Passing the test on everyday matters is what matters

Chayei Sara

Genesis 23:1-25:18

Kings I 1:1-31

It’s the classic question of dating: How do you know when he or she is “the one”? And how sure do you have to be to commit?

In this week’s Torah portion, Rivkah is tested not once, but twice by those checking to see if she would be a suitable match for Avraham and Sarah’s son, Yitzchak. First came servant and messenger Eliezer, sent to find a wife for his master’s son. Eliezer takes the sensible approach of looking for character, and declares that if he meets a woman on his journeys who offers not only to give him water but also to care for the camels, then that will be the sign of a good wife for Yitzchak (24:14).

Rivkah proves up to the test, offering the hot and dusty traveler water for him and his thirsty animals. He happily arranges the marriage with her family, and brings her back to marry Yitzchak.

Yet there was still another, less explicit, test to pass. At the end of this happy “how did you two meet” story, the Torah throws in a seemingly disjointed verse. “And Yitzchak brought her into the tent, Sarah was his mother, he married Rivkah and she became his wife” (24:67). What just happened here? Which tent is this, and don’t we already know that Sarah was his mother?

Rashi explains that Yitzchak brought Rivkah home to Sarah’s tent, and she in so many ways came to embody Sarah’s greatness. As long as Sarah lived, the candles remained lit from Shabbat to Shabbat, the dough that she made was blessed and above the tent rested a protective cloud. But when Sarah died, those wondrous phenomena disappeared. With Rivkah’s arrival they returned, and now Yitzchak knew that she was “the one.” We see Yitzchak “testing” Rivkah for himself, but why? Weren’t Eliezer’s tests enough?

A further layer of complexity arises from a midrash that asks which “lech lecha” test was greater: Hashem’s command to Avraham that he leave his extended family and move to Israel (“lech lecha me’artzecha”) or Hashem’s command that he take Yitzchak up the mountain to be offered as a sacrifice (“lech lecha el eretz hamoriya”)? Are you kidding me? Making aliyah can be challenging, but how could one compare that with the thought of losing a child?

Another midrash asks what the great principle of the Torah is, and brings three proposed answers. Ben Zomah suggests that the most fundamental verse in the Torah is the Shema — that Hashem is one. Ben Nanas disagrees, and offers that it is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Finally, Ben Pazi suggests the verse that instructs the Children of Israel to offer sacrifices every morning and evening.

The midrash concludes by stating that Ben Pazi’s answer is the correct one, an ending that is most certainly not what one would have expected. How could a detail of the temple service rank higher than the most basic statement of monotheism or the command to carefully consider the feelings of others?

Yet this might in fact be exactly the message; that the core of the Torah’s teaching and the hardest tests exist in the everyday details of life, what a dear friend of mine calls “minutia management” of the myriad demands placed upon us. When the challenge put to us is clear, we muster our courage and push hard to make a good decision. But what of the little things, the battles and tests that feel small in and of themselves? Do they get the attention and care that they need? And aren’t they what comprise most of our daily existence?

In that sense, the test of going to the land was a greater test than even taking Yitzchak up the mountain. The latter is an unthinkable act, but one that takes place over an intense and condensed period of time. The former is a life’s work, and commitment over a lifetime is very hard to sustain.

This might be why Yitzchak looked further than Eliezer’s test for kindness. Eliezer checked if a young woman would act heroically in the moment and be generous to his camels, while the groom-to-be wanted to know whether she was up to the challenge of the everyday candles and challah and the home. She was a great woman, and passed all the tests with flying colors.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected]