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GUIDING LIGHT

by Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

One of the longest episodes related in the Torah is the story of Eliezer's mission to find a wife for Isaac in the town of Charan. In fact, though the Torah is generally very economical with words - whole bodies of Torah law are often derived from a single extra letter or two - this is a twice-told tale, because the Torah also reports Eliezer's own account of his mission.

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One of the longest episodes related in the Torah is the story of Eliezer's mission to find a wife for Isaac in the town of Charan. In fact, though the Torah is generally very economical with words - whole bodies of Torah law are often derived from a single extra letter or two - this is a twice-told tale, because the Torah also reports Eliezer's own account of his mission. This peculiarity caused our sages to say: "The speech of our patriarchs' servants is more precious to G­d than the Torah of the children [later generations]" (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 60:8).

When Eliezer objected that even if he finds a suitable girl from Abraham's extended family, she might not be willing to follow him to a strange land, Abraham replied: "Hashem. . .will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there" (Genesis 24:6-7). In Eliezer's own retelling of the story, however, he quotes Abraham as saying, "Hashem. . .will send His angel with you and will make your journey successful, and you will take a wife for my son from my family" (ibid. 24:40).

Where does Abraham get this absolute confidence that Eliezer will be successful? After all, one of the most basic concepts of Judaism is that G­d gives every person freedom of choice; the woman Eliezer chooses may not want to marry Isaac. In fact, Abraham himself allows for this possibility: "If the woman does not want to go with you, then you will be freed from this oath" (ibid. 24:8). So how can Abraham flatly state that Eliezer's mission "will be successful," and that he "will take a wife" for Isaac from Abraham's extended family?

There are two possible ways that Hashem could have helped Eliezer, or indeed can help any person: He can send His angel (which is nothing more than the channel - be it natural or miraculous - through which Divine energy comes to us and causes a certain outcome) "with" him, or "before" him. G­d's help traveling "with" a person implies that the person will have to put in a lot of effort, with no absolute guarantee of success except for the hope that Hashem will bless those efforts. This is the type of relationship most of us have with Hashem: We work 9-to-5 jobs, sweat and strain and use our brainpower, in the hope and expectation that this will be the channel through which Hashem provides our livelihood. But Murphy's law still rolls right along, and sometimes events beyond our control (which are, themselves, Hashem's tools) arise and spoil our plans.

Abraham, though, was telling Eliezer that he would merit a higher level of Divine involvement in his mission: The angel would travel "before" him, meaning that Hashem would pave the road for Eliezer and absolutely guarantee his success, and not even allow human free choice - usually one of Hashem's most inviolable creations - to get in the way. And, in fact, we see that Eliezer hardly even had to expend any effort to find the right wife for Isaac. According to the Midrash, he miraculously covered the 17-day trip in one day, Rebeccah came out before he even finished his prayer, and when Betuel, her father, tried to prevent the match by poisoning Eliezer, he was killed by that very poisoned food. Furthermore, when Eliezer asked her to go with him, she promptly - and unprompted - answered, "I will go - even against my family's wishes!"

In speaking to her family, Eliezer quoted Abraham as saying that the angel would go "with" him (ibid. 24:40), but this was out of politeness, so as not to imply that their opinion did not count for anything because G­d had guaranteed that Eliezer would accomplish what he had come to do. Even then, though, Eliezer repeatedly referred to his success in his telling of the story. Success, by definition, comes from G­d; all we can do as humans is lay the groundwork for it.

In that sense, then, "the speech of the servants" is more precious than "the Torah of the children," because one of the most basic principles of Judaism is that G­d gives every person freedom of choice, and will not prevent a person from acting improperly if that is what he or she chooses to do. Here, on the other hand, Abraham could confidently state that Hashem would be prepared even to tamper with the free will of Abraham's extended family, if need be, in order to ensure that Eliezer would bring back the right girl for Isaac.

The key words here, then, are "speech - sichah" and "servants - avdei." No matter how much Rebecca's family honored him, Eliezer knew full well that he was nothing more than Abraham's servant - actually, the Hebrew word "eved" means a slave whose very life is his master's possession - and in fact he immediately began his speech by stating this fact (ibid. 24:34). On top of that, Eliezer also went with the full realization that he would need G­d's help, that all his own efforts could not guarantee his success, and that he would therefore need to pray (sichah, our sages tell us, is one of the synonyms for prayer).

All the same, "the speech of the servants" is included in "the Torah of the children" as well, which tells us that we, too, can achieve this degree of Divine involvement in our lives. In particular, each of us is an "Eliezer" sent by Hashem to "find" one or more members of the Jewish people, wherever they may be, and bring them closer to G­d, by teaching them whatever we know about Judaism. However, a person might object: Even if I work faithfully and hard at this task, doesn't the person whom I'm teaching have free will whether to increase his or her commitment to Judaism or not? In Eliezer's words, "What if the woman does not want to follow me. . .?"

To this comes the reply: If you go at it from the perspective of a "slave" - then you realize that none of your powers, or even your life, is really your own, but that it is all on loan from G­d. Furthermore, if you realize that you have to pray (sichah) to Him for success - then G­d will most certainly "send His angel before you. . .and make your journey successful." No obstacle will stand in your way, and those who you teach will be receptive to the Torah's teachings in a way you could never have expected nor achieved on your own. As Maimonides writes, "The Torah has promised that the Jewish people will eventually repent, and they will immediately be redeemed." There comes a point when no obstacle, not even individual free choice, will stand in the way of G­d's plan for the Jewish people and the world.

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This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.

Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.

You are invited to read more Parshat Chayei Sarah articles.

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