Bereishit 24: 1-50
[Because of the length, I am not copying the verses to the study guide, please refer to a chumash.]
Rabbis Leibowitz and Dessler focus on the story of Eliezer’s search for a bride for Issac. The story is very lengthy and packs in many of the mussar themes concerning the patriarchs.
Rabbi Dessler sees the stories of the patriarchs as exposing tensions between different mussar traits, and the trials of various characters in these stories showing how people grow or fail to grow when confronted with their limitations. Rabbi Dessler identified the following tensions:
bitachon (trust in God)
|↔||gevurah (judgment, boundaries), yirah (fear of God, awareness of consequences, complexity, lack of willful control|
Yirah has multiple connotations. It includes a sense of consequences, whether in this world or the next. It also signifies awe at the bigness and complexity of the world and life. From this perspective, we are foolish if we think we are in control and can manipulate the world by our will and to our own benefit.
- Why might chesed and bitachon be related?
- Does it make sense to you that gevurah (judgment and boundaries) is related to yirah? How might they be different or contrasting?
- How might Issac’s trauma (the experience of the Akedah) cause him to see the world from the point-of-view of gevurah and yirah?
- A standard psychiatric definition of trauma is: “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation” (Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry).
- Judith Herman writes, in her classic text Trauma and Recovery, that “psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force. … Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.”
- From your own concrete experiences, how has the Holocaust shaped Jews understanding of the world and God?
- How does the Akedah exemplify both fear of God and trust in God?
For Rabbi Dessler, a person dominated by chesed is open and outward seeking, while a person dominated by yirah is closed and introverted. Does this sound right to you? Can you think of examples in your own life? Abraham exemplifies the person dominated by chesed, while Issac by gevurah and yirah. What are some contrasts between how Abraham and Issac behave?
Of course, the most telling example of Issac’s introversion, closedness, and passivity is that Eliezer is sent on the journey to find his bride — Abraham does not send Issac. Abraham also is concerned that if Eliezer takes Issac to Mesopotamia he might not return to Canaan.
Rebecca’s watering of the camels was, in the mind of the original readers of the Torah, a big act of chesed. Why? (Hint: the right answer here is very practical.) Why might it have been important to pair Issac with a wife whose personality was dominated by chesed? Note that Rebecca also “hurries,” she, like Abraham, had zerizut (enthusiasm, zeal).
Rabbi Dessler sees emet (truth) and tiferet (balance, harmony) as a way of ultimately overcoming the tensions between chesed and gevurah. Think of tiferet as a level of truth that is able to reconcile and harmonize different perspectives.
How might reconciling differences be a higher level of truth? What are some concrete, personal examples from your life where two different perspectives were both “true.”
Eliezer describes his initial encounter with Rebecca to Laban differently than how it is portrayed by the narrator. In the narrative he provides Rebecca the betrothal ring before asking her about her lineage. When talking to Laban, he says he gave her the ring after finding out her lineage.
Rabbi Dessler says this shows that Eliezer understood that Laban would understand lineage as the determining fact, but not camel-watering. Robert Alter notes that Eliezer’s description of being a person who walks with god to Laban is different from the narrative description, it leaves out monotheistic elements. For Dessler this shading of the truth is a higher level of truth because it recognizes that people perceive the world differently. Do you agree or disagree? How does this reflect back on thinking about chesed and gevurah? Have there been times in your life when it was a greater chesed to shade the truth? How do you know the difference between lying and tiferet (seeking balance, harmony)?
What does Laban’s attention to the rings and bracelets on Rebecca foreshadow about his personality?