The Servant of Abraham
Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )
This week's Torah portion deals primarily with two issues:
- the death and subsequent burial of Sarah, and
- the search for a wife for Isaac.
These subjects, especially the latter, are covered with painstaking detail. One is immediately struck by the amount of text devoted here, particularly when compared to the general terseness of the Torah.
This is the first step toward the acquisition of the entire Land of Israel by the Jewish people.
One may posit that the first section, the acquisition of a burial plot for Sarah, is stressed due to its monumental importance: This is the first step toward the acquisition of the entire Land of Israel by the Jewish people.
We recall the words of Rashi on the very first verse in the Torah, where Rashi questioned the propriety of beginning with narrative rather than law. He explained that the Torah wants to teach an important principle. The entire earth was created by and belongs to God, and therefore God alone chooses who will possess and inhabit any part of it -- especially the Holy Land.
Thus, when Abraham legally takes possession of the piece of ground for Sarah's burial place, thereby taking a foothold in the Land of Israel, the Torah recounts the events in detail. After all, if all of Genesis serves, in one way or another, to establish and clarify ownership of the land, no details should be spared in the description of Abraham's inaugural acquisition -- the purchase of the cave of Machpela.1
A BRIDE FOR ISAAC
While this certainly provides a theological basis for the first part of this week's Torah portion, we are still mystified regarding the long, drawn-out description of the search for a bride for Isaac. Here the Midrash notes the problem and suggests:
And he gave straw and provender for the camels (Genesis 24:32). Rabbi Aha said: "The mere conversation of the slaves of the Patriarchs' household is more important than the laws [Torah] of the (Patriarch's) descendants. This chapter dealing with Eliezer covers two or three columns, and [his conversation] is not only recorded but repeated. Whereas [the uncleanness of] a reptile is an integral part of the Torah, and yet it is only from an extending particle in Scripture that we learn that its blood defiles as its flesh." (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 60:8)
The Midrash observes that the amount of text dedicated to the servant of Abraham is disproportional. This is a relative statement, which is especially poignant when we compare it with sections of law or ritual. One could have argued that the objective of the Torah, ostensibly, is to teach law, and not to tell, nor certainly to repeat stories. Therefore the Midrash declares that the amount of text dedicated to the topic is indicative of its relative importance.
A DIFFICULT STORY
The story of the servant of Abraham is difficult. While the narrative is detailed and repetitive, certain salient details are missing. For example the name of the "servant" is not mentioned at all in the text.
And Abraham said to the oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he had, "Put, I beg you, your hand under my thigh. And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live. But you shall go to my country, and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac." (Genesis 24:2-4)
It is left to the Midrash and commentaries to make the identification: the servant is Eliezer mentioned a few chapters back. Eliezer was Abraham's trusted companion, the man whom Abraham had earlier imagined would perhaps one day be his heir.
And Abram said, "Lord God, what will you give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?" And Avram said, "Behold, to me you have given no seed; and, one at home in my house is my heir." And, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, "This shall not be your heir; but he who shall come forth from your own bowels shall be your heir." (Genesis 15:2-3)
Based on logic, or perhaps tradition, the servant here in Parshat Chayei Sarah (chapter 24) is identified with the servant mentioned in Parshat Lech Lecha (chapter 15). Nonetheless it seems strange that he is not identified by name here in the section where he assumes the center of the stage.
Perhaps we have answered our own question: Eliezer viewed himself as a dedicated servant of his master, and he was aware that his role was ancillary. He was not "Eliezer", he was the "Servant of Abraham", and hence the conclusion of the Midrash cited above:
The mere conversation of the slaves of the Patriarchs' household is more important than the laws [Torah] of their descendants.
SERVANT OR MAN?
One apparent problem with this approach is that the appellation "servant" -- in Hebrew eved -- is not consistently used in the text (Genesis 24):
- And the servant took ten of his master's camels...
- And he said, "O Lord God of my master Abraham, I beseech you, send me good speed this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham..."
- And she said, "Drink, my lord;" and she hurried, and let down her water jar upon her hand, and gave him drink...
- And the man, wondering at her, held his peace, to see whether the Lord had made his journey successful or not.
- And it came to pass, as the camels finished drinking, that the man took a golden ear ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands of ten shekels weight of gold...
- And the man bowed down his head, and worshipped the Lord.
- And he said, "Blessed be the Lord God of my master Abraham, who has not left my master destitute of his mercy and his truth; As for me, the Lord has guided me in the way to the house of my master's brothers..."
- And Rebecca had a brother, and his name was Laban; and Laban ran out to the man, to the well.
- And it came to pass, when he saw the ear ring and bracelets upon his sister's hands, and when he heard the words of Rebecca his sister, saying, "Thus spoke the man to me;" that he came to the man; and, behold, he stood by the camels at the well...
- And the man came into the house; and he ungirded his camels, and gave straw and provender for the camels, and water to wash his feet, and the feet of the men who were with him.
- And he said, "I am Abraham's servant..."
- And it came to pass, that, when Abraham's servant heard their words, he worshipped the Lord, bowing to the earth.
- And the servant brought forth jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebecca; he gave also to her brother and to her mother precious things...
- And they called Rebecca, and said to her, "Will you go with this man?
- And they sent Rebecca their sister, and her nurse away, and Abraham's servant, and his men...
- And Rebecca arose, and her maids, and they rode upon the camels, and followed the man; and the servant took Rebecca, and went his way...
- And Rebecca lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she lighted off the camel.
- For she had said to the servant, "What man is this who walks in the field to meet us?" And the servant said, "It is my master." Therefore she took a veil, and covered herself.
Who is this person -- a servant or a man?2
Evidently his identity poses challenges which are conveniently avoided when we simply call him Eliezer. Apparently, depending upon perspective and the role being fulfilled in any particular verse, the identity of this person shifts from servant to man and back to servant. The details which would otherwise have been glossed over, but are pointed up by this shifting identification, contain information which help us penetrate this story.
Evidently his identity poses challenges which are conveniently avoided when we simply call him Eliezer.
This man, Eliezer, sees himself as servant of Abraham (and Isaac). The locals see him as a man.
Verse 61 is therefore of note because it uses both terms, making the subtle shift in identity clear: Rebecca followed the man while the servant took her on the journey to meet his master. Yet even for Rebecca, he ceases to be the man when she beholds Isaac -- to whom she now refers as "man". In so doing, she speaks to the servant.
Rebecca is cognitively aware that Isaac, and not Eliezer, is the master of the house, even before ever seeing Isaac. Nonetheless, until she actually sees Isaac, Eliezer seems so impressive that he is called man. Only in comparison to Isaac does Eliezer pale, his stature reduced to servant.
HEIR AND WARRIOR
To become Abraham's "right hand man", this servant must have been an extremely impressive individual. As seen above, there was a period of time that Abraham had seen him as his heir apparent. Tradition tells us that Eliezer was an imposing warrior.
And when Abraham heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them to Dan. And he divided himself against them, he and his servants, by night, and defeated them, and pursued them to Hovah, which is to the left of Damascus.(Genesis 14:14)
The Talmud understands that there were only two people fighting: Abraham and Eliezer.
Three hundred and eighteen: Rabbi Ammi ben Abba said: "Eliezer outweighed them all." Others say, "It was Eliezer, for this is the numerical value of his name." (Talmud Nedarim 32a)
There are various attempts in tradition to identify Eliezer with other famous personalities. One tradition tells us that he was none other Og, King of Bashan.3 The historicity of such an identification is difficult and compounded by the fact that Eliezer is a positive character, which can not be said of Og. We may conclude that Eliezer was "head and shoulders" above others; only in relationship to Abraham (and Isaac) was he subservient.
WORDS OF THE SERVANT
The Midrash cited above attributes great value to the conversation of Abraham's servant. It states that the words of the servant take precedence over the Torah laws that will be given to Abraham's descendents. The same type of comparison between narrative and legal sections of the Torah may also be distilled from the Midrash which relates to the first episode recorded in our Torah portion:
...unto Abraham for a possession, in the presence of the children of Het (Genesis 23:17). Rabbi Leazar said: "How much ink has been spilled and how many quills have been broken in order to write the children of Het, which is actually written ten times! These ten correspond to the Ten Commandments, teaching that if one assists a righteous man in his purchase, it is as though he fulfilled the Ten Commandments. (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 60:3)
In other words, there is a relationship between "incidental" occurrences in Abraham's life and Torah, therefore even his servant's dialogue contains incredible worth.
But the value of Eliezer's words also seems to be called into question elsewhere in this Midrashic analysis:
"Behold, I stand by the fountain of water ... so let it come to pass, that the damsel to be chosen shall be she to whom I shall say: 'Let down thy pitcher'" (Genesis 24:13). Four asked improperly. Three were granted their request in a fitting manner, and the fourth, in an unfitting manner. They are: Eliezer, Calev, Shaul, and Yiftah. Eliezer (said): So let it come to pass, that the damsel... Even a bondmaid! Yet God prepared Rebecca for him and granted his request in a fitting manner. (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 58:8)
We are told that the mode of Eliezer's request was inappropriate; he "put God on the spot" with seeming irreverence.
But perhaps in Eliezer's very "irreverence" we discern his greatness. What was the source of Eliezer's confidence that God would truly answer his request? The answer is obvious (and stated): Abraham.
And he said, "O Lord, God of my master Abraham, I beseech you, send me good speed this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham." (Genesis 24:12)
Eliezer's eyes saw Abraham on a daily basis, we can only imagine the sight he had the good fortune to behold. The spiritual stratosphere of Abraham, and indeed all the Patriarchs, eludes our imagination. Eliezer saw the majestic holiness of his master, and he was content in serving Abraham.4 He saw the wonders and knew of the miracles. Eliezer had no doubt of his master's holiness, and merit.
While Eliezer's request of God at the well was posed in an inappropriate way, the actual wording compounds the problem:
And he made his camels kneel down outside the city by a well of water at the time of the evening, the time that women go out to draw water. And he said, "O Lord, God of my master Abraham, I beseech you, send me good speed this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham. (Genesis 24:11-12)
He arrives just before sunset, yet asks God to "work things out" before the day is done. This shows Eliezer's incredible trust in God. What was the source of this trust? He was a servant of Abraham. He had seen Abraham. His words contain more Torah, more belief, than the words transmitted at Sinai.
LIVING THE TORAH
The Sages credit our forefathers with having kept all the precepts of the Torah. Whether this is meant in a literal sense or a spiritual sense is the subject of debate. Among Hassidic5 sources -- such as Izbitch and Berditchev -- there is an understanding that Abraham did not literally fulfill Torah law, but nonetheless fulfilled the Torah in a spiritual sense. His actions were such that they indicated a lofty level of spiritual accomplishment.
We would be mistaken today to believe that we are on a higher spiritual plane than the Patriarchs.
We would be mistaken today to believe that we, through following the Torah, are on a higher spiritual plane than the Patriarchs who were not so commanded. Rather they "fulfilled" the Torah despite not adhering to its literal words.
God looked into the Torah and created the world; Abraham looked into the world and discovered God. He did not "need" the commandments; he was in touch with the inner message of the Torah.
This concept is highly antinomian, for the seeking individual today may posit that he does not need the revealed Torah, that he is "in touch" with the soul of the Torah via his own path. Yet this type of individual spirituality was only possible prior to Sinai. Once the Torah was given, the Torah alone now defines and directs spirituality. Individual paths become impossible.
Just as a person has a body and a soul, so too the Torah. The body is the commandments and stories. Abraham existed prior to the revelation of Torah in its current garb. Nonetheless, Abraham kept the entire Torah. His servant was that much closer to this authentic Torah; his words were therefore superior even to the words of the revealed Torah. Therefore, when the Torah expends so much space on the words of this servant, we must take notice, for in his words lies truth, incredible trust and faith, and knowledge of God.6
It is for this reason that so much space was used on these words and "so much ink spilled." These words, which were uttered by a man who knew and learned from Abraham himself, are now the words of Torah. These words are permeated by trust in God, and indeed there is much to learn from them.
- The Zohar, however connects at least some of the prolixity with the uniqueness of Sarah. "Rabbi Abba said: 'Of Sarah alone among all women do we find recorded the number of her days and years and the length of her life and the place where she was buried. All this was to show that the like of Sarah was not to be found among all the women of the world. You may object that we find a somewhat similar record in connection with Miriam, of whom it is written, And Miriam died there, and was buried there (Numbers 20:1). But the object there was to show the unworthiness of Israel, for whom water was made to flow forth only through the virtue of Miriam. Hence Miriam's death was not recorded with such full details as that of Sarah.'" (Zohar, Bereishit, Section 1, Page 124b.) (return to text)
- These questions were raised by Rav Mordechai Breuer, in a class I attended in 1980. Over the years his questions have remained with me, while his answers have eluded me. (return to text)
- Pirki D'Rebbi Eliezer Chapter 15. See Daat Zikanim Ba'aley Tosfot 24:39 (return to text)
- Who is among you that fears the Lord alludes to Eliezer. Who hears the voice of his servant, for he was Abraham's servant. Who walked in darkness when he went to fetch Rebecca. And has no light who, then, gave him light? The Holy One, blessed be He, illumined his path with meteors and lightning. Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay on his God. Thus it is written, And he said: "O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, send me, I pray thee, good speed this day. (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 60:1)
It is written, A servant that deals wisely shall have rule over a son that puts (his father) to shame, (Proverbs 27:2). A servant that deals wisely alludes to Eliezer. And wherein lay his wisdom? He argued thus: "My curse lies upon me from aforetime. Perhaps an Ethiopian or a Barbar will come and enslave me; then it is better that I be enslaved in this house than elsewhere. (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 60:2) (return to text)
- See Maor V'Shemesh Rimzey first day of Sukkot, Maor Enayim Yitro. See Parshat Derachim 1. (return to text)
- The Midrash notes that more could have been stated: And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done (Genesis 24:66). Rabbi Eleazar said: "There is more general statement in the Torah than detailed statement, for had he wished, he could have written two or three columns." The Rabbis said: "He disclosed to him the more welcome incidents [only, e.g.] that the earth had contracted before him." (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 60:15) (return to text)