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 most important relationship

There are two Rebukes in the Torah. The first one, at the end of the book of Leviticus, is read on the penultimate Sabbath before the holiday of Shavuot. It is limited in scope and structured in groups of seven. There are seven levels of transgression listed at the beginning, and God repeats variations on the phrase, "if you shall be contrary, I will torment you sevenfold for all of your sins," seven times.

That Rebuke concludes with a prophecy of redemption. "I will remember the covenant of your forefathers…"

The one in Deuteronomy, however, begins with one general sin: "And if you do not listen to the voice of the Lord your God to guard and to do the commandments and rules which I command you this day…" As the frightening descriptions of what will befall the people should they reject the Torah continue, there is no further reference to Israel sinning or to a sevenfold punishment as retribution for those sins. It is simply a chaotic mix of calamity after calamity. There is disease, there is war, there is famine and drought. On and on it goes, and when we get to the end of it, there is no optimistic final note. "God will return you to Egypt and you will be sold as slaves there to your enemies yet no one will purchase you."

Why these differences from the first Rebuke? And how is this an appropriate preparation for Rosh Hashanah?

Immediately prior to the Rebuke, the Israelites are commanded to make a pilgrimage to the area of Shechem where the twin Mountains of Gerizim and Eval are located. Half of the tribes are to ascend Mount Gerizim and the other half are to ascend Mount Eval. The Levites are then to recite the blessings and the curses resulting from observance or nonobservance of the Torah which the people are to affirm.

Now, the Israelites entered the land from the East and were quite some distance from Shechem. There are plenty of locations where two adjacent mountains could serve the purpose much closer to where the nation was camped. Why make them make the journey into the heartland for this ceremony when they will need to return to the Jordan Valley the very same day?

The answer to all of these questions lies in the three main relationships that every Jew must have: 1. To God. 2. To the Land of Israel. 3. To each other – the Jewish nation. When one or more of these relationships are lacking, bad things happen. But not all bad things are created equal, and not all of these relationships are of equal influence on the others.

Many commentaries view the two Rebukes as referring to the two destructions of Jerusalem and the Temple. Our rabbis tell us that because the sins of the first Temple period were known explicitly, their punishment was made explicit and finite. That exile lasted only 70 years, similar to the first Rebuke which has a clear beginning and end.

What were the sins that led to that first destruction? Our sages tell us that they were idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual corruption and adultery. The Torah itself implies that violation of the Sabbatical Year was a sin which brought about exile. Other teachings of the rabbis point to a cessation of learning and a disrespect of Torah scholars.

All of these things imply a rupture in our relationship to God (the idolatry and dismissal of Torah study) and to the Land of Israel (profaning of the sabbatical year). With all of these things, it seems that Jewish peoplehood remained intact. Although the people were sinning, they were still proudly Jewish and did not turn their backs on each other. (The sin of bloodshed may be referring to the assassination of Gedalia or other high profile murders that did not reflect a general abandonment of Israeli nation.)

The second Rebuke, which parallels the destruction of the second Temple, implies a violation of the third critical relationship of the Jew, his membership in Israel. This is a much more serious offense. If the people are still united, there is always hope that they will repent their sins against God and His Land. If they are not, if their identity becomes erased, how will they ever return?

Why did the Israelites have to go all the way to Shechem for the blessings and curses? One Rabbi suggests that it was to follow in the footsteps of Abraham who went to "The place of Shechem" upon his entry to the land. I would like to suggest that they went to the area where Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery. This was the scene of the greatest moment of Jewish disunity, an event that would spiritually haunt the people well into the future.

When Jews do not have each other, they also do not have God or their Land. They are left to the vagaries of a hostile and uncivilized world. The second Rebuke is random, terrifying, unending.

But there is a small light at the end. "You will be offered for sale to your enemies, yet no one will purchase you." A Jew may seek to forget his Jewishness and exchange his nationhood for some other nationality. God is telling us that such an abandonment can never succeed. "They will not buy you." The Jew can never become a full Spaniard, Frenchman, Russian, Englishman or even American. He will remain a Jew, and because of that he will never lose hope to reconnect and be restored.

Perhaps this is why the first Rebuke in Leviticus is phrased in the plural tense. The Rebuke of Deuteronomy is addressed to the individual. If he has cut himself off from his people, he is all alone. But when we are together, no matter how bad the moment, we can quickly return to "The covenant of the forefathers."

The secret of Rosh Hashanah is reestablishing relationships. The most important of those is our relationship with our nation and our Jewish identity. When we fix that, the sages tell us that "the previous year and all of its curses shall end, and a new year with all of its blessings shall commence!"