The Prayer of the Servant
Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )
And Avraham said to the senior servant of his household, who had charge of all that he owned…go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Yitzchak." (Bereishit 25:2-4)
The elderly Avraham sends his most trusted aide on a most important mission, to find a wife for his son Yitzchak. We assume that the identity of this aide is Eliezer, the person who was previously described as a prominent member of Avraham's household (Bereishit 15:2). We don't know that much about Eliezer, there are rumors that he was a valiant warrior, and some even claim that his father was the notorious Nimrod.
But he is a close confidant of Avraham, and if we judge a person by the company he keeps and by the manner he was entrusted by Avraham, he must have been a person of sterling character.
The servant sets out on his quest; when he arrives at his destination -Avrahams's home town - and turns to God in an unusual prayer:
He made the camels kneel down by the well outside the city, at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water. And he said, "O LORD, God of my master Avraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Avraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, 'Please, lower your jar that I may drink,' and who replies, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels'-let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Yitzchak. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master." (Bereishit 25:11-14)
The servant - by definition, a person accustomed to obeying orders - gives God a very specific task. If a young, eligible woman behaves precisely in the manner he has described, his mission will have been a success. While the propriety of daring to request such a display of Divine micro-management can be debated, there is a second, perhaps even more disturbing element to the servant's prayer. The verses are very specific: He arrived at the specified location at a very specific time of day, "at evening time," yet he requests that God's intervention take place that very same day. "Grant me good fortune this day," he says, setting a deadline for the success of his mission, presumably before nightfall. Keeping in mind that the Jewish day begins just after sunset, the window of opportunity for success seems extremely limited.
We might be tempted to say that the servant did not really want to succeed, and did his best to torpedo the mission. In this view, the very tough terms he set might have been a way to insure that another young woman, one of his own choosing - perhaps a daughter or niece - would be married to his master's son, heir to Avraham's great wealth. Yet this approach has one very serious flaw: This servant was completely dedicated to his master, and Avraham had put all of his faith in him on more than one occasion. It is hard to imagine that this trusted aide could have behaved with such duplicity.
Perhaps, then, the seemingly-strange conditions of success were the result of the years this man had spent in Avraham's service: As head of Avraham's household, perhaps he had become accustomed to miraculous events taking place for and around Avraham, and assumed that now, on this mission on Avraham's behalf, a miracle was sure to happen. He had no doubt that God would once again do miracles for Avraham; he had come to expect the miraculous.
There may, however, be a third approach.
Although he was in the service of Avraham, on this particular mission he was also serving also as Yitzchak's proxy - and the text includes additional information that connects the servant's behavior with Yitchak's. According to rabbinic tradition, Yitzchak instituted the afternoon prayer of (mincha); thus, as the servant stands in prayer at the well in the late afternoon, Yitzchak is also deep in prayer:
And Yitzchak went out to meditate/pray in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rivka looked up and saw Yitzchak. (Bereishit 25:63-64)
Yitzchak was certainly aware of the mission on which his father's servant was sent. While we may be guilty of some embellishment, it would not be a huge leap to assume that among his other prayers that evening Yitzchak prayed that the servant's mission would be successful, and that an appropriate wife would be found for him. As the daylight wanes, he lifts his eyes to the horizon, and sees that his prayers have been answered.
Perhaps this explains the strange prayer of the servant, spoken just before sunset. The master of Avraham's household knew that this was the hour of day Yitzchak spent in prayer. Mustering up the faith he has learned in the tent of Avraham, the servant adds his own prayer to the prayer of Yitzchak; tapping in to the merit of Avraham (for whom God performs miracles on a regular basis) and the power of Yitzchak's afternoon prayers, the servant utters his own prayer as the sun tilts downward toward the horizon. He knows that the combination of faith and prayer are working in his favor at that particular hour; he has no doubt that God's kindness will be manifest and immediate.
1. Cited by Rashi Bereishit 14:14.
2. Targum Psuedo Yonatan Bereishit 14:14.
3. See Talmud Bavli Ta'anit 4a.
4. Talmud Bavli Brachot 26b.
5. As per Rashi.