Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Belief and Behavior: The Chicken and the Egg / Chayei Sarah

Nearing the end his life, Avraham entreats his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Yitzhak. Who is a fitting mate for the second generation patriarch who carries the covenant of God? Certainly not an idolatrous Canaanite lest Yitzhak be absorbed into her family and sucked into the idolatrous practices of the people surrounding him. So Abraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer on a journey of many hundreds of miles to the land of his ancestors: Haran in Ur of the Chaldees, later called Babylonia, today called Iraq. Here’s what Torah says:
I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac (Genesis 24:3).
Torah commentator Don Isaac Abravanel (R. Yitzhak b. Yehudah Abravanel, (Lisbon, 1437 – Venice, 1508) makes an astute observation. If Avraham’s objection to the Canaanites concerns their idolatrous practices, Abraham’s relatives in the Old Country – Nahor and Betuel – are no better, and perhaps not even preferable to Aner and Eshkol of Canaan, whom Avraham esteems.

The RaN (Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Girondi, Barcelona, ~1340-1380) explains that Avraham’s concern is not the beliefs of Aner and Eshkol, as opposed to Nahor and Betuel, but rather the evil deeds of the Canaanites compared with those of Terah’s people. He points out:
As Leviticus 18:3 tells us: You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.
The Canaanites did horrendous things, the RaN tells us – it’s not just that they were idolaters since of course everyone at this time was an idolater except Abraham and Sarah.

The point here is that the RaN held that beliefs, however misguided, are not hereditary, but growing up witnessing evil deeds leaves a lasting impression that is transmitted from one generation to the next. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch adds: the influence of the Canaanites will be more potent since Isaac lives among them. Yet beliefs are often provide the rationale and justification for evil deeds, as we have seen time and time again.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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