‘Camels’ Parashat Chaye Sarah 5783

Abraham, feeling the time has come to find a wife for his son, Isaac, calls for his faithful slave[1]. He adjures the slave to take an oath that he will not take a wife for Isaac from the local Canaanite women. Abraham orders him to travel to Mesopotamia to his home town of Paddan-Aram and to find there a wife for Isaac. If he cannot find a Mesopotamian woman who agrees to return to Canaan, then he will be freed from his oath.

The slave agrees to Abraham’s terms and conditions, takes a solemn vow and sets out for Paddan-Aram [Bereishit 24:10]: “The servant took ten camels of his master’s camels, and he went, and all the best of his master was in his hand; and he arose and he went to Aram Naharaim, to the city of [Abraham’s brother] Nachor.” This verse, while seemingly straightforward, raises a number of questions:

  1. What does the Torah add by informing us that the camels were “his master’s camels”? Where else would the slave get the camels – from Avis?
  2. Why does the verse mention that the slave “went (va’yelech)” two times?
  3. What is the difference between “he went”, as it appears in the first part of the verse, and “he arose and he went (va’yakom va’yelech)”, as it appears in the second part?

In 2014, a paper appeared in the “Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University” investigating the introduction of domesticated camels at ancient copper smelting sites in Israel’s Aravah Valley. By using modern archaeological techniques on animal remains, the authors arrived at the conclusion that camels were introduced into the eastern Mediterranean no earlier than the first millennium BCE, about three thousand years ago. To the Torah-believing Jew, this conclusion is highly problematic: Using basic arithmetic, it can be shown that Abraham was born in the Hebrew Year of 1948, more than 800 years before camels were supposedly introduced into the Land of Israel. How could he have owned camels? Soon after the academic paper appeared, the New York Times ran a more readable article called “Camels Had No Business in Genesis.” The article taunted, “There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place.” New York Times: 1, Bible: 0.

There exist a number of ways in which a Torah-believing Jew can reconcile apparent clashes between Torah and archaeology. One way is by noting that archaeology is a “soft” science. Even if carbon-dating techniques unequivocally demonstrate that the oldest camel remains found in Israel are only three thousand years old, it does not mean that camels did not exist before then. The absence of proof does not imply the proof of absence[2]. Rabbi Joshua  Berman, a professor of bible at Bar-Ilan University, offers another way ahead. Instead of arguing with Archaeology, Rabbi Berman suggests that we leverage it. While camels may not have been introduced into Israel until about 3,000 years ago, it is well documented that camels had been domesticated in Egypt long before then. Abraham’s camels were Egyptian: After a famine forces Abraham to flee the Land of Canaan for Egypt, Pharaoh falls for Sarah and Abraham benefits financially [Bereishit 12:16]: “Because of [Sarah], [Pharaoh] treated Abram well; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, slaves, she-asses, and camels”. Rabbi Berman summarises, “Camels are the marquis gift on the list. Not yet widely domesticated in Egypt, the camel was a status symbol with a heavy payload: a Hummer with a hump.”

Realizing that camels were the ultimate status symbol in Abraham’s world, we can revisit our problematic verse. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, explains that when the Torah tells us that the slave took “of his master’s camels”, it means to add that Abraham’s camels were noticeable in that they were muzzled in order to prevent them from grazing on land that did not belong to Abraham. One thousand years ago, Rashi did not have access to the archaeological findings that we have access to. Implementing Rabbi Berman’s innovation, the term “of his master’s camels” reveals that Abraham’s possession of these exotic beasts of burden could greatly assist his servant in enticing a Mesopotamian family to send their daughter to Canaan to live with the Kennedys. This can explain why the word “camel” appears in this episode no less than eighteen times. This can also explain why Eliezer would take ten camels with him when he only needed two of them – one for him and one for Isaac’s future wife. Owning a camel might have been insufficient to convince an ancient Mesopotamian girl to relocate but owning an entire fleet of camels would have been too much to give away.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, known as the Netziv, who served as the headmaster of the prestigious Volozhn Yeshiva in Lithuania in the nineteenth century, notices the repetition of the term “[the slave] went”. The Netziv explains that as opposed to the term “he went”, the term “he arose and he went” means that the slave moved at double speed. First he walked over to the garage to pick up the camels and once he had tied them all together, he sped away to Mesopotamia. Rabbi Berman’s innovation makes the explanation of the Netziv even richer: One cannot compare the way a person sends a valet to pick up his Range Rover from the garage to the flamboyance with which he speeds off in his car into the sunset.

We can employ this idea to shine some light on a nearby episode in the Torah. Isaac’s son, Esav, has spent the day in the field and he returns home tired and hungry. He sees his brother, Jacob, preparing a pot of stew and asks him for a bowl. Jacob agrees under the condition that Esav sell him his birthright. Esav, believing he has struck a good deal, readily agrees. The Torah summarises the episode [Bereishit 25:34]: “Jacob gave Esav bread and lentil stew; he ate and he drank, and he arose and he went. Thus did Esav ridicule the birthright.” Why does the Torah berate Esav? Jacob caught Esav when he was weak. Esav was overcome by tirst and hunger and at that moment, lentil stew was infinitely more desirable than any birthright. It was a classic case of a person choosing immediate gratification over long-term gain, of a person who is trying to lose ten pounds finishing off a pint of “Chubby Hubby” in one sitting. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, known as the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco in the first half of the eighteenth century, suggests that the Torah takes Esav to task because his sale of the birthright was a conscious act: “Even if Esav had not desperately needed to trade something to obtain some of Jacob’s potage, he would have sold the birthright cheaply at any time had Jacob asked him to do so.” What indicates this conclusion? Using what we have just learned, we can gain new understanding of the interpretation of the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh. The words “Esav ridiculed the birthright” should have been inserted two verses earlier, when Esav says to himself [Bereishit 25:32] “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” Esav has just explicitly admitted that he considers his birthright worthless. Why, then, does the Torah conclude that he “ridiculed” the birthright only after the episode is over and done? The answer lies in the Torah informing us not that “Esav went”, but that that “Esav arose and he went”. Esav did not simply finish his bowl of soup and walk home. Esav ran away from Jacob and his former birthright as fast as his legs would take him, lest Jacob consider retracting his generous offer.

The Torah is not a Book of Science. It is not a Book of History. It is a Book of Ethics. But when science – even soft science – can be used to elucidate the Torah, this particular Rocket Scientist cracks a big smile.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.

[1] Most people associate this slave with [Bereishit 15:2] “Eliezer of Damascus”. Nevertheless, the Torah does not mention the slave’s name during the entire episode, referring to him only as “Abraham’s slave” or simply “the slave”.

[2] Similar logic can be used to refute claims that as no evidence has been found of three million nomads wandering through the Sinai Desert, the story of the Egyptian exodus must have been a fable.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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