To the Matchmaker

The dramatic thing about this story is that it starts with an oath. Abraham causes Eliezer to swear that he will not bring a Canaanite bride to Isaac.

Why was such an oath necessary? Eliezer was Abraham's servant. Servants are supposed to follow orders without having to swear about everything. Secondly, why does Abraham not cause him to swear that he will bring back a wife from Abraham's family in Mesopotamia? The emphasis of the oath is on Eliezer NOT bringing back a Canaanite girl! Why the negative?

Finally, fundamentally, why was Abraham so opposed to a Canaanite girl? Eliezer himself had a daughter who was of the right age. It stands to reason that she was a very good girl, considering who her father was an in what house she had grown up. The reason given by the rabbis is that the Canaanites are the descendents of Ham, who was cursed by Noah. Abraham is the descendent of Shem, who was blessed by Noah. "Blessed should not cleave to cursed."

The Or Hachaim puts words to this argument. After all, he reasons, Abraham was blessed. He was given the ability to confer that blessing upon others, and all that are in his family are recipients of blessing. Shouldn't all of this blessing be enough to negate the curse of Noah?

Furthermore, Abraham's family in Mesopotamia are no great shakes. We are talking about idolaters and cheaters. In fact, according to the midrash, Rebecca's father Betuel dies by ingesting poison that he had intended for Eliezer! Rebecca's brother, Laban, is a legendary manipulator who harbors ill intentions towards Jacob and his family. Are these people really a better source for a wife for Isaac than the family of Eliezer, faithful servant of Abraham?

The answers to these two questions are foundational for every matchmaker. The first question, why was Eliezer tasked and not Isaac himself, can be answered by a clichéd but true fact: no two people are created alike. Every single is their own unique personality. Isaac, as can be seen throughout his life, is a passive person. He is a great Tsaddik, but he does not innovate or initiate. Therefore, Abraham does not trust him to find his own partner.

In relationships, there are different dynamics. Some seek a parental figure, while others look for someone whom they can nurture. Still others are looking for a sibling or a friend or a playmate. There are many nuances in relationship seeking, but these are the main categories. Isaac, as a more passive person, would naturally gravitate towards a motherly figure. This is born out by the Torah, which reports that "Isaac brought her into his tent, he loved her, and was comforted after his mother."

As a side note, we should note that Isaac loved Rebecca only after he brought her into his tent. Love, in this verse, is a verb. It is not something that one "falls into." It is, instead, something one must do to succeed. Attraction is like the sign outside of a restaurant. It'll get you in, but what you order on the menu will either leave you happy or sick to your stomach. The success of a matches dependent on what happens after the canopy, not before.

This understanding of the importance of each individual's psychological and emotional makeup points us to the answer to the second series of questions. In short, ideology can be changed fairly easily. Character, however, cannot.

The Canaanites were cursed because of the character of their grandfather, Ham. His was a character of selfishness, lack of responsibility and lack of concern for others. A normal child, upon seeing his father in a degraded state, would rush to restore his father's dignity. Ham, on the other hand, not only failed to do so, but (according to a midrash) sterilized his father! To be capable of such an action one must have a deep corruption in one's basic character. That is the source of the curse, and that is the character trait that exhibited itself in Ham's descendents who dwelled in Sodom and Gomorrah.

So while it is possible that a Canaanite can be an exemplary citizen, there is no guarantee that good character will survive to the next generation. And, considering that Isaac is a more passive person who needs a mother figure, it could be Isaac who becomes corrupted rather than the bride who becomes inspired.

So Abraham understood that ideology can be changed easily. The idolatry of his family did not concern him, since he knew that kindness was deep-rooted. Even though Betuel and Laban were no great paragons of virtue, they were the exceptions in the family. What's more, it is eminently possible that their opposition to the family of Abraham is born of their fear of Abraham's monotheistic faith threatening their comfortable idolatrous lifestyle. They weren't bad people, but they did bad things out of a sense of panic.

And, at the end of the day, they enable the match of Isaac and Rebecca as well as the future matches of Jacob, Rachel and Leah.

The medrash tells us that when Isaac brought Rebecca home, four things happened. Four things that had been present when Sara was alive and disappeared with her death, returned with the entrance of Rebecca. There was a cloud on the tent, there was a blessing in the dough, the doors were always wide open, and a candle was lit from the eve of the Sabbath to the next eve of the Sabbath. What do these four things mean?

The cloud symbolizes the Divine Presence. This rested upon the tent as long as three crucial things were in place. My teacher, Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, explains these three things. 1. The home had to be one of mercy. The Sabbath is a day of peace, a day of living together in harmony. When the Torah prohibits fire on the Sabbath day, the Rabbi's comment that this includes the fires of fighting an argument. This is what it means by the candle being lit from Sabbath to Sabbath, meaning that the spirit of peace of the Sabbath pervades the entire week. This comes from the character trait of mercy. 2. The home has to be one of modesty. The sages tell us that the one who is truly wealthy is the one who is happy with his lot. This is what it means by a blessing being in the dough. The family feels blessed with whatever it is they have. This is the character trait of modesty. 3. The home has to be one where kindness is prevalent. The sages tell us that we are to always have our houses open for the relief of those who are in need. This is what it means by the doors being open all the time. This comes from the character trait of kindness.

These character traits are the opposite of the heritage of Ham, Canaan, and the Sodomites. Abraham teaches every matchmaker that interests and ideology may be an external factor in a match, but the true energy lies in compatible character traits. "The way of the world (good character) comes before Torah," say our sages.

Lot and the most important character trait

There are three main stories involving Lot. The first is when his shepherds argued with Abraham's, resulting in Lot moving down to the lush, but sinful, city of Sodom. The second is when Abraham rescued Lot and the Sodomites from four mighty kings that had captured them. This was a brilliant military victory where Abraham, with just a few hundred soldiers, defeated four powerful armies.

The most significant story, however, is how Lot was rescued on the eve of Sodom's destruction. When we think of an individual being saved from a cataclysm, we think of Noah. It must be that Lot had a certain virtue that raised him to that same level. What was it?

The Torah tells us that Lot was saved after God remembered Abraham. The Ramban suggests that Lot did not possess sufficient merit to be saved by himself, so the merit of Abraham was needed to save him. Abraham had extended much effort to rescue Lot from those kings. Perhaps God was doing Abraham a favor, so he should not feel that all his effort was in vain.

Rashi, however, quotes the rabbis who explained that Lot had actually done a great deed for Abraham. When Abraham had first arrived in the holy land, a famine drove him, his wife, and his nephew down to Egypt. Abraham feared that the Egyptians would kill him to take his beautiful wife, so he requested that she tell them that Abraham was her brother, not her husband. In this fashion, even if Sara should be taken away, Abraham's life would be spared.

The Rabbi say that Lot knew this plot and allowed it to go forward, not revealing the truth to the Egyptians. It was this merit that saved him from the destruction of Sodom. Some ask, however, why this act was so meritorious? After all, what would Lot gain by telling the Egyptians that Sara was Abraham's wife? An answer is given that, at that time, before the birth of Isaac and Ishmael, Lot was Abraham's heir. Had Abraham been killed, Lot would come into a large inheritance. Nonetheless, he put his own self-interest aside and protected his uncle.

This will be a key an understanding just why Lot was rescued, and why his stories have much to teach us. The most important character trait is here. Let us delve further.

A fourth story involves Lot's daughters and this same trait. After Sodom was destroyed, Lot and his daughters fled to a cave. The daughters were convinced that, once again, humanity had been destroyed and they were the sole hope for the future. The older daughter suggested that they get their father drunk and then become pregnant by him. So it was that they became the progenitors of the nations of Ammon and Moab. The question is, was this a good deed that they did or not?

There seems to be a divide among the rabbis on this question. They are critical of the immodesty of the older daughter, and critical of Lot who may have been aware of what was happening. Others, however, see Divine Providence in their actions, and praise them for their deeds. On what does the argument rest?

The Torah says that the daughters feared that "there is no man to come to us as the way of all the world." Some rabbis interpret this to mean that they believe that the world of been destroyed, just as in the days of Noah. Others, again, are more critical and say that these daughters knew that there were humans elsewhere, but feared that none of them were worthy to be their husbands. They just weren't as good as their father, so...

Let's follow the first assumption, that they really believed the world had been destroyed. And let us contrast that with the experience of Noah and his sons after the flood. After the flood, Noah, perhaps suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, becomes drunk inside his tent. His son, Ham, sees him in his nakedness and does something. What did he do? One opinion is that he raped his father. The other is that he sterilized him. In either case the action he took would not lead to having children.

In the case of Lot, the story is reversed. The daughters get the father drunk specifically in order to have children! What is the difference between the two cases? Perhaps the most important character trait a person can possess: Responsibility. The success of the human experiment depends upon the victory of Responsibility over Selfishness.

Lot was an average person. As a matter of fact, his choice to dwell in Sodom indicates that he was a below average person on the moral scale. But he had one overriding character trait which gave him tremendous merit. His sense of Responsibility showed itself time and again. Responsibility means being concerned about, and ready to act upon, the needs of others, of society, of the world. Lot put his selfishness aside in order to protect his uncle Abraham.

What's more, Lot refused to turn away strangers from his home, even though the welcoming of such guests was considered a terrible crime in Sodomite society. When the mob descended upon his house after he had welcomed two guests, he protected his guests at all costs. He was even willing to put his two daughters at the mob's mercy to do so. (Some question how Lot was ready to do such a terrible thing. Perhaps he learned it, according to his own understanding, from Abraham's willingness to endanger Sara's chastity to preserve his own life at Egypt. Perhaps he understood that rape is the lesser evil, and life must take precedence. Whether he was right or wrong is the subject of a different discussion.)

The same can be said about Lot's daughters. They felt an overriding responsibility to continue the human race, despite how distasteful the method available to them was. They looked at what happened between Ham and Noah and decided to do the opposite. They provided the wine, they ensured that the children would be born.

And, as a result of these unions, who was born? The nation of Moab, the nation that gave us Ruth the convert. Ruth took responsibility for her mother-in-law Naomi, and as a result, the line that gave us King David and will ultimately bring us the Messiah came into being.

Yes, Responsibility is the character trait that will save the world. Selfishness, the trademark of Sodom, is what destroys the world. The Jewish nation has always felt a tremendous responsibility to improve the lot of humanity. We, as individuals, must be proud of that character trait and strengthen it in ourselves for the benefit of all.

The Real Sodomy

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Divinsk asks why Sodom seems to have been treated unfairly in comparison to Nineveh. In the book of Jonah, the Hebrew prophet comes to the sinful city of Nineveh, a non-Jewish city, and warns them that they will be destroyed in 40 days. Immediately, every resident of Nineveh, from the King to the simplest peasant, is wearing sackcloth and fasting in repentance. Why, asks Rabbi Meir Simcha, were the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah also not warned? Why were they not given a chance to repent just like Nineveh was?

There is a Mishna in which the teacher, Rabbi Johanon Ben Zakai, sends his five disciples out to discover "the path that a man should choose." The five students return with five answers. A good eye, a good friend, a good neighbor, someone who sees the consequences, and a good heart. Rabbi Johanon chooses the final answer, "because all the other answers are included in it."

He then sends them to discover "the path that a man should distance himself from." The answers include: an evil eye, a bad friend, a bad neighbor, someone who borrows and does not repay, and a bad heart. Again, Rabbi Johanon prefers the all-inclusive "bad heart" response.

I believe that this Mishna could easily refer to the people of Sodom. Our sages paint a picture of a town where no charity, no kindness is allowed. "What's mine is mine, what's yours is yours." On the surface, this seems reasonable, but in truth it is evil. The Torah says of the people of Sodom, "They are bad and sinful to the Lord exceedingly." "Bad," in Jewish parlance, refers to separation, division, disunity. A person with a bad heart views every other human with suspicion and jealousy, or, perhaps even worse, with complete lack of care or empathy.

Rabbi Meir Simcha answers his own question by claiming that Sodom, indeed, had been warned. The shape of that warning, however, differed from Nineveh. God sought to deliver the best possible warning, that would have the greatest chance of being accepted. And there was another agenda: to ascertain whether there were at least 10 righteous people in the city. Remember, God had promised Abraham that if that were the case, he would not destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

So when and how did the people of Sodom received their warning and their last chance to repent? The warning was delivered by Lot, Abraham's nephew who resided in Sodom. The Angels told Lot to inform his sons-in-law of the impending destruction of the city. He was to convince them to leave town, together with himself and his family. In other words, this was a test of their character. Here was a family member, clearly with their best interests at heart, urging them to save their lives. All they had to do was leave town for a day. What was their response?

"And he (or 'it') was like a joke (or 'joker') in their eyes." That was it. They failed the test. Had they passed it, adding them together with Lot and his family, there might have been those 10 righteous people needed to save the whole town.

Why did they fail? Because they had a bad heart. Henny Youngman's doctor would proclaim that they could not stand. You see, a person with a bad heart automatically rejects other people. The fourth response for Rabbi Johanon's students calls for one who "sees the consequences." This could be translated as meaning "one who looks at the products, and not the producer." A person should always look at the message, and not reject it just because the messenger is distasteful to him.

The people of Nineveh, clearly, were in possession of great hearts. The most unlikely messenger was sent to them, the religious Jewish prophet Jonah. How could he have any influence in Nineveh? And yet, he uttered one simple sentence: "40 more days and Nineveh will be destroyed." It was like pushing a button. The entire city repented completely! Their hearts were wide open, they looked at the product, not the producer. They were willing to change.

In Sodom, however, their hearts were so closed that even the best messenger – their own family – became a "joker."

The moral of the story, is that the real sodomy was the small minded closed heart of an entire city that had gone bad. We need to have our own hearts checked, to make sure that we rejoice when others succeed, that we jump to help when we hear of someone in distress, and that we truly feel that other people are the blessing of our lives. If we have those things, even though we may not be perfect in other aspects, we can be sure to see God's blessing.