Rivka, Yitzchak and Lavan

“And the girl, to whom I shall say, “Tip your jug and I will drink,” and she will say, “Drink and I will also water your camels,” she is the one you have designated for your servant Yitzchak. And through her I will know that you have done kindness with my master.” (Bereshit 24:13)

Our parasha discusses the selection of Rivka to become the wife of Yitzchak. This parasha also introduces Lavan – Rivka’s bother. The Torah describes Rivka as a person of tremendous sensitivity and kindness. Lavan is generally regarded as the classical villain. However, it does not seem from our parasha that this characterization of Lavan is completely justified. As the Torah explains, Lavan and Rivka were products of the same household and it is clear from the parasha that Lavan was not completely bereft of positive qualities. Let us summarize the Torah’s introduction of these two characters and compare the manner in which they are portrayed.

Avraham sends his servant Eliezer to Aram Naharayim. There, he is to find a wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer arrives at Aram Naharayim and prepares to fulfill his mission. He devises a test. He will stand by the town’s well. The girls of the town will come to draw water for their families. Eliezer will approach each. He will ask each to share some water with him. The girl that offers him water and also offers to water his camels will be destined to be Yitzchak’s wife. The objective of Eliezer’s test is clear. He is seeking a wife for Yitzchak who exemplifies the characteristics of kindness and sensitivity. He has created a test designed to identify a candidate with these qualities.

Eliezer has barely completed formulating his test when Rivka appears. She fulfills all of the requirements of the test. Eliezer immediately rewards her with jewelry. He does not yet identify himself or explain his mission. Instead, he asks Rivka to identify her family and he asks if there is available lodging with her family. Rivka responds by telling Eliezer that she is the daughter of Betuel and that there is lodging available at her home as well as provisions for Eliezer’s camels. Eliezer thanks Hashem for His assistance and Rivka rushes home and relates her experiences to her family.

Lavan observes the gifts that Rivka has received from Eliezer and rushes to greet him. Lavan finds Eliezer and immediately insists that he lodge with the family.

It is clear that Rivka was a person of tremendous compassion. But it is also evident that Rivka’s home was a place where guests were welcome. As Rivka explained, their home included room for guests and provisions were kept on hand for their needs. Lavan was eager to invite Eliezer into their home. He was very insistent that Eliezer except the invitation. So, it is true that Rivka demonstrated remarkable sensitivity to Eliezer’s needs. But Lavan was also eager to accommodate this guest. What precisely was the difference between Rivka and her brother?

“And it was when he saw the nose-ring and the bracelets on the hands of his sister and he heard the words of Rivka – saying this is what the man said – that he came to the man and he was standing by his camels near the spring.” (Beresheit 24:30)

The above pasuk plays a significant role in the traditional understanding of Lavan. The pasuk tells us that Lavan saw the jewelry that Ravka had received from Eliezer and he rushed to greet Eliezer. Rashi comments that the Torah is implying a connection between Lavan’s observation of the jewelry and his eagerness to entertain Eliezer. According to Rashi, Lavan was not interested in practicing kindness. He was determined to develop a relationship with Eliezer and through this relationship devise some means of securing some of Eliezer’s wealth.[1]

However, there is a problem with Rashi’s interpretation of our pasuk. In the pervious pasuk, the Torah tells us that Lavan heard Rivka’s account and rushed out of the house to greet Eliezer. Only upon leaving, did Lavan notice Rivka’s jewelry. It seems the Lavan had decided to greet Eliezer before he even noticed the gifts that Rivka had received!

However, this does raise an interesting problem. Why does the Torah note that Lavan observed Rivka’s jewelry? In other words, the Torah implies that this observation had some impact on him. But the Torah does not describe the nature of this impact. How was Lavan influenced by his observation of the jewelry that Rika had received from Eliezer?

Sforno answers these questions. He explains that although after hearing Rivka’s story Lavan rushed to greet Eliezer, he did not initially intend to invite him to his home. He was merely wished to take advantage of the opportunity to meet a wealthy traveler. However, when Lavan saw the jewelry his intentions changed. He recognized the generosity that this stranger had shown towards his sister and he wished to respond with an invitation of lodging. Lavan felt that Eliezer’s kindness towards his sister should be rewarded.[2]

In short, Sforno’s characterization of Lavan is very different from Rashi’s. According to Rashi, Lavan was only interested in taking advantage of Eliezer. But according to Sforno, Lavan felt obligated to repay Eliezer for his generosity to his sister.

Now, according to Rashi, we can see that there is a clear difference between Lavan and Rivka. Rivka was a sincere and sensitive person. She observed a traveler; ascertained his needs and immediately acted to address these needs. In contrast, Lavan saw Eliezer’s needs as an opportunity to take advantage him. He was not sincerely interested in extending hospitality to Eliezer. He was interested in bringing Eliezer into his home in the hope that he could devise a plan to take advantage of him.

However, according to Sforno, the difference between Eliezer and Rivka is not as clear. Rivka demonstrated kindness by assessing and responding to Eleizer’s needs. Lavan extended his hospitality to Eliezer as an expression of gratitude for the generosity that Eliezer had shown Rivka. Why is Lavan morally inferior to Rivka?

“And he said,” Blessed is Hashem, the G-d of my master Avraham, who has not withdrawn His kindness and His truth from my master. Here I am, still on the road, and Hashem has led me to the house of my master’s close relatives.” (Beresheit 24:27)

Eliezer recognizes that his success is a result of the Almighty’s providence. He offers thanksgiving and praise to Hashem. In his words of thanks, Eliezer says that Hashem has treated Avraham with kindness and truth. What is the meaning of these terms? What is the kindness and truth to which Eliezer is referring?

Radak explains that Hashem acted with truth towards Avraham by guiding Eliezer to a wife that was fitting for Yitzchak. However, Hashem acted with kindness – chesed – in guiding him to a wife from Avraham’s own family.[3]

Radak explains himself more fully in Sefer Yehoshua. Yehoshua sent spies to scout the land of Canaan. The spies came to the house of Rachav. They were observed entering the house. But Rachav hid the spies and saved their lives. Rachav asked these spies to treat her and her family with kindness and truth. She asked that Bnai Yisrael spare them in their conquest of the land. Radak is concerned with Rachav’s characterization of her own request as an appeal for kindness and truth. Rachav asked for kindness – she asked to be spared. But in what manner was she requesting truth?

Radak responds that Rachav’s request that she be spared was not an appeal for kindness. She saved the lives of the spies and she deserved to be repaid and spared. This not an appeal for kindness; it is an appeal for truth. The spies were indebted to her. Their dedication to the truth required that they recognize their debt. But Rachav asked that her family be spared. Her family had not done anything for these spies. They did not owe anything to Rachav’s family. Her request that her family be spared was an appeal for kindness.[4]

According to Radak, Eliezer applied a similar analysis to Hashem’s providence over Avraham. Avraham was dedicated to the service of Hashem. Yitzchak was committed to continue in Avraham’s path. In order to succeed, he needed an appropriate wife. Hashem helped Eliezer identify this wife. This, Eliezer regarded as an act of truth. It is appropriate for one who sincerely seeks to serve Hashem to be assisted in this mission. But Rivka was more than just a fitting wife. She was also a member of Avraham’s own family. This element of Hashem’s providence – Rivka’s relationship to Avraham – Eliezer regarded as an expression of Hashem’s chesed.

In summary, according to Radak some acts of charity are acts of truth. They are an acknowledgment and repayment of a debt. Other acts of charity are true acts of chesed. An act of chesed occurs when we demonstrate kindness to a person who has no claim on us and right or reason to expect our kindness.

We can now return to our comparative analysis of Rivka and Lavan. Rav Yehuda Copperman explains that according to Sforno, Lavan and Rivka had very different values. Both showed generosity towards Eliezer. However, their generosity expressed two different principles. Lavan was capable or recognizing truth. He recognized that Eliezer had been generous towards Rivka and he deserved to the repaid for his generosity. He was eager to repay this debt through providing Eliezer with lodging and provisions for his camels. However, at no juncture did Lavan demonstrate a commitment to chesed – unearned, spontaneous kindness. Rivka acted out of chesed. She observed a stranger in need of assistance and immediately threw herself into helping this stranger. She did not owe him her assistance; she did not even know him. He act was an expression of pure chesed.[5]

It is essential to consider the reason that repayment of a kindness is referred to as truth. When we repay a kindness, we are repaying a debt; we are executing an obligation that we have towards the person that has acted towards us with chesed. It is not enough that we act with kindness in return. More is required. We must recognize that we have incurred a debt. We are required to accept that we are morally obligated to repay the chesed. If we believe that by demonstrating kindness in return we are performing chesed, our entire outlook is tragically flawed. We are denying our obligation and indebtedness.

Too often we confuse chesed with truth. When one who has helped us asks for our assistance in return, we imagine that we are being asked for chesed. We do not like to be in debt – not financially or morally. So, rather than recognizing that we are required to act with truth to those that have demonstrated chesed towards us, we deceive ourselves into believing that we have no debt. This attitude is tragic. It undermines the value of our response. We may respond to the call for assistance. But we depreciated the quality, significance, and meaning of our response if we believe that we are performing a chesed and deny that we are repaying a debt!

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 24:29.

[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 24:29-30.

[3] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 24:27.

[4] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Yehoshua 2:12.

[5] Rav Yehuda Copperman, Notes to Commentary of Sforno on Sefer Beresheit 24:29, note 58.