Friday, November 2, 2007 | return to: torah


When life gets tough, hold on to your camels

by rabbi michelle fisher

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Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1-25:18

I Kings 1:1-3

There's a funny ritual I've noticed among dog owners. Taking their pets for a walk, they greet each other, bend down, pet the other person's dog and start chatting about their animals. They exchange pet names, favorite dog chows, best walk routes and then go on their way. Human names rarely get exchanged — forevermore, they will be Fido's owner or Rover's mom.

Having seen this occur so often, I wasn't surprised by what might otherwise be a strange aspect of Parashat Chayei Sarah. Throughout, the servant Abraham sends as his emissary to find Isaac a wife remains nameless — only centuries later will our rabbis identify him as Abraham's servant Eliezer. On the other hand, almost every other sentence mentions the camels he brought from Canaan.

Our interpretive tradition teaches that the Torah doesn't use superfluous language. So what do we learn from this emphasis on camels?

Perhaps the camels were intended as a sign of Abraham's great wealth, meant to impress the future bride. In the patriarchal period, camels were much less daily-use beasts than ornamental displays of wealth.

This, though, suggests that the camels are no more important to the plot than the gold bracelets given to Rebecca. If gold could equally serve the purpose of camels in attracting a suitor's attention, why lug — and continually mention — them? At Eliezer's own admission, Abraham had many donkeys as well as camels. Wouldn't this smaller, more practical beast of burden have worked equally well?

Maybe the camels were part of Eliezer's plan in a different way. Eliezer asks God for a sign to identify Isaac's wife: she should offer to draw water from the well for Eliezer — and his camels. Rebecca proceeds to do so; she gives water to all 10 camels.

In this narrative role, the camels reveal much about Rebecca. They show that Rebecca not only possessed essential character traits of any moral leader of loving-kindness, caring for people and animals, and graciousness to strangers and guests, but also that she was a physically strong woman. Ten camels require about 25 gallons each to rehydrate after a long journey, and a bucket generally holds two to three gallons of water — that's about 90 buckets of water, lifted by hand!

Or maybe the camels themselves were special. The Torah says that "[Lavan's] house was made ready and a place made for the camels." Bereshit Rabbah (60:7) explains this to mean that the camels held back and would not lodge at Lavan's house until all signs of idolatry were removed. We are to learn from these camels that when we do not place God in the central place of our lives, we cannot settle down, cannot find our place of rest.

In the end, it's the metaphor of camels that teaches most deeply.

Camels are big, with extremely wobbly gaits. I rode a camel once; I held on so tightly to keep from falling that my hands were cramped for hours afterward. So picture Rebecca returning to meet Isaac. She had shown brave confidence and strength in drawing water. She chose without hesitation to leave her home simply on a servant's claim of divine mission. She will even gracefully move into Sarah's empty place as matriarch of our people.

Yet the Torah says Rebecca sees Isaac and falls off her camel. If Rebecca had been astride a donkey, she would have been riding along more comfortably. Her distraction at seeing Isaac wouldn't have led to a loss of concentration and a fall. Her calm demeanor would never have been challenged.

But Rebecca was on a camel. Like any other person, she had to hold on for dear life. We should learn from Rebecca that doubt and fear are natural parts of religious growth. We do not control the bumpy ride upon which God sometimes sets us in the pathways of life. The fact that one engages in lifelong religious devotion — an unending journey, one even founded on piety — does not mean that it's easy.

Rebecca on her camel, with both her clinging, grasping hands, teaches us a religious truth. Like us, our heroes are sometimes apprehensive. We may come to life prepared, we may live lives of kindness, with God at our side and as our true support, but even so, we will experience times and moments of fear. Only by embracing and coming through that anxiety do we truly become fit to be heroes.

May we all aspire to be so.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Michelle Fisher is the spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek. She replaces Rabbi Lavey Derby, who is on sabbatical.


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