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Rebecca and the Camel Test

Rebecca and the Camel Test

A Lesson in Giving


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!

There was an essential characteristic that Eliezer was looking for in a potential wife, Rebecca was a young woman of nobility, not a poor servant girl accustomed to lugging watersomething ingrained in—and part and parcel of—the family of Abraham: boundless lovingkindness (chesed). What made Abraham’s chesed 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 chesed 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.

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 troughWith 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 take this goal of boundless lovingkindness, chesed, Rebecca teaches us to challenge ourselves with real, selfless commitmentand 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 chesed, 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.)

Esther and her husband are Chabad emissaries in Chautauqua, N.Y., where they work with the Jewish community. Esther, an educator for more than a decade, also teaches young women at the Institute for Higher Jewish Learning. She is the proud mother of seven children.
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Anonymous January 1, 2017

loving kindness is the trait to look for! I am was raised in a secular Jewish household, but have an avid appreciation for learning about Judaism. This article was so thoughtful and meaningful. As a single woman who has struggled a lot in finding my beshert, and resorting to online dating and apps to date, I wonder if the single Jewish men realize what Hashem is trying to tell them about what qualities to look for in a wife. To me, this parsha is speaking to men : When looking for your wife, look for a woman who possesses loving kindness, and who does acts of selflessness not to gain anything but because she wants to do the right thing. It is not good looks, confidence, intelligence, wittiness or charm that are the qualities to look for.. it is loving kindness and generosity of spirit. I feel that single Jewish men are being brainwashed by the secular culture rather than being guided by the sage and timeless wisdom of Torah. Reply

jim dallas November 22, 2016

i'd have her! and now you telling depths of unquestionably real life experiences, i see why G-d so treasures women (i heard that women are more special than men), i really felt special reading this article! Reply

Anonymous NYC November 5, 2015

Chesed & Gevurah Chesed is all-important but so is balance. Helping out someone without expecting anything in return sounds sublime but we should expect respect and to not be taken advantage of - a tad of Gevurah. It is not only toxic for us to be taken advantage of, but it is ultimately setting the recepient up for punishment from haShem. Reply

Anonymous toronto June 2, 2014

learning If a person serves God without expecting anything in return then it will be rewarded well, there should be no judgement or reservations in helping another. The basis of all service is honesty in one's work . Reaching out to those who are isolated is a life experience that can be gained only by practising it. It is when we place ourselves in boxes that learning can be insufficient. Reply

Rochel Chein for October 24, 2013

Rebecca's age Rebecca was either three years old or fourteen years old at the time. Reply

Anonymous Atlanta , Ga October 23, 2013

rebecca's age how old was Rebecca when she married Isaac. Reply

Anonymous July 18, 2013

Eliezer every week when I am carrying 5gallon water cooler (heavy) bottles of water that painfully twist my knees, shoulders, back, i think of this story and I wonder why it wasn't considered sinful for able bodied men to mistreat the weaker female allowing her to carry something that he could effortlessly carry. it hurts me in my gut that they would standby & watch her struggle. if that was their "custom" isn't that part of their "sin" too that God would hate .... ? I would love to read that somewhere to help me understand God's opinion of His creation who should be cherished. Reply

Anonymous Delray Beach, Florida November 16, 2011

The Camel Test Could it be that drawing and carrying water was simply "women's work," as it is in so many places in Asia and Africa today, and the men who accompanied Eliezer as well as Eliezer himself just wouldn't lower themselves to do women's work no matter how much the woman was struggling with the job?

Anonymous October 25, 2010

I am writing some thoughts for my neice who becomes a Bat Mitzva this week. Your comments on Rebecca was the help I need. Reply

Kathy White Grambling, LA November 9, 2009

The Camel Test This article was insightful and enlighting. It allows one to see the importance of selfless love. It made me really begin to look at my life and I see vast room for improvement and repentance for my ways that aren't always selfless and full of lovingkindness as shown in Rebeka. With the help of G-d I pray for change in my life. Thanks for the article Reply

Dinaura Barcelos Everett, MA March 23, 2009

Eiezer lifes'style I am gratified with your comments on the attitudes of Rebeka. I am trying to write a book, based on my experiences as an Executive Housekeeper for 17 years. I lost my job last year, and I am using my time trying to build something that can help somebody else. One of my chapters is based on the responsability of Eliezer in putting all his heart on his "boss" expectancy. He acted as he was looking for a wife for himself. He put so much efforts, because he wants to part of the success of Abraham, his master....
Please, pray for my book. Reply

Lauris Mason Coral Springs, FL November 17, 2008

Rebecca and the Camel Test I have always enjoyed, and learned from, Esther's lectures at Chautauqua, and now it is a privilege to be able to read her thoughtful insights at leisure and to be able to pass them along to others. Reply

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