‘Identity Crisis’ Parashat Chaye Sarah 5781

I must have been blind for the past five decades because after reading the weekly portion each week since before my bar mitzvah, only a blind man could have missed what I missed.

Abraham, feeling that the time has come to find a wife for his son, Isaac, calls his trusty servant [Bereishit 22:2-4]: “Abraham 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 Isaac’”. Our Sages in the Midrash identify Abraham’s “senior servant” as Eliezer, whose name appears only once in the Torah[1]. The Torah proceeds to tell of Eliezer’s adventures, always – ten times – referring to him simply as “the servant”:

  • “the servant… swore” [Bereishit 24:9]
  • “servant took ten of his master’s camels and set out” Bereishit [24:10]
  • “The servant ran toward [Rebecca]” [Bereishit 24:17]

Suddenly, in mid-story, Eliezer’s name changes. As Eliezer watches from the sidelines while Rebecca waters his camels, he becomes “the man (ha’ish)” [Bereishit 24:21]: “The man stood gazing at her, silently wondering whether G-d had made his errand successful or not”. From that point on, Eliezer is referred to – seven times –  as “the man” until Rebecca’s family agree to send her off to the Land of Canaan to marry Isaac. Just as suddenly, Eliezer morphs back into “the servant” [Bereishit 24:52]: “When Abraham’s servant heard their words, he bowed low to the ground before G-d”. After this verse, the Torah bounces back and forth, referring to him both as “the servant” and “the man”. In one verse, he is called by both terms [Bereishit 24:61]: “Rebecca and her maids arose, mounted the camels, and followed the man. So the servant[2] took Rebekah and went his way.” As the episode comes to a close, Eliezer returns to his servant status [Bereishit 24:66]: “The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done.” After this episode, Eliezer is never heard from again.

I have no idea how I have missed this “servant-man identity crisis” for so many years. I only noticed it this year because I happened to come across it in a book that was published only a few months ago, “Mahalchim b”Mikra (Journeys[3] in Scripture)”, by Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin[4]. Eliezer had devised a plan that would help him choose the proper wife for Isaac [Bereishit 24:14]: “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 Isaac.” Rav Henkin suggests that as Eliezer stood “silently wondering whether G-d had made his errand successful or not”, he underwent a metamorphosis. Until it had been proven that Eliezer’s plan would succeed, he remained a “servant”. But when Eliezer watches as his plan comes to fruition, when he has positive evidence that G-d has come to his aid, he becomes a “man”. Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, teaches that wherever the term “man” is used in scripture, it denotes worthiness. By calling Eliezer “the man”, the Torah was recognizing that he had evolved beyond his lowly “servant” persona. Rav Henkin explains the Torah’s vacillation at the end of the episode between “man” and “servant” as resulting from the point of view of the subject: in Rebecca’s eyes, Eliezer is a “man”, while in Eliezer’s own eyes, he remains a humble servant.

Another commentator who addresses the “servant-man identity crisis” is Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, who was a rabbi in Pinsk, Belarus, and in Jerusalem in the previous century. Writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, Rav Sorotzkin notes that after Eliezer sees that his plan has succeeded, he [Bereishit 24:26] “bowed low in homage to G-d”. By prostrating himself before G-d, Eliezer the servant shirked off the yoke of every human master on earth and he became a man[5]. After Rebecca’s family agrees to send their daughter to the Land of Canaan, Eliezer’s mission is complete and he returns to being a servant. While the Torah continues to selectively refer to him as the man, this is only in context of leading Rebecca back to Canaan, as it was not honourable for Rebecca to be following a mere servant.

Rav Sorotzkin’s explanation reminds me of an innovation I heard nearly forty years ago from Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Goldwicht, the Headmaster (Rosh Yeshiva) of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. Our Sages in the Midrash teach that Eliezer had a daughter whom he wished to marry off to Isaac. Abraham would hear nothing of it[6], telling Eliezer, “You (a Canaanite servant) are cursed and I am blessed. How can one who is cursed cleave to one who is blessed?” Rav Goldwicht challenged the Midrash: When Rebecca’s brother, Laban, invites Eliezer into their home, he tells Eliezer [Bereishit 24:31] “Enter, blessed of G-d”. At that moment, Eliezer became blessed. Why did he not turn around, head back to Canaan, and marry his now blessed daughter off to Isaac? Rav Goldwicht answered that the key lied in Eliezer’s opening words to Laban and his family [Bereishit 24:34]: “I am Abraham’s servant”. With those words, Eliezer nullified his own being and attached himself completely and entirely to Abraham. As Abraham was blessed, so, by extension, was Eliezer. Eliezer finds himself in a Catch-22. Were he then to offer Abraham his daughter as a wife to Isaac, he would be asserting his own independence. By doing so, he would be detaching himself from Abraham and he would then automatically revert to his original cursed state.

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik, the leader of North American Jewry in the last century, defines heroism as a “perpetual dialectic of bold advance and humble retreat”. Man must fight his natural inclination to desire recognition. Rav Soloveichik notes that we know very little about the personal lives of our sages. “There are no biographies, no life stories of these great men”. He brings the example of the Men of the Great Assembly, a group of a hundred and twenty rabbis who lived at the return of the Babylonian exile. These rabbis revived Judaism. They instituted contemporary prayer. They enacted laws that “returned the crown of Torah to its venerable status.” Rav Soloveichik writes, “Their impact on our everyday lives is immeasurable”. And yet, we know the names of only five of them: Ezra, Nehemiah, Mordechai, Zerubabel, and Simon the Just[7]. The Men of the Great Assembly performed their mission and then, heroically, retreated into obscurity. They are remembered by their deeds rather than by their names. Rav Soloveichik concludes, “Ultimately, there will be no permanent legacy for man in this world in any case; we believe in permanence only in the world to come.” After we are gone, all that remains is what we have done.

I suggest that Eliezer served as the archetype for the Men of the Great Assembly. Why is Eliezer referred to only once in the Torah by his own name? After all, Eliezer was critical in assuring the perpetuity of the Jewish People. Should we not give credit where credit is due? Eliezer had a mission-specific identity. He was not Eliezer, he was “Abraham’s servant”,  faithfully completing the mission commanded by his master. He was not Eliezer, he was “the man”, relying on G-d’s help to ensure that Isaac married a woman who was worthy of living with a spiritual giant. When Eliezer, the man and the servant, had completed his mission, he held his head up high and heroically retreated into anonymity.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] Bereishit 15:2

[2] It almost sounds like the Torah is talking about two different people, the man and the servant.

[3] The word “mahalach” is difficult to translate, see http://www.elephant.org.il/translate/translatable-but-debatable-mahalach

[4] Rabbi Henkin is the grandson of Rabbi Joseph Eliyahu Henkin, who was the leading halachic authority in the U.S. in the mid-twentieth century.

[5] This does not explain the reason why the Torah begins calling Eliezer a “man” five verses before he bows to G-d.

[6] I once heard that Abraham wanted a human wife for Isaac and not a midrashic wife.

[7] Rashi, in his commentary to Tractate Bava Batra [15a]  identifies the prophets Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi as being members of the Assembly.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five 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 2001 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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