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Torah Commentary
Chayei Sarah (November 19, 2011)

Rachel Brumberg, Assistant Director of Lifelong Learning

HOW DO YOU KNOW when you have achieved your goal successfully? Is the endpoint the only thing that matters when you are trying to achieve something, or is the journey to the outcome also worthwhile?

In this week’s parashah, Chayei Sarah (literally “the life of Sarah”), we start with the death of Sarah, learn about Abraham’s interactions with the Hittites as he searched for the perfect burial ground for his beloved wife, and then end with the death of Abraham himself including Isaac and Ishmael side by side burying their father next to their mother in the cave of Machpelah. While much has been written about these important events, what caught my eye as I read and re-read this portion was an incident that occurred in the middle and is included twice in this section.

Abraham sends his senior servant to his hometown, the city of Nahor, to find a wife for his son Isaac. And while the servant understandably is nervous about this task, Abraham assures him that he will succeed, as he will be protected on his journey by an angel of God. The servant agrees and takes an oath, promising to bring back a woman fit for the son of Abraham. When the servant arrives in Nahor, he stops by the spring, knowing that the women come there to draw water. It is here that he prays to the God of Abraham for success, clearly outlining his plan: As the women arrive at the spring, he will approach them and ask them for a drink of water. The first woman to give him a drink and then offer to water his camels as well will be the winner.

Now, this is a clearly laid out plan that makes success easy to evaluate — once the servant finds a woman who takes his bait and gives him a sip of water from her jar and then goes one step further and offers to give water to his camels, then he has found the perfect wife for Isaac. Game over; time to go home! This plan outlines only one possible road to success. And of course, when we go back to our story, we find out that success was reached on the very first try. The servant’s goal was met when Rebecca gave him water from her jar and then went on to water the camels. This might lead some to wonder if the goal was too easy or maybe the servant wasn’t particular enough in his criteria for find his master’s son a bride. Perhaps we can extrapolate that the women of Nahor simply had really good manners and any one of them would have done as Rebecca did if only she had come by first. Or maybe the ease in which the goal was achieved is clear proof that this mission really was supervised by an angel of God.

And while all of these musings and assumptions are fair and interesting, this is not what I wondered about while reading this passage. Rather, the question that I see coming from this story is this: Is it better to set out clear, precise goals with no wiggle room (only the offer of water leads to finding the perfect wife) or instead to determine your desired outcomes (finding a mate for your master who has certain qualities) and be more flexible about how to accomplish them?

In the first scenario, it is simple to determine when your stated outcome has been met. Black and white leaves no room for confusion, but it’s hard for me to believe that most of life’s decisions can be made in this manner, with such certainty as we see with the servant and Rebecca. In my experience, life isn’t always so clear. Goals may be made, but exact steps towards fulfilling them are rarely so obvious. And while it might be nice to have such clarity and direction from time to time, I have learned to appreciate the journey that my decision-making process requires of me. I gain satisfaction from the lessons I learn along the way that point me if not to the end point of my goal, then at least to the next logical step.


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