Hogging the Spotlight

The main storyline of this week’s Torah reading appears to be among the most simplistic. Avraham charges his servant, Eliezer, with the task of finding a suitable wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer travels back to Avraham’s homeland whereupon he is suitably impressed with the kindness demonstrated by Rivka, who, as it turns out, is Avraham’s kin. After explaining how the chance meeting at the well demonstrates a the Will of G-d in play to Rivka’s family, Eliezer escorts her back to Yitzchak and they marry.  No delving into the ontological Oneness of the Creator, no wondering about the limits of freewill in the face of G-d’s predetermined plan, no confrontation between the forces of existential evil by one lone hero.  Just an errand fulfilled.

Which sort of raises the question of what it’s doing in the Torah. And, I should mention, it’s not just mentioned in the Torah, the whole episode gets about 65 verses.  That is A LOT of time in the spotlight! If you realize that most of the 12 sons of Yaakov never get ANY dialogue in the Torah, and many of the mitzvot that define our lives have just a few pesukim here and there, and some laws don’t have any verses at all, they are just revealed to us through an extra word or an unusual grammatical usage, the mystery becomes even greater.  Why does the simple story of Eliezer get so much time on stage while so many other people and laws appear to be mere members of the ensemble?

This question is alluded to by the great Rashi who, quoting the Medrash, says “The simple speech of the servants of The Forefathers is better (יפה) than the Torah of their children. Because the story of Eliezer is actually told twice (once as narrative and a second time when Eliezer is recounting the events to Rivka’s family) but many core principles of the Torah are only given as hints.”  In my mind the Medrash is describing the issue, not answering it.  Why does that make sense? Why does this story deserve such primacy?

There is one other aspect to this narrative that I think is unique in the Torah.  Eliezer, who was surely trusted and faithful, was not a prophet. He didn’t have any special powers. He was a servant on a mission. And yet, when he arrives at the well he senses something is special. He has made amazing time, our sages say miraculous time, on the trip from the Land of Cnaan.  It senses that G-d has caused him to arrive at the well at for that particular moment.  Realizing that the that hour was propitious Eliezer prays. “Hashem, G-d of my master Avraham, may You so arrange it for me this day that you do kindness with my master Avraham.  See, I stand here by the spring of water and the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw. Let I be that the maiden to whim I shall say, ‘Please let me tip over your jug so that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink and I will water your camels,’ her will You have designated for your servant, for Yitzchak . . .”

What I have always found interesting about that prayer is the phrase, “See, I am standing here by the well.”  This is not the prayer of Moshe who asks G-d to reveal to him the secrets of why good people suffer in this world. Nor is it the prayer of Avraham who challenges G-d to demonstrate the justice for S’dom he requires that people display. This is the pure, unadulterated prayer that comes from “simple” child-like faith.  This is not the prayer of the philosopher or the theologian. This is how a boy speaks to his father. It’s like the college students who calls home, “Look, dad, I’m here at the bookstore, and the textbook costs $200.”  “Mom, you see, I’m in jail and I need bail money.” (A sentence I have never actually said, which I also find hard to believe.) Eliezer’s prayer comes from a point of such deep faith that it scarcely could be called faith anymore – it’s knowledge. He KNOWS he is talking to the Creator. He can feel he has been guided to that point in space and time and he KNOWS it was Divinely arranged. And he asks G-d for one more favor, not for himself, but for his mission.  And this understanding of the event becomes a thread embedded in his retelling of the story. And that purity of faith or clarity of knowledge carries the day, until even Rivka’s family has to say, “This has come about from G-d. We have neither the ability to agree or disagree. It is clearly Hashem’s will.”

Let me tell you a story. It’s a True Story that Actually Happened.  When Allison and I first got marries, oh those many years ago, we thought had Aliya as a goal. But we got married very young and it was scary enough doing that 250 miles away from the closest relatives we didn’t think that moving to Israel was smart at that time. But it was a goal.  Anyway, from time to time I would bring it up. And after we had a few kids and we were on the cusp of buying a house I brought it up again.  Why are we buying a house here? Maybe we should move. It was a dream but at that moment a very unrealistic dream.  Allison says that it was enough talk. We need to decide once and for all if this is a goal of ours and if it is, to start making plans.  But if not, then I need to stop bringing it up.  I met with my rebbe (Rav Ezra Neuberger at NIRC) with whom we discuss all these big life issues for insight, advice and guidance. (Not as an oracle. As a trusted advisor.)  Rebbe said to me that he thinks we should stay in America.  “If you stay in America you’ll be able to teach Torah,” Rebbe said. “If you move to Israel you’ll paint houses for a living.”

“Maybe it’s worth it!” I suggested.

“If you think it’s worth it, then you should move, but I don’t think it’s worth it. I don’t think we are supposed to live in Israel no matter what right now. I think we are supposed to fill our days with as much Torah and as much avodas Hashem (service of G-d) as possible. If you stay here and teach then your days will be filled with Torah.”

And that was that.  I never brought it up again. And I’ve be blessed enough to be teaching Torah for 23 or 24 years.

And this is what I think the story of Eliezer is really about.  It’s really about seeing a person who was living his life filled with service of G-d. Filled with faith. Filled with such deep understanding of how the events of his life unfolded that he saw G-d’s presence in everything he did. And that profound knowledge had a deep impact on those around him.  You can’t get that from a hint of an odd grammatical form. You have to get that from seeing how a person lives.

We can show our love of Hashem and our fidelity to his law by searching out his will in each apparently extra ‘vav’ and each seemingly misplaced singular word.  That is the work of a scholar and it is precious. But understanding the essence of living Jewishly can’t be hidden for us to find.  That’s the message that needs to be center stage.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies for the high school at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now two precious granddaughters.
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