Nurturing Virtue in Our Children

And I will make you swear by Hashem, the G-d of heaven and the G-d of the earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. But you shall go to my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son, for Yitzchak. (Sefer Beresheit 24:3-4)

1. Avraham’s strange directive to Eliezer
Parshat Chayey Sarah describes Avraham’s endeavors to secure a fitting wife for his son Yitzchak. Avraham charges his loyal servant Eliezer with the responsibility of finding this wife and provides him with specific directions. She may not be from the nations of Cana’an. Avraham directs Eliezer to return to Aram Naharayim – Avraham’s birthplace. In this distant land, he must seek a wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer accepts the mission and vows to faithfully fulfill his duty.

Maimonides explains that Avraham was an innovator. He was born at a time in which all of humanity worshiped false gods and idols. He had no teacher to guide him to the truth. Even his own father and mother were devoted to idol worship. Without support or assistance, he rediscovered Hashem. He recognized that the universe is the work of its Creator and that He alone should be worshiped.

However, Avraham was not only an innovator. He was a bold leader and an effective teacher. He waged an intense and relentless battle against the conventional wisdom of his age. He smashed the idols, debated the guardians of the status quo and he taught the truth to the masses. He succeeded in reestablishing the worship of Hashem. He amassed tens of thousands of followers who studied with him and embraced his message. [1]

It is strange that among all of these followers – individuals and families who had forsaken idolatry and accepted the truth taught by Avraham – he could not find a suitable wife for his son Yitzchak. It is even more shocking that Avraham instructed Eliezer to travel to Aram Naharayim to seek the proper wife. The people of Aram Naharayim were idolators. Avraham had devoted much of his life to uprooting the very ideas that these people embraced. Why did he seek a wife for Yitzchak from among a society of idolators?

So let it come to pass, that the young woman to whom I shall say: Let down your pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say: Drink, and I will give your camels drink also; she shall be the one that You have appointed for Your servant, for Yitzchak. Thereby shall I know that You have shown kindness unto my master. (Sefer Beresheit 24:14)

2. The objective of Eliezer’s test and Avraham’s priorities
The first step in answering this question is to consider the method developed and applied by Eliezer to identify the proper wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer arrives at Aram Naharayim. He decides that he will wait at the well for the young women to come draw water for their families. He will approach various young women. He will ask each to share some water with him. He will look for a specific response. The woman who will agree to share her water with him and will also water his camels is worthy of consideration for marriage to Yitzchak.

The test devised by Eliezer was not designed to determine whether the young woman was an idolator or worshiped the one true G-d. It was designed to reveal the character of the participants. More specifically, the test was designed to discern the young woman’s attitude toward chesed – kindness and charity. Apparently, Eliezer understood that Avraham regarded character, and specifically, kindness and charity as the most important considerations in qualifying a young woman to be Yitzchak’s wife.

However, the question remains. Why did Avraham believe that Eliezer would be most likely to discover a young woman meeting these qualifications among the idolators of Aram Naharayim? Why did he not instruct Eliezer to seek a woman of character from among his followers – a group committed to the worship of Hashem?

3. Nature vs. nurture
Rabbaynu Nissim Gerondi posits that Avraham’s instructions to Eliezer suggest that the basic construct of the individual personality is largely an expression of inherited traits. Avraham believed that the people of his homeland were genetically predisposed toward kindness and charity. Among this population, his own family was especially hereditarily gifted. His followers were committed to the worship of Hashem. In this sense, they were far advanced over the religiously primitive people of Aram Naharayim. However, his followers lacked the hereditary advantage of the people of Aram Naharayim.[2]

Avraham believed that the truth can be taught and transmitted to an open-minded student. However, character, kindness, and generosity are not achieved through study and meditation alone. To an enormous extent, mastery of these lofty values is dependent upon one’s hereditary disposition. Accordingly, he instructed Eliezer to focus on discovering a woman with developed and refined values – a woman of virtue. If Eliezer succeeded, then through tutoring and education she would be initiated into the community of Hashem.

One may dispute Rabbaynu Nissim’s assertion that heredity is the fundamental factor in determining one’s character. However, his basic approach to explaining Avraham’s directive is compelling. It is important to recognize that the values and character traits which we proudly identify as our legacy as Jews are the product of centuries of cultivation. We have the benefit of the Torah. Through its mitzvot, it develops and refines our character. We are the beneficiaries of a rich and extensive literature that both communicates to us proper values and inspires us to strive to integrate them into our personality and behavior. Beyond the Torah’s mitzvot and its literature, we have inherited a culture that places the highest value upon generosity, kindness, and charity. Not every Jew meets the standards established by the Torah in these areas. But few Jews – observant or not observant – dispute the assertion that these values are among the highest virtues.

The brave individuals who became Avraham’s students joined a nascent community with few traditions, mitzvot, and little literature. Their society was evolving but was not yet mature. They were attracted by Avraham’s teachings. On an intellectual level they were fully committed to these teaching. However, the transformation of one’s character is not achieved through intellectual endeavor alone. Character is shaped to a great extent through one’s rearing and it is reinforced and sustained by the surrounding society. Avraham’s infant community could not provide the degree of support and nurturing that produces the refined character that he sought in a wife for Yitzchak.

Avraham recognized that although the people of Aram Naharayim were religiously primitive, they had developed a society that encouraged and supported the character traits essential for Yitzchak’s wife. Eliezer discovered that Avraham’s judgment was correct.

4. The aspect of chesed revealed by Eliezer’s test
Let us analyze the test devised by Eliezer. The test required that the woman perform two acts. First, she must respond positively to Eliezer’s request for water. Second, she must make an unsolicited offer to provide water for his camels. Clearly, this unsolicited offer is essential to identifying the characteristic of chesed – kindness. What does this behavior reveal to us about chesed?

Chesed is not merely responding to the requests of another. Chesed requires that we look beyond the individual’s requests. We must evaluate the actual needs of the person.

As soon as Eliezer designed his test, Rivkah appeared. Eliezer asked her for water for himself. Many people would respond positively to such a request. However, this response, by itself, does not exemplify chesed. Chesed requires taking the next step. Rivkah asked herself, “What else does this traveler need?” She realized that he also needed water for his camels. She immediately offered to provide this water.

This same attribute of chesed is again demonstrated by Rivkah later in her encounter with Eliezer. Eliezer asks Rivkah if there is any space in her father’s home for him to lodge. Rivkah answers that there is room. However, she does not stop with this positive response to Eliezer’s question. She realizes that Eliezer has other needs that he has not mentioned. She immediately adds that these needs will also be met. Eliezer will be provided with straw and fodder. Eliezer had not asked for straw and fodder. However, this is the very essence of chesed. Rivkah identified the needs of Eliezer and addressed not merely Eliezer’s stated requests, but the needs he had left unmentioned.

Eliezer’s test of Rivkah and her offer of lodging and fodder reveal one of the aspects of a personality that reflects chesed. A second aspect emerges in the Torah’s account of Eliezer’s encounter with Rivkah.

And he said: Whose daughter are you? Tell me, I pray thee. Is there room in thy father’s house for us to lodge in? And she said unto him: I am the daughter of Betuel the son of Milcah, whom she bore unto Nachor. She said moreover unto him: We have both straw and fodder enough, and room to lodge in. (Sefer Beresheit 24:23-25)

5. A second aspect of chesed
In the passages above Eliezer asks Rivkah whether in her father’s home there is a place for him and his company to lodge. Rivkah responds that there is a place in her father’s home for guests to lodge. Rashi notes that in the original Hebrew text there is a slight difference between Eliezer’s request and Rivkah’s response. He explains that Eliezer asked if there was a place in which he and his company could lodge for the night – a single night. Rivkah responded that the home included a place suitable or designated for guests to lodge for an indefinite period – a single night or many more.[3] In other words, her father’s home included facilities for guests and travelers and they were welcome to lodge in their home for an extended period.

Rivkah’s response provides a revealing insight into her family. Her father’s home was a place in which travelers were welcome. In other words, Rivkah’s family did not only respond with kindness and sensitivity when called upon to help others. She was a member of a family that proactively looked for the opportunity to offer assistance to others. Chesed was not an occasional behavior provoked by confrontation with need. It was an ongoing behavior and value. Her family sought out opportunities to assist those needing their help.

In summary, Rivkah demonstrated two aspects of chesed. She possessed the sensitivity to look beyond the specific request of a person in need and to evaluate the true needs of a person – those stated and those left unstated. Second, she understood that the virtue of chesed involves more than responding to emergent needs. It involves proactively seeking ways in which we can contribute to the welfare of the community and of others. She understood that this is an ongoing process and a part of life, not merely a response to a request.

6. Inspiring our children through education and modeling
One of the lessons of this narrative is that virtues such as chesed are not acquired through education alone. We must educate our children in the virtues we hope to instill in them. However, Avraham recognized that the education that he provided to his followers did not suffice to instill within them the virtues that he sought in Yitzchak’s wife. Instead, he recognized the tremendous impact of one’s family, and community in nurturing character and in inspiring the highest virtues.

As parents, we must reinforce and affirm the lessons that we expect our children to learn at school. We should expect our schools to teach our children that they should speak well of others, not gossip and not invent or repeat unfounded and hurtful rumors. For that lesson to be meaningful to the student, he or she must observe that this is a value upheld in the home. We expect our schools to teach their students that they should be respectful, charitable, honest, and sincere. In order for those lessons to be effective, our children must observe us modeling these virtues. Neither school nor home can alone achieve the goal of inspiring virtue in our children. Rather, our aspirations for our children are most likely to be achieved when we act as partners in the process of teaching and modeling.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:3.
[2] Rabbaynu Nissim ben Reuven Gerondi (Ran), Derashot HaRan, pp. 68-69.
[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 24:23.