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Chronology and Interpretation

Rav Michael Hattin
21.09.2014

 

INTRODUCTION

 

In the aftermath of the Akeida (Binding of Yitzchak), the Torah maintains a discreet silence concerning the lives of Avraham and Sara.  Other than a brief genealogical list that traces the relationship of Rivka to Yitzchak the son of Avraham and Sara, there are no additional incidents recounted in the life of the aged Matriarch or of her husband.  Instead, this week's Parasha of Chayei Sara opens with the abrupt announcement of Sara's death.  The rest of the section is devoted to the account of her burial, the marriage of Yitzchak to Rivka, and Avraham's own demise.  With Avraham's dismissal of his concubine Ketura and her offspring, and the proleptic but emphatic mention of Yishmael's death, Yitzchak's role as the successor and preserver of his parent's legacy is secured. 

 

This week, we shall consider the chronology associated with Sara's death.  In the process, it will become apparent that the issues raised by the discussion may have far-ranging implications for the entire enterprise of Biblical exegesis.  Along the way, a proverbial Pandora's Box or two may be opened, but hopefully with less than harmful results.

 

 

THE AGES OF THE PROTAGONISTS

 

"The years of Sara's life were one hundred and twenty-seven, these were the years of Sara's life.  Sara died in Kiryat Arba, that being Chevron, in the land of Canaan.  Avraham arrived to eulogize his wife and to mourn her" (Bereishit 23:1-2). 

 

These terse verses introduce three salient points and no more: Sara's age at the time of her demise, the location of her death, and the timely arrival of Avraham at the scene.  The text itself provides us with no clues at all concerning the circumstances of her death or its cause.

 

The few details provided above may assist us in constructing a more complete picture of the event, but the critical questions will remain unanswered.  Thus, knowledge of Sara's age allows us to calculate the respective ages of Avraham and Yitzchak at that time.  Recall that the Torah had indicated on the eve of Yitzchak's birth that Avraham was 100 years old and Sara was 90 (Bereishit 17:17, 21:5).  Sara died at the age of 127, 37 years after the birth of her only son.  Therefore, at the time of his wife's death, Avraham was 137 and Yitzchak was 37.  In itself, these chronological details may seem inconsequential, but we shall soon see that they are in fact critical. 

 

The other additional temporal data that may be of significance concerns the marriage of Yitzchak to Rivka, his first cousin once removed.  According to a parenthetical reference in next week's Parasha of Toldot, Yitzchak was "forty years old when he took as his wife Rivka, the daughter of Betual the Aramean of Padan Aram, and the sister of Lavan" (Bereishit 25:20).  Thus, if Yitzchak was thirty-seven years of age at the death of his mother, then his marriage to Rivka took place three years after Sara's death.  Again, although the calculation may seem trifling, it will potentially carry great exegetical weight.

 

 

THE CAUSE OF SARA'S DEATH

 

So far, although we have succeeded in generating a more comprehensive chronology of Sara's loved ones, we still are left to ponder precisely what precipitated her death.  Is it possible for us to reconstruct not only the potentially significant dates but the pivotal events as well?  According to many Biblical commentators, the answer is a resounding 'yes.' 

 

"Sara's death is recounted in juxtaposition to the episode of the 'Binding of Yitzchak' because she died on its account.  When Sara heard that her son had been designated for slaughter and had almost lost his life, her soul left her body and she died!" (Rashi, 11th century, France, commentary to 23:2). 

 

For Rashi and the many expositors that follow in his footsteps, Sara dies in the aftermath of the Akeida.  Textually, this explanation is derived from the proximity of the Akeida account to Sara's death.  In fact, no significant narrative intervenes between the two, as the penultimate episode of last week's Parasha was the provocative Binding of Yitzchak (Bereishit 22:1-19).  Recall that God had asked of the aged Avraham to surrender his beloved son Yitzchak on the altar of absolute trust.  Avraham prepared the necessary provisions, journeyed to the land of Moria, and steeled himself for the impossible deed.  At the last moment, the sacrificial knife already raised, God's angel stayed his hand, and Avraham offered a ram in his son's stead.  Avraham's absolute fidelity was rewarded with the promise of blessing and triumph for the nation that would one day emerge from Yitzchak his son.  The account concluded with the observation that "Avraham returned to his attendants and they arose and journeyed together to Be'er Sheva, and Avraham dwelt in Be'er Sheva" (Bereishit 22:19). 

 

But for the brief interlude of Rivka's almost unpronounceable genealogy, nothing else separates the event of the Akeida from the death of Sara:

 

"After these things it was told to Avraham that Milka also had borne children to Nachor his brother.  Utz his firstborn, Buz his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram.  Kessed and Chazo, Pildash and Yidlaf, and Betuel.  BETUEL WAS THE PARENT OF RIVKA.  These eight were borne by Milka to Nachor, Avraham's brother.  His concubine Reuma bore Tevach, Gacham, Tachash and Maacha" (Bereishit 22:20-24).

 

 

CALCULATING RIVKA'S AGE

 

Thus, Rashi and others maintain that it was the frightful news of Yitzchak's own brush with death that triggers his mother's demise.  Additionally, Rashi maintains that the report of Rivka's pedigree is not only useful for the purposes of tracing her familial ties to her future husband Yitzchak, but is also significant for chronological reasons: "Upon their return from Mount Moria…God informed them that Rivka, Yitzchak's future mate, had been born" (commentary to 22:20).  For Rashi, the list of Rivka's lineage that divides the Akeida from the announcement of Sara's death, is therefore to be understood as the announcement of Rivka's birth.  She enters the world just as the aged Patriarch and his much-loved son make their way back from their fateful encounter with God, the report of which fills Sara with fatal dread.  Taking the matter to its logical conclusion, Rashi claims:

 

"At the time of the Akeida, Yitzchak was 37 years old, for at that time Sara died…just then Rivka was born.  Yitzchak waited for three years until she was fit for marriage and then took her as his wife" (commentary to 25:20, Parashat Toldot).

 

Summing up the matter so far, we may say that Rashi succeeds in filling in the critical episodic gaps by bridging between the passages.  We now know the cause of Sara's death, how old Yitzchak is at the Akeida, and the age of Rivka at the time of her marriage.  It must be stressed that Rashi's explanation and reconstructed chronology, well known to every ritually observant school child and accepted as authentic truth, is well established upon the bedrock of Rabbinic tradition.  The source for Rashi's comments is the venerable 'Seder Olam Rabba,' an early Midrashic work of chronology that is often quoted in the Talmud.  Seder Olam Rabba records historical events from Anno Mundi ('Year of Creation of the World') until the failed Bar Kochva revolt of the 2nd century CE, a period of roughly four thousand years.  According to Chapter One of this work, "Our father Yitzchak was 37 years old when he was bound and placed upon the altar…at that time, Rivka was born.  Thus, our father Yitzchak married Rivka when she was 3 years old."

 

 

THE ASSUMPTIONS AND THE PRELIMINARY PROBLEMS

 

Before addressing the thematic difficulties that are raised by Rashi's explanation, let us first take note of the assumptions upon which it is based.  Firstly, Rashi assumes that no time whatsoever intervenes between the Akeida and Sara's death.  The final verse of the Akeida episode recounts: "Avraham returned to his attendants and they arose and journeyed together to Be'er Sheva, and Avraham dwelt in Be'er Sheva" (Bereishit 22:19).  The text itself gives no indication concerning the length of Avraham's stay in Be'er Sheva. Curiously, the location of Sara's death mentioned but a few verses later is recorded as Kiryat Arba or Chevron: "Sara died in Kiryat Arba, that being Chevron, in the land of Canaan.  Avraham arrived to eulogize his wife and to mourn her" (Bereishit 23:2).  How do we explain Avraham's return to Be'er Sheva while his wife Sara is apparently dwelling in Chevron?  Could it be that Avraham was away from Sara for an extended period of time and therefore she did not die, as Rashi claims, in the aftermath of the Akeida?

 

Rashi is careful to avoid the pitfall by explaining that "Avraham didn't DWELL in Be'er Sheva, because they were living in Chevron…" (commentary to 22:19).  Further, "Avraham ARRIVED from Be'er Sheva to eulogize Sara and mourn her" (commentary to 23:2).  In other words, after the Akeida, Avraham and Yitzchak journeyed home from Moria to Chevron.  On route, they passed through Be'er Sheva, and Sara died while they were there.  While plausible, Rashi's explanation does not address the use of the verb 'vaYeSheV' to describe Avraham's stop in Be'er Sheva, a verb that is usually reserved for some sort of semi-permanent or permanent form of residence.  Also, Rashi's geographical route is quite circuitous.  Why would the aged father and his anxious son, eager to reunite with doting Sara, leave the well-trod route that links the crests of the Judean hills (southern Chevron and Moria to its north among them) in order to detour through the arid foothills of Be'er Sheva that lie more than 30 km. south of Chevron?

 

Rashi's second assumption concerns the report of Rivka's birth.  Rashi supposes that the NEWS of Rivka's birth is synonymous WITH her birth, and that this news reaches him immediately after the Akeida.  This is by no means certain.  First of all, the text states that "After ('Acharei') these things it was told to Avraham that Milka also had borne children to Nachor his brother…", and Rashi elsewhere acknowledges that 'Acharei' implies a lapse of time (see his commentary to Bereishit 15:1, but see also supercommentary of Chizkuni).  More to the point, the text goes on to list the eight children that Milka bears to Nachor, one of whom, Betuel, is the father of Rivka: 

 

"Utz his firstborn, Buz his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram.  Kessed and Chazo, Pildash and Yidlaf, and Betuel.  BETUEL WAS THE PARENT OF RIVKA.  These eight were borne by Milka to Nachor, Avraham's brother…" (Bereishit 22:20-23). 

 

The thrust of the passage is to communicate the various offspring that Avraham's brother has sired since their parting many years before.  It describes a series of children that were born over the course of quite some time.  Of course, the significance of the list is that it introduces us to Rivka, thus foreshadowing the pivotal events of this week's Parasha.  Nevertheless, there is no textual reason to assume that the news concerning long-lost Nachor or his illustrious granddaughter implies Rivka's concomitant birth at all. 

 

 

TEXT AND CONTEXT – MORE SERIOUS PROBLEMS

 

Rashi's explanation also introduces a series of overt exegetical difficulties.  Recall that the Akeida is rightly regarded as Avraham's greatest trial of trust in God.  In it he is called upon to sacrifice that which is most dear to him, the cherished realization of his lifelong yearning, the only hope for the continuity of his mission, his own flesh and blood, Yitzchak.  The account unambiguously presents the unfolding story as Avraham's trial, and Avraham's alone.  His son is portrayed as an unaware participant whose wide and trusting eyes fail to grasp the unfolding horror until almost the very end.  The intuitive reading of the account indicates that Yitzchak is a young boy who believes in his loving father with absolute faith, as a child often must.  Even the incomprehensible thought of death cannot dull his childlike acquiescence.  However, if Yitzchak is a grown and mature man of 37 years, then the trial of the Akeida is really his.  He willingly surrenders his life to God, rather than Avraham taking it in His name.  Is it really possible to reconcile the text of the Akeida account with Rashi's assertion that Yitzchak is 37 years old?

 

Similarly, the notion that Rivka was 3 years old at the time of her marriage to Yitzchak is untenable.  Even allowing for the well-documented Ancient Near Eastern practice of arranged childhood marriage, the text itself remonstrates against the possibility in this case.  Recall that in the aftermath of Sara's death, aging Avraham sends his loyal servant Eliezer to Charan, where Avraham's brother and extended family still dwell.  Eliezer leads a caravan of ten camels laden with all manner of precious gifts, and embarks on his mission of securing a wife for Yitzchak from among his master's kin.  Approaching Charan as dusk falls, thirsty and weary from travel, Eliezer invokes an omen from God:

 

"Let the young woman to whom I shall say 'please tilt your pitcher and allow me to drink,' answer me by saying 'Drink, and I will also provide water for your camels.'  You, God, will thus have shown that she is designated for your servant Yitzchak, and I shall know thereby that You have acted kindly with my master" (Bereishit 24:14). 

 

Sure enough, the prayer having scarcely escaped his lips, a young woman passes him on the way down to the well.  Approaching her as she ascends, her heavy pitcher upon her shoulder, Eliezer tentatively requests a drink.  Quickly, she lowers the pitcher, provides him with water, and proceeds to enthusiastically water all ten of his camels.  Now, the text has clearly indicated that approaching the well involves a descent (Bereishit 24:16).  Even assuming that Rivka employs a small water jug that holds 10 liters (2.5 gallons), it still weighs 10 kg (23 pounds).  Now, although we do not know how long it has been since Eliezer's last rest stop, we do know that thirsty camels are voracious drinkers.  The Arabian camel can survive for many days without food or water by converting the fat in its telltale hump into energy, losing up to a third of its body weight between meals.  When it does drink, however, it can consume as much as 65 liters (15 gallons) in less than ten minutes!  It seems unlikely indeed that the labor necessary to provide water for ten camels, by repeatedly descending an incline to a well and then filling and refilling a heavy water jug, could be successfully performed by a 3 year old.  Such an undertaking would be daunting even for a grown woman, let alone for a small child.

 

 

OPPOSING INTERPRETATIONS

 

In light of all of the above, it is difficult indeed to adopt Rashi's chronology.  Note carefully, however, that what makes Rashi's chronology problematic is not the reader's moral uneasiness with a marriage between a 37 year old man and a 3 year old girl, but rather the TEXTUAL awkwardness that such a chronology introduces.  The subtle details that the Torah itself provides militate against adopting Rashi's interpretation.  Counter-arguments that ask us to suspend our relativist ethical preconceptions in light of the Torah's absolute moral truths are therefore irrelevant here.  How much easier our task would have been had the Midrash that Rashi adopts calculated Yitzchak's age to have been 3 years at the time of the Akeida, and Rivka's to be 37 at the time of their marriage (when Yitzchak was 40 – see Bereishit 25:20)!  Of course, we would have then concluded that Sara in fact did not die at the time of the Akeida but many years later. 

 

     Not surprisingly, some of the classical commentaries do just that.  Rejecting a chronological linkage between the Akeida, Rivka's birth, and Sara's death, they are able to approach the text and interpret it without the insurmountable difficulties that Rashi's reading introduces. 

 

"Our Sages say that Yitzchak was 37 years old at the time of the Akeida," relates Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain), "if this is an authentic tradition, then we accept it.  But from a logical standpoint, it cannot be correct, for then the text would have surely celebrated Yitzchak's righteousness in the episode, and his reward should have been double that of his father for having willingly surrendered himself to slaughter.  The text, however, relates nothing at all concerning Yitzchak…" (commentary to Bereishit 22:4). 

 

Ibn Ezra goes on to explain (not without introducing textual difficulties of his own) that Yitzchak was about 13 years old at the time of the Akeida, thus placing the event some twenty years before Sara's death, and unconnected with the birth of Rivka. 

 

     Similarly, in his lengthy comments, Ramban (13th century, Spain) explains that

 

"God's command concerning the Akeida was communicated to Avraham in Be'er Sheva, for there he dwelt and to there he returned…That is why the journey (to Moria) took three days…Chevron, in contrast is close to Jerusalem.  After the Akeida, Avraham and Yitzchak returned to Be'er Sheva as the verse relates (22:19), and dwelt there for many years.  If so, then Sara did not die at that time…After many years, they left the land of the Philistines (Be'er Sheva) and came to Chevron, and it was there that Sara died" (Commentary to 23:2). 

 

Although Ramban goes on to offer a second interpretation, this time in defense of Rashi, he does not discard his initial reading of the passages.

 

     Concerning the related matter of Rivka's purported birth, Ibn Ezra and Ramban both are in agreement that there is no textual evidence to bolster Rashi's claim that the news of her birth is chronologically equivalent to her birth.  The significance of the passage is only that it charts Rivka's lineage and links her family to that of Avraham and Sara.  It is therefore not possible to state with certainty Rivka's age at the time of her marriage.

 

 

LOOSE BUT VITAL ENDS

 

     Having come this far, two important tasks remain.  The first is to attempt to delineate the parameters of Midrashic authority.  In other words, how can Ibn Ezra and Ramban reject a Rabbinic source that is widely accepted?  Can we confidently (but not complacently) follow in their footsteps without treading on the threshold of heterodoxy? Secondly, if indeed Rashi's reading is as implausible as it seems, how could he himself have adopted it?  In other words, it goes without saying that Rashi and the Rabbinic authors of the Seder Olam were as careful in their reading of the Torah's text as we could ever hope to be.  How carefully they pored over its every nuance (as we should), how profoundly they considered the significance of its every letter (as we ought to), how lovingly they regarded it as the eternal word of God (as we must)!  Surely, they were cognizant of the difficulties that their reading introduced.  How are we to understand their willingness to surrender the clarity of the straightforward reading for exegetical gains that appear, on the surface, to be dubious at best?

 

 

THE RAMBAN AND MIDRASH

 

     Towards the end of his life, the Ramban was forced to defend his faith and the faith of his people against the missionary attempts of the fanatical Dominican friars who enjoyed the support of King James of Aragon.  In a famous disputation that took place in Barcelona in 1263 before the King and his ministers, the Ramban was pitted against the apostate Jew Pablo Christiani and against the hostile and powerful Catholic establishment.  Pablo considered himself expert in matters Jewish but was in fact exposed by the Ramban as an ignoramus.  During the course of the debate, Pablo attempted to bring evidence for Jesus' messianic pretensions from various Midrashim that he carelessly quoted out of context.  The Ramban easily refuted his charges but not without arousing the ire of the Church. 

 

     In celebrated remarks, which themselves have subsequently aroused lively debate in Jewish circles, the Ramban drew a very sharp distinction between Halakhic Midrash and Aggadic Midrash.  The former is concerned with explaining the mitzvot and how they are to be performed.  The latter is homiletical in nature.  Exposition of Halakha is formal and rigorous, and its subject matter is anchored in the necessity of delineating correct performance of the commandments.  Aggada is less exacting and more inspirational, and rarely deals with matters that are doctrinal.  Halakha means 'way' or 'path,' and demarcates the acts that form the backbone of Jewish ritual and ethical conduct.  Aggada means 'telling' or 'story,' and examines the narrative passages of the Bible with the objective of developing interest and fostering spiritual growth.

 

"We possess three genres of literature," explained the Ramban.  "The first is the Bible or Tanakh and all of us believe in its words with a complete trust.  The second is the Talmud and it is an exposition of the mitzvot of the Torah, for the Torah contains 613 mitzvot.  Not a single one of them is left unexplained by the Talmud.  We believe in the Talmud with respect to its exposition of the mitzvot.  The third type of book that we possess is the Midrash and it is like sermons…concerning this collection, for one who believes it, good.  For one who does not believe it, there is no harm…" (Ramban, Book of Disputation, paragraph 39).

 

     In other words, we must distinguish between traditions that explain and clarify the 613 mitzvot, and those that involve expositions of passages that are not concerned with halakhot but rather with narratives.  Concerning the latter, interpretation can be freer and acceptance less dogmatic.  To put the matter in more concrete and extreme terms, the Torah says with respect to the commandment of executing justice that "…you shall take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot…" (Shemot/Exodus 21:23-24).  The Talmud discusses this passage at length and concludes that the Torah is in fact enjoining monetary compensation rather than bodily retaliation (see Talmud Bava Kama 84a).  Although seemingly at variance with the straightforward reading of the verse, we are nevertheless obliged to accept the tradition of the Talmud, because here we are dealing with the exposition of the mitzvot.  In our passage, in contrast, Yitzchak's age at the Akeida has absolutely no bearing on mitzvah performance.  Therefore Ibn Ezra and Ramban can question the tradition asserting that he was in fact 37 years old. 

 

     At the same time, it may very well be the case that the claim of the Rashi and the Seder Olam is in fact an authentic tradition that was orally transmitted at Sinai.  Just because a passage is narrative in nature does not preclude the existence of authentic oral traditions concerning its correct meaning.  Or, as Ibn Ezra himself put it: "Our Sages say that Yitzchak was 37 years old at the time of the Akeida.  If this is an authentic tradition, then we accept it."  But here, explains Ibn Ezra, the existence of such a tradition seems unlikely, since the texts themselves omit the critical details that would make it plausible.  Perhaps we must uneasily conclude that it is no simple matter to reject a Midrashic source.  We do so not as a function of personal distaste, but rather in deference to Scriptural evidence and with the support of other authoritative sources.

 

 

THE MIDRASHIC MATRIX

 

     It is not enough to simply say that Rashi's interpretation is 'wrong.'  Having concluded that it is untenable from a textual standpoint, the more important task now is to ascertain why Rashi may have proffered it.  Too often, a Midrashic source is dismissed as fanciful and improbable, and that is the end of the encounter.  But such a superficial approach constitutes an unfortunate (but common) error.  Instead, we must begin to ponder the deeper significance of the source, the implication of its reading that only on a surface level appears implausible.  Perhaps Rashi's intent was to communicate far more important ideas, that only for the sake of brevity are couched in terms of the age of the protagonists.

 

     Let us again consider the context of Rashi's chronology.  By linking together the Akeida, Rivka's birth and the death of Sara, Rashi is able to calculate Yitzchak's age as well as that of Rivka.  By doing so, Rashi encourages us to ponder the relationship between the episodes of the Akeida on the one hand, and the compassion of Rivka on the other.  It is the death of Sara that brings the two disparate events together.  Sara dies as news of the Akeida reaches her, and Rivka is born, the very same Rivka who will graciously care for Eliezer and the camels in this week's central narrative.  It is Sara's death at the stated age of 127 that allows for the construction of the chronology in the first place.

 

     Recall the criticism of Ibn Ezra, who questioned the tradition that Yitzchak was 37 years old at the time of the Akeida:

 

"the text would have surely celebrated Yitzchak's righteousness in the episode, and his reward should have been double that of his father for having willingly surrendered himself to slaughter." 

 

In other words, it is clearly understood that if Yitzchak is but a child, his role in the Akeida is minor, although he is its unfortunate sacrifice.  Avraham surrenders his beloved son to God's fiat and Yitzchak is the trusting, innocent victim.  But, in contrast, if Yitzchak is 37 years old, then HE is the true hero of the Akeida.  He knowingly, consciously, and willingly gives up his life in consonance with his profound trust.

 

 

RASHI RECONSIDERED

 

Rashi is well aware of the straightforward reading of the text that considers Yitzchak a mere child and Avraham the object of God's test.  Avraham is called upon to give up his most precious possession, his beloved and tender child.  But there is another dimension to the Akeida, lived out by God's people throughout the course of their bitter history, in which we are called upon to give up not just the lives of our loved ones, but our own very lives themselves for the sake of our trust in God.  We must do so not as blind, childish and senseless robots but as sentient, thinking, mature adults with full cognizance of the awesomeness of the act.  That is the Akeida of Yitzchak who is 37, and that is the additional insight into the text that Rashi's interpretation allows.  Indeed, in Rashi's reading, Yitzchak is the real hero of the Akeida and his remarkable acquiescence serves as the exemplar for all subsequent acts of self-sacrifice by his children, exalted deeds that are borne out of deliberation, forethought, and complete trust in God.  As the Rambam (12th century, Egypt) remarks in his discussion of martyrdom,

 

"Whosoever has been called upon to die rather than abrogate the commands of the Torah and does so, has sanctified God's name.  If his martyrdom transpired in the presence of ten other Jews, then he has sanctified God's name publicly, after the manner of Daniel, Chanania, Mishael, Azarya (see Daniel chapters 3 and 6) and Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues.  These martyrs were put to death by oppressive regimes, and there is no higher degree than their example" (Hilkhot Yesodai HaTorah, 5:4). 

 

     Conversely, we may correspondingly consider Rivka's act of compassion towards Eliezer and the camels in two lights.  There is Rivka the adult, the mature woman who altruistically provides for man and beast.  That is the obvious reading of the text.  But here again, Rashi allows for an additional possible reading that is predicated upon Rivka as a 3-year-old child.  What is the difference between the two?  Sometimes, when we perform acts of kindness, we have many aims in mind.  We seek to alleviate suffering and discomfort, and we also attempt to further our own personal interests or at least protect them.  That is the 'selflessness' of adulthood, and often it incorporates an element of calculation and contrivance.  After all, Eliezer the vulnerable foreigner brings with him ten camels laden with intriguing bounty.  Perhaps there is gain to be made at his unsuspecting expense.  As an example of this other type of 'kindness' we need look no further than the example of Rivka's own brother Lavan, who so graciously greets the self-same Eliezer, all the while with an angle towards self-gain (see Bereishit 24:29-32).

 

     But there is another dimension to altruism, in which we suspend all thought of personal gain and instead concentrate fully on the act of compassion.  In this version, the selfless act has an almost naive and childlike quality, particularly when it involves great effort and outlay on our part.  By recasting Rivka as a 3-year-old child who superhumanly cares for Eliezer and the camels by repeatedly descending to and ascending from the well, heavy jug in hand, to provide water, Rashi alerts us to this more profound possibility. 

 

     In the thoughtful reading that Rashi advances, Yitzchak's real age has been transposed with that of Rivka!  The wide-eyed child victim has become the mature adult of absolute trust, while the astute and shrewd water-drawer who can easily identify a potential goldmine becomes the loving child who desires nothing but relief for the thirsty and weary travelers.  Be kind and compassionate without an eye to gain, with no desire for recompense, with only the needs of the recipient in mind.  But be a servant of God with cognition and forethought, with maturity and understanding, with sentience and awareness, and not with immature and shallow devotion.  Such is the thrust of Rashi's chronology.

 

Shabbat Shalom

 

For further study: See the chronology of the Flood, where Rashi also adopts the problematical interpretation of the Seder Olam Rabba.  Ramban refutes Rashi's reading on purely textual grounds and offers a different chronology.  He introduces his interpretation with the following telling words: "In some places Rashi himself takes issue with Aggadic midrashim and exerts himself in order to explain the straightforward meaning of the text.  His example thus gives us license to do likewise, for there are seventy facets of Torah interpretation, and many midrashic sources preserve differences of interpretation between our Sages" (commentary to Bereishit 8:4).

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