Friday, November 6, 2015

Eliezer's Excellent Adventure - Reflections on Parashat Chayei Sarah 5776

(Genesis 23:1 - 25:18)

A big chunk of this week's Torah portion describes Eliezer's quest to find the perfect bride for Isaac, his master Abraham's son. 

Eliezer reluctantly accepts Abraham's commission to travel to far-away Chaldea, the region of Abraham's kinsmen, to select the lucky girl. It's a high stakes adventure; a tricky business, with grave consequences for the Abrahamitic mission if he should fail.

But Abraham trusted him, having already appointed him major domo of his household and manager of all his worldy affairs. In turn, Eliezer repaid that trust with a fierce loyalty to Abraham, a sort of ancient Gurka. He is so loyal that when he prays, he prays not to his own god, but to the Gcd of his master Abraham.

There are two things that stand out about Eliezer's quest.

First, the Torah spends an extravagant number of verses on Eliezer's excellent adventure. The first block of verses (24:1-24:33) describe the events as they unfold. The second block of verses (24:34-24:60) describe Eliezer's (almost verbatim) retelling of these events to Rebeccah's family. Sixty verses in all. 

And yet, upon returning home, it takes but one verse to bring Isaac up to speed. "And the servant recounted to Isaac everything that had transpired." (24:66) So why is Eliezer so loquacious before Rebeccah's family, yet is the essence of brevity with Isaac? (If anything, we might expect the opposite to be true, i.e., that he would reserve the detailed report for his boss.)

Second, although Eliezer is identified earlier (15:2), he is described throughout this narrative not by his proper name, but as "the servant" or "the man." Why not just call the guy by his real name?

Eliezer is initially very reluctant to undertake this mission. There are so many variables: Chaldea is a big place; where to start looking? How do you even begin to find a wife for some other person? What if he can't find a suitable girl for Isaac? What if he finds someone, but she refuses to return to Canaan with him? And define suitable please? And how is he to gauge the girl's character, her inner beauty? And what if, after bringing the girl back to Canaan, she and Isaac are incompatible? 

I hear stories from people who are seriously looking these days, and trust me, it's hard enough to find your own soul mate, let alone someone else's.

From Eliezer's perspective, the entire undertaking is a lose-lose proposition: if he succeeds, his private aspirations to wed his own daughter to Isaac are dashed; and if he strikes out, he fails his master and jeopardizes Abraham's entire life's work.

In overcoming these objections, Abraham basically says, "I trust you to do the right thing." Moreover, he tells Eliezer that he will not be going it alone; indeed, he will have extraordinary help for this extraordinary mission: 
The Lcrd, Gcd of the Heavens; He who took me out of my father's house and my ancestral homeland; He who has spoken to me; He who swore to give this land to my offspring; He will send his angel before you and you will indeed find a wife for my son there. (24:7)
So despite his severe reservations, the reluctant servant heads out reluctantly.

And then the events unfold. Luckily, he finds himself approaching the city of Nahor, Abraham's brother. Luckily, Nachor's grand-daughter is the first one out of the gate to draw water. Luckily, she is beautiful, gracious and kind-hearted. Luckily she passes the little test he devises to test her character.

The verse states that Eliezer is dumbstruck when he begins to realize that the very first young maiden he encounters could be the potential wife for Isaac. 

It would be a little like you or me picking up a bat and going up against a Major League pitcher like Nolan Ryan or Sandy Koufax, and with the very first swing, hitting the ball out of the park. The odds are laughably, ridiculously small.

By verbalizing the story in front of Rebeccah's family, Eliezer has the opportunity to sort it all out, put the events in their proper context, and make sense of it in his own mind. 

He comes to realize that what happened back there was no coincidence or kismet or blind luck. Events unfolded exactly as they were supposed to...just as Master Abraham had promised him they would. Abraham's words echoed in Eliezer's head: "...The Lcrd will send his angel before you and you will indeed find there a wife for my son."

In other words, as much as Eliezer was retelling the story to convince Rebeccah's family to allow her to accompany him home, he was talking just as much to himself; developing the emerging awareness that there was a Divine plan at work here, and that he had a key role to play in it.

What role? Roles, actually: both as "the servant" and as "the man."

A servant is one who faithfully does his master's bidding with unswerving loyalty. In the execution of the master's wishes, the servant subordinates his own will to that of his master. The servant is utterly dependent upon the master, and could not survive without his beneficence. 

By contrast, Man is a moral agent, independent, and able to apply judgement and common sense in the application of his free will.

In relation to Abraham, Eliezer is referred to as the servant. In the house of Bethuel, far away from his master's direct guidance, he must exercise his best judgement. That is why Abraham trusted him to do the right thing in the first place; that is why in Chaldea he is referred to as the Man.

We are all Eliezer. We are all both servants of Gcd and moral agents, struggling to find the perfect balance between subservience to Gcd and initiative in the crafting of our own lives. Like Eliezer, we are all on a quest, a long, hazardous journey, the consequences of which are enormous and the outcome of which is unknown. 

But if we serve our Master well, fulfilling our obligations to Him and our to our fellow man; if we faithfully apply our talents and our intellect to the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot, Gcd will no doubt send an angel before us as well, that we may find success on the unique trail that each one of us must blaze on our own. 

Shabbat Shalom.

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