point out that this preference prioritized kindness- a trait more likely to be found in Avraham’s extended family than among the surrounding strangers- over the girl’s background. Eliezer would eventually select Rivkah, despite the fact that her father Betuel and her brother Lavan were idol worshipers, due to the considerate kindness that she showed him. This teaches us that even if someone was exposed to terrible ideology as a child, he or she can still reach great heights as long as there are Midot Tovot, good character traits, to work with.
One who is kind, for example, may embody characteristics that are vital to spiritual growth such as humility, alacrity (being quick to act) and generosity. As it turned out, Yitzchak’s bride not only possessed great potential, but was already righteous- untainted by her family. Nevertheless, the emphasis on kindness in in searching for Yitzchak’s wife show that goodness can overcome the worst of educations.
Eliezer traveled a great distance to Aram Naharayim, where Avraham’s cousin Betuel lived. The servant had brought additional camels, bearing gifts for the prospective bride. Tired and thirsty, they stopped at a public well, where people would draw water for their daily needs. Eliezer prayed to Hashem that He send the correct girl his way. In fact, Eliezer also established ‘signs’ that would help him recognize if his prayers had been answered:
“So let it come to pass, that the girl to whom I shall say,
‘Let down your pitcher, please, so that I may drink,’
and she shall say, ‘Drink, and I will give your camels to drink also,’
let the same be she that You have appointed for Your servant for Yitzchak; and thereby I will know that You have shown kindness to my master.”
-Chayei Sarah, 24:14
Before Eliezer had even finished his last words, a young girl came to the well. When she had finished filling her pitcher, Eliezer ran over to her and asked if she would pour off a bit off water for him to drink. Let’s pay close attention to what happened next:
And she said, “Drink, my master.”
And she hurried and lowered her pitcher on her hand, and gave him to drink. And when she had finished to give him drink, she said, “I will also draw for your camels, until they have finished to drink.”
And she hurried and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again to the well to draw- and she drew for all of his camels.
This story is mind boggling. A camel can drink more than thirty gallons (well over 100 liters) of water at one time, and there were ten camels here! Rivkah drew and carried an incredible amount of water, while Eliezer, an able-bodied man, was standing right there- and she ran back and and forth the entire time. What energetic and selfless kindness!
The Beis Halevi, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Belarus, 1820-1892), analyzes this passage in greater depth.
For starters, he notes that Rivkah did not have a smaller jug with which she could take water out of her large pitcher. Eliezer nevertheless asked her to give her some water directly from the pitcher. This would test not only her kindness to a stranger, but also whether she would consent to have him drink out of the pitcher, although in her mind he might be unclean or have some disease.
Even if she would agree, Rivkah would be faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, it would be unwise of her to bring what remained in the pitcher to her house, in case he had in fact contaminated the water. On the other hand, she could not just spill out the water and refill the pitcher- that would embarrass the man, who would understand that she didn’t trust his hygiene!
What did the young girl do? She offered to give his camels to drink as well. This way, she could start by giving the rest of the first pitcher to the camels, rather than to her family, without spilling it out either. In fact, she went even further. If she would only give the rest of the first pitcher to the camels, Eliezer could possibly realize her true intent, understanding that she gave them to drink only to avoid embarrassing him! In fact, Eliezer had only prayed initially that the girl he would meet would offer his camels to drink- not “Until they had finished to drink.” By enthusiastically doing her good deed to the greatest extent possible, Rivkah sought to remove any doubts and discomfort from the stranger that she was helping.
This tremendous insight offers us a valuable lesson in how to help other people. Of course, one must first be open to doing the good deed to begin with- and that is a conversation in its own right. What we also see here, though, is that true kindness must focus on the recipient’s emotional needs and sensitivity. Even if you do perform the good deed, you may not make the other person uncomfortable. And it’s not even enough to avoid actively embarrassing the recipient; one must think carefully about any discomfort that may arise from the situation, and work hard to avoid such scenarios completely.
Good deeds require kindness-and they require thought as well. Because at the end of the day, you’re doing this for the other person’s comfort, aren’t you?
Have a great Shabbat!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.