There are two main stories that are recounted to us by the Torah this week. Sarah dies, and Abraham purchases land in Hebron. He then buries her in a cave on that property. Later, Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac, and with intricate detail we hear about Eliezer’s quest, eventually leading to the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. These two stories are representative of the unchanging cycle of mortal existence. Sarah dies, but her place is filled with the future, with Isaac’s new wife, Rebecca.
Abraham adjures Eliezer and makes him swear to him that he will not search for a wife from among the daughters of the Land of Canaan. He is told to go leave Canaan and travel to Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac from the family that Abraham abandoned in Aram-Naharaim. Eliezer goes on a long journey eastward until he reaches the house on Bethuel and finds Rebecca.
I was taught as a child that the distinction between Canaanites and Abraham’s family lies in their basic moral system. Abraham did not want Isaac to find a girl from Canaan because they had bad midot (character traits). However, many commentaries were very perplexed at that answer. For instance, the Abravanel asks:
Why did Abraham command him not to take a wife from the Canaanites? Was it because they were idol worshippers? Surely the inhabitants of Babylon – Aram-Naharaim were no better? What had he achieved by his command…. Why did he place the daughters of Canaan out of bounds and not the daughters of Nahor and Bethuel? Nahor and Bethuel were just as idolatrous!
There are several alternative answers as to what the true difference was between the Canaanites and the Mesopotamians, at least in the eyes of Abraham. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch postulates that the distinction was not in quality but in circumstance. Although both the Canaanites and Abraham’s kin were equal in their lack of morality, the Canaanites influence would be a lot more detrimental due to the reality that Abraham and Isaac lived amongst them. Rav Hirsch emphasizes the phrase “from the daughters of the Canaanite in whose midst I dwell,” explaining that the girl’s negative influence would be intensified by her family and friends were they to still be around her.
Another very interesting solution was proposed by the Shadal (quoted by Nehama Leibowitz Studies in Genesis): Abraham’s motives were not based on moral concerns; rather they were based on a political agenda. Abraham knew that God had promised him the Land of Israel, as it says “Arise and walk through the land through its length and breadth, for to you I will give it.” He was worried that any familial ties with the natives of the land would complicate the plan to expel them from the land when the time came for the Jews to conquer Israel. In fact, we do see that the Jews were prohibited from vexing the Edomites for similar reasons (Abraham’s proaction here would then match his initiative earlier in the narrative in purchasing land in Hebron. He was fulfilling God’s promise to give him the land, despite the having to pay an exorbitant price for the land – nearly twenty times the amount that it should have cost).
These are certainly acceptable answers, but I would prefer to uphold the simple answer I was given to me as a child: the Canaanites society produced girls who were generally more immoral than those who grew up in Mesopotamia.
Until now, we have assumed an all-or-nothing definition of morality. Bethuel served idols the same way the Canaanites did, so the former is as immoral as the latter. In other words, neither of them practiced monotheistic religion, therefore they are equally “bad.” However, this premise is flawed, because morality is much more than just a relationship between man and God.
The difference between the two peoples lies in a different aspect of morality. It is not the ideas/beliefs of the family of the girl that concerned Abraham; it was their actions towards one another. Canaan was not just a place of idolatry; it was a place of evil deeds. Rashi (to Leviticus 18, 3) explains: “the deeds of the Egyptians and Canaanites were more corrupt than any other nation and that those peoples which the Israelites conquered were more corrupt than any other.”
We see later on in the story that Eliezer certainly internalized this request. His experiment to see which girl would be suitable for Isaac to marry was a test of kindness. Rebecca offered Eliezer and his camels to drink from the well, and despite the physical labor, she gave him and his numerous camels water to drink before any basic introductions. Abraham did not want his son to marry a Canaanite girl who lacked proper interpersonal conduct, and his son marred a girl with extraordinary generosity and kindness – she invited a complete stranger into her house and gave him and his entire entourage food, water, and shelter!
The basic message here is very simple. Too often we define religion and morality on very narrow plain. Unfortunately, there are many people in the Jewish world who define themselves as “religious”, yet they lack the basic kindness and generosity to be granted that title. Abraham shows us that our relationship between our fellow humans show more about our character than our relationship with God (The later prophets – Isaiah in particular – emphasized this point many times as well).
It behooves all of us to examine ourselves in a very serious manner and see if we are actually “religious enough” for Abraham. Although these things are important, he is not asking about how strictly you keep Shabbat or even how you emotionally relate to the idea of God’s omnipotence. In order to be worthy of a part in Abraham’s people you must be kind to your neighbor and love fellow human beings.
An amazing thing happened in an Israeli hospital this week. The same hospital that was treating the victim of a gruesome terrorist attack also gave medical care to the terrorist who perpetrated that very same attack. The victim and the terrorist were treated by the same doctors! While this action can be debated on a political or a social level, one must appreciate the higher morality to which the Jewish nation subscribes.
(For more on the Jewish ideal of love of all humanity, see Rav Kook’s Midot Ha’Raya, Ahava)
Jonathan Levine grew up in San Diego, California, and was part of the West Coast NCSY Regional Board in high school. He was very active in NCSY and in JSU throughout his time on the West Coast. He is currently studying in Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem.