Chayei Sarah(Genesis 23:1-25:18)
Eliezer - Breaking the Curse of Canaan
Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, is the most featured character in this week's Torah portion. He descended from the cursed nation of Ham and Canaan, and was therefore destined to servitude of the nations of Shem and Yapheth. Yet he elevated himself to the level of being the servant of the greatest man in his generation, Abraham, thereby earning himself the coveted description of 'Eliezer Eved Avraham' -'Eliezer, the servant of Avraham'. Moreover, the descendants of Canaan were subject to Noach's curse, and yet the Midrash tells us that Eliezer extricated himself from this curse.(1)
Two questions arise: Why were the descendants of Canaan subject to such a harsh curse and the punishment of servitude; and how did Eliezer merit to break his curse?
The Midrash helps answer the first question by their description of the sin which led to the curse of the descendants of Cham through his son, Canaan.(2) The Torah tells us that Noah became highly intoxicated with wine and uncovered himself in his tent. His son, Ham saw his father's nakedness and performed a despicable deed which caused Noah to be unable to procreate in the future.(3) Why did Ham perform such a heinous act? The Gemara explains that Ham was motivated by selfishness; he was concerned that if Noah would have more sons then his share in Noah's inheritance would be smaller. As a result of his behavior, Noah cursed Cham's son Canaan that his descendants would permanently be slaves to the descendants of his brothers, Shem and Yapheth.(4) It is possible that the curse was specifically slavery as a measure for measure punishment for Cham's character trait of selfishness. He only cared about his own needs rather than those of his father, and as a punishment he should be a slave, who can only think about the needs of his master.
Eliezer, as a descendant of Canaan was subject to his curse and therefore was destined to a life of servitude. Given his connection to Canaan, it would seem that he inherited the negative trait of selfishness from his ancestor, yet where do we see any remnants of this trait in such a great man? The answer is found in his response to Abraham's request that he find a wife for Yitzchak. He innocently answers, "perhaps the woman will not want to go with me." (5)
The Midrash tells us that Eliezer had an underlying motive that led him to express this reservation. He had a daughter of his own and he hoped that Abraham would allow Yitzchak to marry her.(6) His selfish motives are indicated by the Torah's use of the word meaning perhaps, ulai. When he relates his discussion with Abraham to Laban, he says the word, 'ulai' but on this occasion it is spelt, 'eilei', without the 'vav', which means 'to me'. The Midrash tells us that Abraham recognized Eliezer's ulterior motives and answered him in a seemingly harsh manner; "My son is blessed but you are cursed, one who is cursed cannot cleave to one who is blessed." (7) It seems that Abraham's reply was actually a rebuke - he was alluding to the fact that the cause of the curse on Canaan was his selfishness. Eliezer's response to Abraham demonstrated that despite his greatness he was also affected by this negative trait. Instead of purely thinking about how to fulfill his master's will, he was thinking about how he could benefit by his daughter marrying Isaac. Accordingly, Abraham told him that he remained cursed and therefore could not marry the blessed Yitzchak.(8)
How did Eliezer eventually merit to free himself from the status of 'cursed' and become 'blessed'? The answer is that he had to overcome any remnants of selfishness through his quest for a wife for Isaac. As long as he harbored some small hope that his mission to find a wife would fail so that his daughter could marry Isaac, then he would remain in the category of 'cursed'.
The Shem MiShmuel shows how Eliezer made every effort to overcome his own desires; as soon as he reached Haran he prayed that Isaac's zivug (match) appear immediately. The Shem MiShmuel explains that he wanted his mission to succeed so quickly so that there would be no time for his selfish motivations to creep in. His prayer was granted and Rebecca did indeed appear immediately, and Eliezer proceeded with complete devotion to his master. It was because of his great efforts in nullifying his own desires that he left the category of 'cursed' and became blessed. In this way he rectified in himself the flaw of selfishness that he inherited from Ham.(9)
We have seen how Eliezer Eved Avraham rectified in himself the flaw of his ancestor Ham; he totally subjugated his personal ambitions to his duty to fulfill his master's instructions. There are two important lessons that can be derived from Eliezer's achievement. One is that a person may inherit certain negative traits, such as selfishness, yet it is always possible for him to overcome these traits through intense self-growth and great siyata dishmaya (Divine assistance). Eliezer made great efforts to avoid falling into the trap of selfishness and turned to God in prayer to help him succeed in his efforts.
The second lesson is more specifically concerned with the trait of selfishness. The commentators note that there are two times in the portion where Eliezer's words of 'perhaps she will not want to go with me' are recorded; the first is when he says these words to Abraham, and the second is when he relates the dialogue to Laban. The Midrash only makes its observation about Eliezer's selfish motives the second time. Why did it not do so on the first occasion? The Kotsker Rebbe explains that the first time Eliezer expressed his reservations he was not consciously aware of his underlying hope that Yitzchak would marry his daughter. Therefore there is no allusion to his selfish motives then. The reason for this was that he was unable to view the situation totally objectively and realize that he had ulterior motives.
After he had found a wife for Yitzchak he could have a totally unbiased view of what had happened. He then recognized retroactively that the root cause of his objection to Abraham was the hidden hope that his own daughter would marry Isaac. This demonstrates to us how easily one can get caught in the trap of selfish motives without even realizing. Thus in order to avoid this trap it is essential to try to view the situation from an unbiased perspective - this is impossible during the time of the nisayon (test) therefore it is advisable to seek out a Rebbe or a friend who can objectively assess the situation and the purity of our motives.(10)
1. Zohar, 3:115, Bereishit Rabbah, 60:7.
2. See Bereishit, 9:20-29 for the full account of this incident.
3. Rashi, Bereishit, 9:22, 9:25.
4. There is much discussion amongst the commentaries as to why specifically Canaan was cursed. See Rashi, Kli Yakar, Bereishit, 9:25.
5. Bereishit, 24:5.
6. Bereishit Rabbah, 59:9, quoted by Rashi, Bereishit, 24:39.
8. Heard from Rav Yissachar Frand.
9. Shem MiShmuel, Chayei Sarah, 5678, pp. 248-9.
10. This indeed is one of the reasons given as to why the Mishna in Avos tells us to acquire a friend, even if he is not wiser than us.