Torah Commentary for Khayei Sarah


Genesis 24:21 And the man was astonished at her, keeping silent to know if the L-rd had made his journey successful or not.

This narrative verse comes in the middle of the scene at the well in “Aram-naharaim, the city of Nahor” (B’resheet 24:10, NJPS). Avraham’s servant has come back to the place where his master used to live – until called by HaShem to “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (12:1, NJPS) – in order to locate Avraham’s family and choose a wife for Yitz’khak. Upon arrival, the servant prayed to HaShem and set up a scenario whereby he can recognise the girl that he is to take back home to his master for Yitz’khak to marry. In the immediately preceding verses (B’resheet 13-20) Rivkah has come out to the well to get water for her family and appears to be fulfilling exactly what the servant had requested, while “the words were barely out of his mouth” (B’resheet 24: 15). Our text then forms a short bridge while servant watches to see if she will finish the job completely – camels are, after all, very thirsty – and then turn out to be from Avraham’s extended family as well.

The second word, mishta’eyl, is the Hitpa’el ms participle from the root sha’ah, “to be confused or astonished”, as an extension from the root meaning of “to be at a loss, to be desolate”. As is common with weak verbs with shin as the first letter, the tav of the Hitpa’el voice has slipped inside the root letters rather than appearing before them. This is known as metathesis, because hish-t- or mish-t- is easier to pronounce than hit-sh- or mit-sh- and can sometimes need care in working out the verb root. In this context, the root shatah, to drink, might at first appear more likely as it has been a significant word in the narrative scene so far, but the servant has already had a drink from Rivkah’s water jar and the camels are drinking the water she has poured into the trough. The letter hay at the end of verb, the last of the three root letters, has no other explanation, so helps determine that sha’ah  is the correct root in this case. Pointing to the way the root is used in the verse “Until cities lie waste … and the land is a desolate waste” (Isaiah 6:11, ESV), Rashi comments that “this is an expression of bewilderment”; the servant is at a loss, his mind is temporarily laid waste! “He was amazed and taken aback over seeing his matter (mission, way) nearing success, but he did not yet know if she was of Avraham’s family or not.”

The second verb, makhariysh – the Hif’il ms participle from the root kharash, meaning “to be or keep silent or quiet” (Davidson) – tells us what the servant did: in effect, nothing. He just waited without speaking to see what would happen next. The Radak explains that “he held his peace until the camels had finished drinking.” Gordon Wenham points out “just what a lengthy job it was to water ten camels and the energy of the girl who did it.” As Rabbi Hirsch surmises, “the immediate fulfillment of his prayer surpassed all his expectations. He wanted to say more, but restrained himself until he had finally ascertained whether the girl who had so marvellously fitted in with all previous ideas would also conform to Avraham’s conditions as to her parentage.” Nechama Leibowitz suggests that “at the sight of all this the man stood ‘wondering at her’ and ‘held his peace’. He and the men that were with him looked on at the way Rivkah discharged her self-appointed task, industriously and without murmur.” This is supported by Targum Onkelos who changes the Hebrew makharish to Aramaic mistakeyl shatiyk, “gazing silently” adding the ‘gaze’ verb which the Bible text itself only implies.

Ibn Ezra wants to be stronger. He prefers to render the verb as “he was shocked on account of her” and explains that “this is the idiom of one’s mind being ‘devastated’ to describe being mentally in suspense.” Noticing that the servant – as a man – did not obey the social etiquette of the time by stopping Rivkah from doing all this heavy work, the Sforno observes that, “He wondered at the alacrity with which she hastened to do this kindness. He did not urge her to desist from exerting herself, as would have been proper … to determine and judge from her act of kindness and haste to perform it, whether she was motivated by natural kindness or by the hope of a reward.” Was Rivkah for real? Was the offer of generosity genuine for its own sake? Gersonides agrees: “He did not want to say anything; he wanted to see whether she would fulfill the conditions of the test on her own.” The servant is aware, Avivah Zornberg claims, of the darkness in the life of Avraham’s family following Sarah’s death; Rivkah can “re-evoke the hopeful involvement of an Avraham, connecting, integrating, generating life.” Twice in his prayer before Rivkah appears, the servant used the word khesed, loving-kindness or grace: “show steadfast love to my master Abraham” (B’resheet 24:12, ESV) and “let her be the one … by this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master” (v. 14, ESV). Now, as he gazes upon Rivkah, he needs “to see a manifest indication of G-d’s khesed to Avraham … that he will sense in her the khesed that has been lacking.”

Taking that a step further, the Rashbam adds that, “[the servant] understood from this that the Holy One had set up precisely what he had requested.” As “the servant enjoys looking at the lovely woman and assessing the wealth of her family” he wonders about success: has his journey prospered? “The humour of this scene,” Walter Brueggemann suggests, “is that Yahweh’s prosperity is quite an earthy matter: (a) proper genealogy, (b) good looks, (c) many camels, (d) virgin. The blessings of heaven come packaged for earth.” Rivkah is all of these and more, although the servant does not yet know. Now, however, although he sees HaShem’s answer to his and Avraham’s prayers on a plate before him, he hesitates and wonders. Is this the answer or not? Can this girl really be the one?

Now step forward to the first century CE. A man dressed in camel skins and goats’ hair had been making a stir out in the Judean wilderness, baptising people and calling for repentance, announcing that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). Luke records that, “The people were in a state of great expectancy, and everyone was wondering whether perhaps Yochanan himself might be the Messiah” (Luke 3:15, CJB), but he was very clear: “I am immersing you in water, but he who is coming is more powerful than I – I’m not worthy to untie his sandals! He will immerse you in the Ruach HaKodesh and in fire. He has with him his winnowing fork to clear out his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the straw with unquenchable fire!” (vv. 16-17, CJB). John knew who he was and who he wasn’t. But a little later, another question of identity comes up. John has been put in prison for criticising Herod, the tetrarch and while there he keeps on hearing about what Yeshua – who he himself had baptised in the Jordan not more than a few months before – is doing and saying. He too is preaching about repentance and announcing that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).

Matthew records what happens next: “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?'” (Matthew 11:2, ESV). I don’t think, even in prison, John was doubting. He had seen the sign of the Spirit descending upon Yeshua like a dove when He was baptised. I think he was trying to arrange hand-over – that his disciples would leave him and follow Yeshua. This is a fulfillment of John’s own words – “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, ESV) – and an awareness of his own impending death. Yeshua answered the question by telling John’s disciples to look around themselves and see what was happening: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:4-5, ESV). The evidence is right here in front of you, Yeshua says: believe what you see with your own eyes, “and blessed is the one who is not offended by Me” (v. 6, ESV). This is the real deal, this is the kingdom of G-d; Scripture (in this case Isaiah 61) is being fulfilled as the power and presence of G-d break through into this world in the person and works of Yeshua!

But what did John’s disciples think? Not all of them switched to following Yeshua because Matthew later tells us that when John was executed, “his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Yeshua” (Matthew 14:2, ESV). Hadn’t they seen? Didn’t they believe?

So here’s the question for us, today. How often do we look the L-rd’s provision in the face and fail to recognise it for what it is: Him! Are you praying about situations in your life and not seeing an answer? Are you looking straight past, over or through what G-d is doing right in front of you? Do we miss what G-d is doing because it doesn’t look like what we expect or want? Are we like Avraham’s servant, just staring in wonderment and waiting for one more little bit of the sign before rejoicing and accepting what G-d is doing for us, in plain sight?