Parshas Chayei Sarah & the camels

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By: Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld

There seems to be an obsession with camels in much of this week’s פרשה. The most obvious is the test that Eliezer gives Rivka is whether she will give his camels to drink, but why is that specifically the test? And there are 14 other references to camels in the story of Yitzchak and Rivka, and a few of them are very peculiar. First, it says Eliezer left to חרן with 10 camels and all the possessions of his master Avraham. But weren’t those camels included in everything that he owns? So why note them specifically? Also, much of the story is told with the camels as the main subjects, for example, when Eliezer gets to the well we don’t hear about him or his men, rather the fact that he made the camels sit down. When he gets invited into the house of בתואל, then לבן tells him that he has a place for the camels to sleep. And when Yitzchak sees them coming, it doesn’t tell us that he sees his fathers master, it just says that he sees camels coming, and then Rivka falls off the camel. And in last week’s פרשה, we heard that Avraham made a feast when he weened Yitzchak, ביום היגמל את יצחק. It’s like this word גמל is following Yitzchak and is a central theme in his life.

I don’t have a theory to help explain each one of the references to a גמל in the story, but there is a very nice lesson from this word גמל teaching us how to properly do acts of kindness. The party that Avraham made for Yitzchak when he weaned him was a large event and all the big wigs of the time were there. the word for weaned is היגמל. This is related to the word גמל which means camel since camels in a sense are the most “weaned” animals. They are dependent on no one, they can trek thousands of miles using the built-up fat in the humps on their backs. The eat at the beginning of a trip and then they are self-sufficient for weeks and months. So, this root ג-מ-ל is related to being weaned or self-sufficient.

We have a phrase called גמילות חסד, which was Avraham’s specialty. But now that we know what the word גמילה means, a form or holding back or being self-sufficient, then that phrase becomes oxymoronic. חסד is an endless giving, just an outpour of giving and love and endless support. But גמילה means to wean, or stop giving, to force someone to become self-sufficient like the גמל, the camel, who does not need to rely on others. This is the exact opposite of חסד, so why would we call it גמילות חסד?

I think the answer is that true חסד is when you make someone completely self-sufficient and set them up in a way that they do not need to rely on you anymore. To give someone just enough that they will have support for an amount of time, but they will need to come knocking again soon isn’t true חסד. True חסד is when the givers goals are to have the taker become self-sufficient enough that they no longer need to come knocking. And I think this was Avraham’s specialty. I once heard that we never hear about Avraham’s students again in the Torah, and that they dispersed in the world and all גרים come from them. I originally thought that this was a secondary plan. It would have been better had they stayed with Avraham and his family but nebach they couldn’t handle it, so they went back to the other nations. But I think now that in Avraham’s eyes he was 100% successful with them. He never wanted a bunch of groupies to follow him around, he wanted to inspire people to go out into the world and inspire others. And that is exactly what they did, they were the souls that he “made” in חרן, they were created again so to speak, and he gave them a new purpose and mission in the world.

May we all be zoche to give to others in this fashion.

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