The modern sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” What a wonderful lesson from a man who surrounded himself with activists and intellectual giants, a recognition that while cleverness is certainly a good trait, it is kindness which may be much more rare and therefore much more admirable.
Kindness is also a trait that often goes unnoticed, perhaps because we need to look for it happening to even see that it’s there. We read this in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, when Abraham’s servant goes to find Isaac a wife, and waits at the well until he finds a woman who offers water not only to him, but also to his camels; a woman who shows a deep kindness, even to a stranger—not to mention a stranger who is likely dusty and sweaty from travel and sitting with a bunch of camels. And yet Rebekah, I imagine, approaches the servant with a smile and a friendly voice. Midrash HaGadol tells us that, “From Rebekah we learn to welcome whomever we encounter both with honor and in a friendly manner.”
What a powerful lesson this is. No matter whom it is that we encounter—no matter what they look like or how they seem, we should give them honor and be friendly—we should approach them with kindness.
Just as significant, though, is that Rebekah does more than simply greet the man. When he approaches her to ask for some water, she gives it to him, and then offers to get water for the camels, as well (a significant offer—camels drink a lot of water, after all). She perceives a need and makes an offer to fill that need. She doesn’t assume and she doesn’t just do it for him. She offers help.
Rebekah’s kindness is about actively engaging with another individual, without making assumptions about that person. Rebekah’s kindness is a foreshadowing to the ideal relationship model that Martin Buber writes about thousands of years later—Rebekah treats the servant in this moment as a “Thou”—a true human being, instead of as an “It”—a perfunctory, utilitarian presence.
Throughout our lives, we come into contact with myriad individuals. And sometimes our interaction with them is entirely functional—that’s ok. But the more opportunity that we find to go beyond that, to engage with other individuals in a deeper, more meaningful way, the greater the chance we have to truly know others. When we avoid making assumptions, when we act with kindness, those are the moments which lead to a more positive world.
Isaac and Rebekah’s relationship, by the way, is the second relationship that is described as loving. Earlier, we read that Abraham loved Isaac (Genesis 22:2). Here we read that Isaac loved Rebekah (Genesis 24:67)—the first example of love between two individuals who meet as strangers (as opposed to familial love). From this, perhaps, we learn that it’s not so much that Rebekah is rewarded for her kindness with love, but that it is kindness that brings more love into the world.
And wouldn’t it be nice to have a world more filled with love?
Rabbi Elisa Koppel is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington,DE. She is passionate about education, formal and informal, for individuals of all ages and from diverse backgrounds. She enjoys crosswords, social networking, reading or watching or listening to anything well written, and a host of generally geeky things. She works hard to integrate the personal and professional in all aspects of life and sometimes blogs about that and other matters at Off the REKord. She is also one of the 36 Rabbis Who Shave for the Brave, a group of rabbis and now others, who are fighting against childhood cancer through action and advocacy. She is currently getting ready to shave her head for the second time, to raise money through the St Baldrick’s Foundation. Learn more: https://www.stbaldricks.org/participants/rabbiisa5776