November 4, 1999
No Miracles Needed
Parashat Chaye Sarah (Genesis 23:1 -- 25:18)
A young man was courting a young woman, who later became his wife, when he experienced a strange occurrence. The two purchased a box of Cracker Jacks and inside they discovered a little note that proclaimed in bold print: "CONGRATULATIONS! TODAY YOU ARE GOING TO MEET A MAN WITH BLUE EYES AND HIS NAME WILL BE JOE."
Not paying much attention to what seemed a senseless prediction, they continued on their way. After driving a bit, they realized that their car was low on fuel, so they pulled into a gas station. As the attendant approached their car, the young man noticed, to his amazement, that this fellow had blue eyes. He asked him his name, and when the attendant responded, "Joe," the young man was amazed. He wondered if an ordinary snack could contain a miraculous sign. Did the word "Congratulations" mean that he should propose to his date? Did meeting blue-eyed Joe constitute a real miracle portending a divinely blessed union?
Strange as it may seem, this very same type of story occurs in this week's Torah portion. Abraham sent his trusted servant, Eliezer, to find a suitable wife for his son, Isaac. The Torah relates, and the Midrash elaborates, that Eliezer encountered many miracles en route to finding Rebecca. The journey became miraculously short, and everything that Eliezer asked God to do for him occurred. When Eliezer reported all of this to Rebecca's father and brother, Laban and Bethuel, they responded with remarkable and uncharacteristic piety, saying, "The matter stemmed from God! We are unable to speak to you either bad or good" (24:50).
But Laban and Bethuel weren't the only ones to whom Eliezer reported the story in detail, with all of its unbelievable miracles. The Torah tells us that upon returning from his mission, Eliezer "told Isaac all the things he had done" (24:66). It then goes on to say, "And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother; he married Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her, and so Isaac was consoled for his mother" (24:67).
The Targum Onkelos, the ancient Aramaic translator and commentator on the Torah, translates this verse in a most unusual manner. Onkelos generally provides a literal translation without additions or subtractions, but in this instance he elaborates on Isaac's conduct, stating: "And Isaac brought her into the tent and he saw that her deeds were just like the deeds of his mother Sarah and he took Rebecca and married her."
This deviation on the part of Onkelos puzzled comment-ators throughout the ages. One rabbinic scholar sought to answer the puzzle by questioning Onkelos' motive. Why would Onkelos insert a Midrashic comment which certainly isn't specifically included in the Torah text? The rabbi answers that Targum Onkelos was bothered by the contrast between Isaac's response to Eliezer's story of the miracles that occurred in finding Rebecca, with that of Laban and Bethuel. In saying that "the matter stemmed from God," Laban and Bethuel offered a religious reply which was totally out of character for them. But Isaac gave no such response. He never mentions God or miracles. How could it be that the pious Isaac was silent about divine providence?
Onkelos supplies an answer by implying that signs from heaven aren't what a religious man looks for. Such signs have no affect on the religious persona, for in reality when it comes to knowing about people and their personalities what counts is who they really are, and not if some miracle occurred on their behalf. Laban and Bethuel were men of little faith, so they put great emphasis on the miracles and were overwhelmed by them. But for Isaac they were inconsequential. What Isaac needed to know, Onkelos tells us, is the simple question: Did Rebecca possess a personality just like his mother, Sarah? When he realized that this was the truth, he needed no further signs. He understood that such a marriage would be a blessed one.
Thus Onkelos, with just one insightful translation, let all subsequent generations know that deeds, not miracles, must be our guide.
Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is the rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.