This is based on a sermon I gave this past Shabbat, Chayei Sarah.
(Isaac meeting Rebekah)
“Every day in June, the most popular wedding month of the year, about 13,000 American couples will say ‘I do,’ committing to a lifelong relationship that will be full of friendship, joy, and love that will carry them forward to their final days on this earth.
Except, of course, it doesn’t work out that way for most people. The majority of marriages fail, either ending in divorce and separation or devolving into bitterness and dysfunction. Of all the people who get married, only three in ten remain in healthy, happy marriages . . . .”
So begins “Masters of Love,” an article published in the Atlantic this past June by Emily Esfahani Smith. The truth is, one of the largest problems in our society is failed or strained relationships. Many of us are struggling personally, and we all have close friends or relatives one step away in failed or unproductive relationships. While the sacred bond between husband and wife is perhaps the paradigmatic example, all of our relationships are suffering substantially.
No doubt, the causes are many, and an exhaustive exposition is both impossible and beyond the scope of this sermon. The increased demands of modern life and normative two working parent families add serious strain on family life. The perpetual scatter-brained attempt at juggling our latest technological attention grabbers render us into untrained circus performers . . . except the show never ends. Bureaucratic ubiquity, that pervasive sense that no one cares about how we’re actually doing, and that we’re just numbers on a page or cogs in a machine certainly contributes; as a reaction to feeling small and insignificant, self-promotion, competition, bragging, rugged individualism, and extreme narcissistic behaviors are all commonplace. These are some of the things that rise to the top of my mind, and I’m sure there are so many more.
Given the centrality of strain in marriages, friendships, and interactions generally, what key advice can the Torah give to what many term the dor yatom, our orphaned generation? We need turn no further than the story of Eliezer, Abraham’s trusted servant, in his search for Isaac’s wife.
More than a wife, it seems as though Eliezer is searching for kindness and generosity personified, Abraham’s noted traits, in the form of a woman. And so he controversially requests a divine sign, that God’s act of chesed result in the discovery of its human image:
“And he said, ‘O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have decreed for your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.’”
Overtly, kindness and generosity are the prerequisites for selection as a matriarch in the house of Abraham. There are also subtle details, though, which reinforce the motif.
A close reading yields at least two discrepancies; one between Eliezer’s request to God and the way it actually went down, and a second between the way it actually went down and the description Eliezer proffers to Laban and company.
1) During Eliezer’s request, the sign is when the woman instantly offers both Eliezer and his camels water to drink. However, Rebekah actually offers him water to drink, lets him drink, and only afterward offers to give water to the camels.
2) During the actual events, after the generous offer of water, Eliezer gifts jewelry as a sign of approval, and only then inquires as to her genealogy. “When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring weighing a half-shekel, and two gold bands for her arms, ten shekels in weight.” He’s beginning to trust, optimistically, that God is fulfilling the conditions and act with faith. Still, to be sure, he then asks, “’[p]ray tell me,’ he said, ‘whose daughter are you? Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?’”
However, his recitation of the events to Laban and Bethuel reverses the order, genealogy before jewlery. “I inquired of her, ‘whose daughter are you?’ and she said, ‘the daughter of Bethuel, son of Nahor, whom Milcah bore to him.’ And I put the ring on her nose and the bands on her arms.”
To answer the first question, I’d suggest that Rebekah had intended from the outset to offer water to the camels as well. However, she wanted Eliezer to drink as much as he wanted, especially after his long hot journey, and didn’t want him to feel as though he ought to conserve the water. That’s why she only offered the camels water after she saw that he was satisfied.
As for the second question, perhaps the order is reversed to give Laban and Bethuel the impression that it was her lineage (and their honor) that really sealed the deal. This was a white lie offered not only to make a more efficacious appeal but also to engender positive feelings among Laban and Bethuel. Eliezer, like his master, is looking for ways to act with generosity.
The Atlantic offers several key ingredients toward the maintenance of healthy relationships, and thankfully, they’re mainly things we can work on and improve, rather than being innate. From the article:
Gottman wanted to know more about how the masters created that culture of love and intimacy, and how the disasters squashed it. In a follow-up study in 1990, he designed a lab on the University of Washington campus to look like a beautiful bed and breakfast retreat. He invited 130 newlywed couples to spend the day at this retreat and watched them as they did what couples normally do on vacation: cook, clean, listen to music, eat, chat, and hang out. And Gottman made a critical discovery in this study—one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.
Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
After six years, they examined the couples who had divorced, the couples who remained together, and heard reports on their levels of satisfaction and happiness. The couples who were still together had responded to “bids” an average of 87% of the time, versus just 33% for couples who had divorced.
I’d posit that this is something tangible that can help aide our marriages, friendships, and other relationships in significant ways. When someone makes a “bid,” reaches out, how do we respond, or better yet, do we respond at all? Are we consumed in ourselves, or will we reach beyond ourselves, and respond generously? This forces us to implement the values we’d want to claim as our own. There’s a famous story about a child who claimed that he had antipathy to Judaism because his parents cared more about football than him. When confronted, the parents respond to the child that this is preposterous, and they of course care more about him than football. How come, then, the child asks, you always were too busy to study with me when I asked on Sundays, and I saw you watching the football game instead. A repeated rejected bid.
“Shammai used to say: Make your Torah study a fixed habit. Say little and do much; and greet everyone cheerfully.” Shammai’s aphorism is about more than the underlying content he’s concerned with; he’s making a broader comment about productivity and efficiency. The first part of the Mishna is concerned not just with Torah study but making it a habit. We should do a lot and say a little, in other words, be productive! And how can we increase our productivity? Habit. Make Torah study habitual, scheduled regularly, and placed on the calendar. Same thing with the seifa, the end of the Mishna. Shammai notes that we must greet every person with good cheer. Why kol ha’adam, each and every person? It’s not just a Kantian notion that each person is of immeasurable and infinite value, “beyond all price” in his words, though this notion certainly will find much agreement in classic Judaism. It’s also and even primarily about who we choose to be as people, and Shammai is telling us to be people who make a habit of always being kind, generous, and cheerful. This, the same Shammai known for his legal and halachic stricture, is the perfect sage to be able to obligate us in remembering to habitualize kindness.
Similarly, the Talmud in Berachot notes that one who fails to return a greeting is a robber. “If his friend greets him and he doesn’t return the greeting he is called a robber.” The proof text is from Isiah. “The Lord will bring this charge against the elders and officers of his people: ‘It is you who have ravaged the vineyard; that which was robbed from the poor is in your houses. How dare you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor?’ – says my Lord God of Hosts.” What could one possibly steal from the poor? After all, they don’t have desirable property. A greeting, say the sages. A simple hello, a positive countenance, a smile and acknowledgment of worth.
In our generation, there’s massive “poverty” in this regard. Increased distractions render it harder to focus on the things that matter most. We’re all malnourished and impoverished suffering from a lack of positive interactions. Let us resolve to habitualize kindness, respond to bids, and improve our relationships by relating more often.