Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Priority of Kindness (portion Chayei Sarah)

“Keep us far from bad people and corrupt companions.”
            -traditional Shacharit (morning) liturgy

A great deal of who we are and what we do is determined by the company that we keep.  The people closest to us inevitably (and sometimes unconsciously) exert a profound influence on our behavior, for good and bad alike.  It therefore behooves us to be very conscientious and careful in choosing friends, co-workers, and, especially, spouses and partners.

So what should we look for when making those decisions around with whom to share our lives?  Torah offers guidance in this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah.  Shortly after Sarah dies, Abraham commissions his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for his son, Isaac.  Interestingly, Abraham gives Eliezer precious little to go on here, insisting only that he find someone from Abraham’s birthplace rather than a local Canaanite woman.  So how does Eliezer know what to look for?  What criteria would indicate a fitting mate for Isaac?

We get the answer in a prayer that Eliezer utters upon arriving at the communal well in Aram at watering time.  He beseeches God: “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.”

In his prayer, Eliezer intuitively recognizes what matters most: compassion and generosity.  When Rebecca shows up, just as Eliezer finishes speaking, she fulfills the criteria, graciously drawing water for him and his camels—no small feat given the prodigious amounts the animals would have consumed after a long desert journey.  She proves to be the embodiment of kindness, the single most important quality one should seek in a companion.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught: “When I was young, I admired clever people.  But now that I am old, I admire kind people.”  Heschel’s wisdom echoes that of Abraham’s servant Eliezer, and its truth endures for us.  If we are, in large part, who we choose to associate with, then we do well to seek kindness, above all else, in our companions.

Only kindness matters. . . 

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