Chai Sarah: How Should We Help Others?

In this week’s Torah portion Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac.  Abraham provides no criteria other than that she must come from the land of Abraham’s birth.  The future character of the Jewish people is in Eliezer’s hands! 

Deciding that kindness and empathy are the most important qualities, Eliezer prays to G-d that when he asks for water, the maiden whom G-d has chosen for Isaac will answer “Drink, and I will also water your [ten!!!] camels.”  (Genesis 24:12-14.)  Rebecca so responds, and the rest is his-/her-/our-story.

But wait -- if kindness to animals was the sole/soul indicator of Rebecca’s character, did Eliezer’s test go far enough?  Why didn’t he pray that the suitable wife for Isaac would answer: “I will draw water for your [ten!] camels and for you, also?”  Wouldn’t an especially compassionate individual give priority to the suffering of beasts of burden?  

Indeed, as Sefer Chasidim notes, when Eliezer arrived at Rebecca’s home, his animals were given straw, and only then was food set before him (Genesis 24:32).  This principle, that one must feed one’s animals before feeding oneself, is clearly set forth in Jewish law.  (Talmud, Berachot 40a).  

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the opposite is true when it comes to thirst.  Humans come first.  Jewish law cites both Rebecca’s response to Eliezer and G-d’s instruction to Moses when, in the desert, Moses was to speak to the rock (not strike it) “to provide drink for the community and their beasts” – evidently in that order of priority. (Numbers 20:8). 

What might account for this difference between prioritizing hunger and thirst?  Is there a broader lesson we might learn from it?

According to the safety instruction we receive on airplanes: if the oxygen mask drops, we must don our own before helping our children with theirs.  We need an almost constant flow of oxygen before blacking out, so if we don’t attend to ourselves first, chances are high that we’ll be unable to help our children.  Similarly, our need for water is more urgent than our need for food.  If incapacitated by thirst or dehydration, we’ll be unable to water or feed our animals. 

The principle underlying each of these scenarios is that need establishes help priority.  But we can only ascertain which need is greatest if we care enough to inquire and are patient and open enough to listen/observe.  The broader lesson to be derived from the thirst vs. hunger priority is that it often isn’t enough to just “help.”  We should make an effort to provide the aid that helps the most – even if that isn’t the easiest or the kind of help we would prefer to give.  

Giving help shouldn’t be about our own priorities, but the recipient’s. 

Shabbat shalom!

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3