The story of Eliezer’s challenge is a familiar one. Abraham sent Eliezer off with a task, “Find a suitable wife for my son, Isaac.” How, though, could Eliezer be secure in the knowledge that the woman he chose would indeed measure up to the standards of the saintly Isaac?
To ensure that he would find the young woman, Eliezer came up with a plan. Hence was born the famous “camel test”: After his long travels, Eliezer would ask a young maiden for a sip of water, and if she offered to provide water for his camels as well, she would be the one!
Rebecca was a young woman of nobility, not a poor servant girl accustomed to lugging water
There was an essential characteristic that Eliezer was looking for in a potential wife, something ingrained in—and part and parcel of—the family of Abraham: boundless lovingkindness (chessed). What made Abraham’s chessed unique was not that he welcomed and catered to his guests in the most generous and impeccable manner, but rather that he actively searched for the opportunity to do such deeds. He wasn’t happy to serve merely those who came to him; he would go out to the crossroads, anxious to be of service. Abraham was an initiator, treasuring the chance to help another. This was the quality he looked for in a future wife for Isaac.
When Eliezer and his men arrived at the well, they had with them many camels, so they’d be able to escort the future bride and all her possessions and servants back to Isaac. Surrounded by a group of able-bodied men, Eliezer did not appear as a helpless, weary chap begging for a drink. And Rebecca, the daughter of Bethuel, the ruler of Aram Naharaim, was a young woman of nobility, not a poor servant girl accustomed to lugging water from wells. But this is precisely where Eliezer was able to get a glimpse of the righteous Rebecca. From the moment he requested to take a sip from her jug, her generosity and greatness radiated in the most discreet and unassuming manner.
First, that boundless chessed came forth. Rebecca immediately gave him a drink, then offered and drew water for all his camels. She saw an opportunity to do something kind, and swiftly went to work. She didn’t question or consider whether she was really needed; instead, she energetically continued filling multiple troughs with water, until the job of satisfying a whole herd of thirsty camels was completed . . . while Eliezer and his men watched her work unassisted. She had one motivation: to give to someone else with kindness. That intense desire to reach out to others and to jump at the prospect of being of service matched the profile of Abraham’s family.
Eliezer had watched her fill a jug of water and place it on her shoulder. He ran over and asked to sip from it. Rebecca told him to drink, but hurriedly removed the jug from her shoulder to her hand and let him drink. The commentaries note that this quick move of lowering her jug was to secure a sense of modesty. Instead of a man sipping from a jug resting on her shoulder close to her face, she created a distance, so he would be drinking at an arm’s length away from her.
With haste, she emptied the remainder of the jug into a trough
When he finished drinking, the jug was not yet empty, and she offered to give the camels water as well. With haste, she emptied the remainder of the jug into a trough, and rushed to draw more water. This motion demonstrated her sensitivity. Had she simply spilled out the remainder of the water, she might have offended him, as if indicating by her action that he had contaminated it. On the other hand, it would be unsanitary for her or her family to use water from which a stranger had drunk. She wisely avoided either pitfall by quickly emptying the water into the trough, thus fulfilling her initial offer of providing the camels water as well.
When examining the details of what transpired during this “camel test,” then, Rebecca’s natural devotion, modesty, sensitivity, responsibility and work ethic are readily apparent.
However, at first glance, Eliezer’s conduct seems surprising. After seeing that Rebecca passed his test, why did he stand by and just watch Rebecca laboriously and singlehandedly provide water for all his camels?
Indeed, Eliezer considered this part of the test. There are those who make generous offers but do an inadequate job, quit, or don’t follow through completely. There are others who may do their job, but though they make no demands, they expect some form of compensation or gratitude.
Eliezer continued watching carefully, to see her approach to carrying out a difficult task. These moments would be extremely telling as to whether her offer stemmed from a genuine desire to help someone, or if there was some other underlying motive to her kind behavior. It was only after her job was done, during which she had no expectations from him, that he was able to be absolutely convinced that she had passed. The “camel test” was a glimpse of Rebecca’s greatness, as she conducted herself in what she would have considered ordinary everyday activity.
It is later on in the story, after she is brought to Sarah’s tent, that we learn of her immense spiritual standing. The three miracles of Sarah’s tent that resumed with Rebecca’s arrival correspond to the three prominent commandments (mitzvot) given to the Jewish women of all future generations: lighting candles to welcome the Shabbat, separating a piece of the challah dough, and the laws relating to intimacy within marriage. The challenge and significance of these mitzvot cannot be underscored enough; they are the bedrock of Jewish continuity in the fullest sense. However, the preceding account of Rebecca and the “camel test” should be the examples that direct and inspire us in how to approach our responsibilities in terms of these three mitzvot.
What significant lesson can we learn today from how Rebecca responded to the test?
Rebecca teaches us to challenge ourselves with real, selfless commitment
Rebecca teaches us to take this goal of boundless lovingkindness, chessed, and challenge ourselves with real, selfless commitment. Rebecca teaches us to be initiators, to look for times and places where we can be of service, to be proactive and useful, without calculating whether there are others around who could, or should, do the same.
We are taught by the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the chassidic movement, that a soul can come into this world for seventy or eighty years with the sole purpose of doing a favor for another. That ability to help someone in need, that chessed, was what Eliezer sought, for he knew it was the essential trait that would determine the candidate to be a genuine matriarch of the Jewish nation.
(This essay is dedicated to my mother, Mrs. Tzivia Miriam Gurary, of blessed memory, who personified a most vivid example of the lessons of Rebecca’s “camel test.” I would also like to acknowledge Rebbetzin Yehudis Heller, of blessed memory, whose inspiring Parshah tapes provided some of the material in this essay.)