Saturday, November 18, 2006

Of Bracelets And Tablets (Chayey Sarah 5767)

Most of this week’s reading deals with the mission of Eliezer to find a wife for his master’s son Yitzhak. When he felt that he had found the right woman, he gave her some gifts, ostensibly to making her more amenable to accompanying him home:

And it was when the camels finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring, a beka in weight and two bracelets on her hands - their weight was ten shekalim. (BeReishit 24:22)

The rabbinical sources put great emphasis on these gifts and their deeper significance. Rashi, quoting a Midrash, notes:

Beka - a hint to the shekalim of Yisrael, a beka per head. Two bracelets - a hint to the two tablets which were connected. Their weight was ten shekalim - a hint to the Ten Commandments which were upon them. (Rashi loc. cit.)

This Rashi needs a little explanation. Every male was required to make an annual donation to the Temple of one half-shekel, which equated to a beka. The Hebrew word for bracelets is ‘tzimidim’, which also connotes things that are stuck tightly together. This, together with their weight, is understood to hint to the two joined tablets, which contained the Ten Commandments.

The later sources view this source as part of a body of literature based on the idea of maaseh avot siman levanim – the events of the lives of the ancestors are a microcosmic harbinger of the events destined to happen to the Jewish people in the future. Rabbenu Bachya (mediaeval thinker from the school of the Ramban) adopts this line of thinking.

All of the things which happened to Rivkah were a sign to her children. The events which occurred to the servant in his success on route indicate the events which would happen to her children on route in the desert. Just as the angel was with him on route through the power of Avraham’s prayer so we find with her children on route in the desert.... Just as the waters rose to meet her, so it would be for her descendent in the desert. The servant who gave her these gifts hinted thereby to her, that just as she received these gifts through a servant, so would her children in the future receive the Torah through Moshe, the servant of God - who was the faithful servant with all of the good of his master in his hand. Just as he gave her many gifts, some on route and some in the house (those on route were the gold nose-ring a beka in weight and two bracelets on her hands - their weight was ten shekalim so her children brought shekalim in the desert and received the two tablets of the covenant in which are the ten commandments. Just as he gave her gifts in the house, apart from those which he gave her on route (the servant brought out silver vessels and gold vessels) so her children in the land of Moav, close to coming to the land, were given many Mitzvot (Rabbenu Bachya)

The Maharal takes a different line:

If you ask - why did he hint to these Mitzvot (the half-shekel, etc) more than to any other? It seems that he saw that she acted kindly and he hinted to her further about the Divine service and the Torah with the two bracelets on her hands… making three things - upon which the world stands - Torah, Divine service and kindness. He hinted to her than she was one person in whom lay all three. Further - these three things are found in Yisrael…. Yisrael came from the forefathers. Eliezer hinted to her that since she had performed acts of kindness, it was fitting that the blessed seed, in which these three things would be manifest, should come from her; they are the support of the world. (Maharal, Gur Aryeh)

However one reads the story, the meaning of the Midrash is clear – Eliezer saw in Rivkah all the desirable attributes of the mother of the Jewish people; he gave her gifts to indicate what kind of nation would eventually emerge from her family.

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