Chayei Sarah(Genesis 23:1-25:18)
20/20 Torah Vision
The story of Eliezer's search for Isaac's bride is the longest personal story in the entire Torah. The Midrash comments on this atypical generosity with words:
"The conversation of the servants of the patriarchs is more beautiful than the Torah Laws that apply to their children, for the story of Eliezer fills between two and three folios in the Torah scroll, while the laws of Tamey [ritual uncleanliness] attached to dead insects are deduced entirely from extra letters." (Yalkut, Chaye Sarah, 109)
Rabbi Dessler offers us some illustrations of this beauty referred to by the sages:
When Eliezer first met Rebecca by the well, the Torah writes:
"The man was astonished at her, reflecting silently to know whether God has made his journey successful or not. And it was, when the camels had finished drinking, the man took a golden nose ring ... and two bracelets on her arms.... And he said, 'Whose daughter are you?'..." (Genesis 24:21-23).
Thus he gave her the jewelry he had brought with him as gifts for the bride before he discovered her identity. Theoretically she could have turned out not to be a member of Abraham's family at all, in which case he would have given the bridal gifts to the wrong person.
When he later recounts the story of this meeting with Rebecca to Laban and Betuel, (see ibid. 24:46-47) Eliezer changes the sequence of these events. He relates that he first asked Rebecca her name and only afterwards did he give her the bridal gifts.
Rabbi Dessler's explains this change. Eliezer believed (emunah) in God, and trusted in Him (bitachon). He was so overcome by the miraculous encounter at the well where Rebecca appeared instantaneously and precisely fulfilled the conditions of his proposed test (ibid. 12-14), that he understood that she was the bride intended by God even before discovering her identity. But when he was relating the story to Laban and Betuel, neither of who were believers, he changed it so that his behavior should not appear bizarre in their eyes.
Laban and Betuel did not subscribe to the theory of Divine Providence. No matter how farfetched it might seem to attribute the instantaneous and complete fulfillment of Eliezer’s proposed test to pure coincidence, coincidence was their only possible explanation, and they would have regarded Eliezer's reliance on it as a sign of naivete and weakness. As Eliezer wished to negotiate with them from a position of strength, he didn't want them to assess him as foolish and gullible, so he altered the story in a way they could relate to.
Thus the first beauty illustrated by the repetition of Eliezer's story is the contrast in the worldview of the believer and his counterpart -- the simple faith of Eliezer versus the skepticism of Laban and Betuel.
But if Eliezer was such a firm believer in Divine providence, why did he propose the test in the first place? Doesn't his behavior contradict this very message? The believer in Divine Providence should not require such 'proofs' of God's intervention.
To understand why, we must learn a little more about 'bitachon,' trust in God.
Nachmonides explains in his work 'Emuna Ubitochon' that it is a misconception to believe that you can rely on God to arrange that everything in your life will turn out well. No one knows what tests God intends for him or her, and it is therefore impossible to assume that God will insure that everything will always turn out the way one desires. So what does reliance on God mean, and when can it be applied? Explains Nachmonides: the person who wishes to embark on a mitzvah enterprise but is afraid of doing so because he isn't certain that he will have the physical or mental resources necessary to complete the task or to perform it properly is permitted to rely on God and jump right in.
Bitachon tells us that we were sent to the world for a purpose -- to earn our reward and create a place for ourselves in the World to Come by performing the mitzvot that fate puts in our way. It follows therefore, that God will supply us with the resources to accomplish all the mitzvah tasks that are reasonably within our powers to complete successfully. We need not worry that we will run out of steam or that the necessary conditions required for the successful completion of our plans will fail to materialize or that we will go about things the wrong way due to our own lack of understanding.
This means that as long as we undertake to do things for the right reasons and to the best of our ability, we do not have to worry that we are in the wrong job, in the wrong school, married to the wrong woman, or dealing with the wrong people. On the contrary, bitachon commands us to assume that God placed us in precisely the situation we need to be in to accomplish what we were sent down here to do.
When we look at Eliezer's situation in light of all this, we are entitled to wonder where was his bitachon? Surely, he believed that Abraham sent him on his mission to search for a wife in Charan for the purest of reasons. What was he afraid of? That Isaac would end up with the wrong woman? That he, Eliezer, would fail in his mission? Weren't both these contingencies ruled out as possibilities by the need to have bitachon?
Indeed, Eliezer's test is not free of controversy. Rambam and Ra'avad debate whether it was permissible altogether to conduct such a test [see Yad Hachazaka, Laws of Idolatry, 11,4). I would like to propose what I understand to be the solution by applying Rabbi Dessler's thoughts regarding another beautiful aspect of the Eliezer story.
There is a second alteration in Eliezer's account. In his original discussion with Abraham, Eliezer made the following remark. Perhaps the woman shall not wish to follow me to this land; shall I take your son back to the land from which you departed?
When Eliezer repeated the story, he censored part of this conversation. He quoted himself as merely having said, "Perhaps the woman will not follow me." Moreover, the Torah alters the spelling of the word perhaps, ulay, in Hebrew. The way it is spelled in the repetition account, it can also be read as elay, which means "to me" in Hebrew.
The Rabbis comment on this change of spelling [see Rashi]. Eliezer also had a daughter, and he felt that she was eminently suitable to become Isaac's wife. In his heart of hearts he was hoping that his mission would fail, and that Abraham, failing to find a suitable wife for his son among his relatives, would turn to his daughter instead.
But Eliezer was a faithful servant regardless of the dreams in his heart. He set about fulfilling his master's orders with the utmost devotion and loyalty. When he made the comment to Abraham about taking Isaac back to Charan, he sincerely believed that he was solely concerned about the success of his mission. But as soon as he arrived in Charan and experienced the miracle of Rebecca's instantaneous appearance, he realized that what he had thought was genuine concern over the success of his mission, was in reality a subconscious wish that his mission would fail and that Abraham would turn to him.
When he repeated the story, he told it truly the way it really happened, not the way he perceived it at the time. Thus he admitted to Laban and Betuel that he had really hoped that Abraham would turn to him, and didn't even bother repeating his original objections and projected problems, as in retrospect it was clear to him that they arose from his feelings of self-interest. The honesty of Eliezer and his ability to rise above his own smallness of mind is another beautiful aspect of the story according to Rabbi Dessler.
SERVING GOD OR SERVING SELF?
We can apply this teaching of Rabbi Dessler to the problem of Eliezer's test.
Eliezer arrived in Charan with mixed feelings. He wasn't sure why, but he was not enthusiastic about his mission. If one sets about doing God's will then one can rely on bitachon. But if one is really concerned about one's own self interest, there is no guarantee that things will turn out as they should, even when the object of the enterprise is a mitzvah. The person with his own axe to grind will often fail to follow the path that God sets out for him because he subconsciously desires something else. Our own self-interest often colors the way we perceive reality.
Feeling uneasy about his feelings, Eliezer put the matter out of his own hands and gave it over to God. By constructing his test he was in effect saying to God, "God, I should really be able to carry out this task using my own powers guided by Your hand of Providence. But because of my own selfish self-interest, I am incapable of necessarily making the correct decisions using my own intelligence. Because I do not want to go against Your will, I give the matter over to You. You find the girl and decide that she is the right one."
It was not Eliezer's lack of bitachon in God that prompted him to devise his test, it was his lack of faith in himself.
This gives us the key to understanding a profound point. Rashi (24,39) on the word "to me" quotes a Midrash: "When Eliezer suggested to Abraham that he take his daughter as a wife for Isaac, Abraham turned him down; he said to him, my son is blessed and you are accursed; [Eliezer was a descendant of Cana'an who was cursed by Noah; And he said, "Cursed is Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers." (Genesis 9,25)] Connections between the blessed and the accursed are inappropriate. (Bereishis Raba, 59,9)"
A second Midrash elaborates further on this theme: He said, "Come O Blessed of God" (24,31) Eliezer's face was an exact image of Abraham's. When Eliezer entered, Laban thought he was Abraham and greeted him accordingly referring to him as the blessed of God. Laban's mistake is recorded in the Torah to teach us that Eliezer went from being accursed to being a 'blessed of God' through his faithful service to Abraham. (Bereishis Raba,60)
Thus the very manifestation of Eliezer's accursed status, his inability to connect to Isaac through his daughter and the consequent need to search for an appropriate wife was the vehicle that transformed him into someone blessed.
BLESSED AND ACCURSED
How can we relate to these ideas? What did Abraham mean by his apparently cruel remark? What makes a person accursed and how does he become blessed?
To fully appreciate the problem here we must understand a little better who Eliezer was. The Talmud (Yuma 28b) places Eliezer on a par with the Patriarchs themselves. The Talmud describes only four individuals as having attained the level of being able to transform their entire life experience into Torah -- the three Patriarchs and Eliezer. The Talmud states that Eliezer knew all the Torah that Abraham knew, and it was he who actually did the teaching of Abraham's Torah unto others.
The daughter of a person on such a lofty spiritual level would certainly appear to be a more appropriate wife for Isaac than the daughter of Betuel, the unbeliever! What is more how can such a person be described as accursed? Why did Noah, the author of Canaan's curse, express this curse in terms of slavery?
Freedom and slavery can be understood and expressed on many levels. On the most obvious level I am free if I can do as I like; no one else owns or controls me. Although none of us is in a position to do exactly as we like we consider ourselves free as long as it is within our power to control the overall direction of our lives. If we are free to decide whether to be doctors or lawyers, we generally do not regard the fact that the way we must practice our professions is heavily regulated and our advancement is under the control of our superiors as a deprivation of freedom.
But let us descend a level. Why do we need professions altogether? The answer is obvious -- we need to support ourselves; if we choose a good profession we will be able to support ourselves well and avoid being constricted in our life options within severely limited circumstances. We will be able to choose where to live, where to shop, what to buy, where to educate our kids to the extent humanly possible. Freedom is a function of the availability of options for self-satisfaction. The greater the number of options the greater the freedom.
From a spiritual perspective, however, there is little difference between serving others and serving yourself. The human self is not a spontaneously self-generated entity. We are not only born needy, but life conditions us to grow accustomed to certain types of experiences and sensations which also become part of our needs. We do not choose these needs, but we must meet them nevertheless or walk around feeling deprived.
In spiritual terms there is no difference in quality between the servitude to your own needs and the servitude to someone else's. The difference is not in kind, but merely in preference. Given the choice of serving himself or someone else, only an idiot would choose to serve someone else.
Abraham chose to serve God rather than himself. He didn't choose this as a better way of providing for his own needs; i.e. you can always broaden the number of your options more efficiently if you manage to solicit God's help in the enterprise; besides adding a few novel ones such as eternal life to the options that are usually available. He gave up the entire ideal of self-fulfillment and self-advancement as a goal in life. He no longer looked at the world in terms of his own self-interest. He no longer defined freedom as the sum total of the number of options.
Abraham gave God his entire sense of self. He would satisfy God's needs instead of his own or some other human self. If God would not be in the business of recruiting servants this type of transference would not be an option, but as soon as Abraham reached this decision at the mouth of the fiery furnace, God instantly accepted his offer, and offered him His blessing. I will bless you and make your name great and you shall be a blessing. (Genesis 12,2) God's acceptance instantly transformed all of Abraham's own needs into God's needs. God's needs transcend ordinary reality and thus Abraham became blessed.
Canaan represents the opposite extreme. When a person's world narrows to the extent that the satisfaction of his self becomes the sum total of all his goals, he becomes the opposite of blessed. His essence becomes that of a servant and this is the significance of being accursed.
Most people are somewhere in the middle between the two extremes and are neither blessed or accursed. Eliezer was a descendant of Canaan. He did not emerge from the average but from the extreme. Maimonedes explains at length in Ch.1 of the Laws of Death, that the only way to work yourself out of any extreme character trait once it becomes a fundamental part of the self is to go to the very opposite extreme. Eliezer had to give up the self totally to rid the world of Canaan's curse. This is the true beauty that underlies his story.
Jews are not like other people. Our success comes only through bitachon. But true bitachon is only possible if the self is not a barrier that stands between you and God. The true servant of God always transcends his physical limitations. His freedom is never defined by the number of his options, for the true servant of God never has any other option than carrying out God's will. But he is the only one who is blessed.