Did you ever do a favor for another while harboring a personal agenda? If yes, would you ever admit it?
Abraham sent his servant Eliezer to Mesopotamia to seek a bride for Isaac among his relatives. Eliezer asked what to do if perchance the bride refused to return with him to Israel. Abraham replied that if that were to happen, he was to see seek a bride for Isaac among Abraham’s friends in Israel.
Eliezer traveled to Mesopotamia and encountered Rebecca at the well, where her exemplary character and abundant kindness demonstrated that she was a perfect match for his master’s son. He followed her to her home, where he asked her parents for her hand in marriage on behalf of Isaac. Before asking for her hand, he recounted the entire tale so that they would understand how and why a stranger came to ask for their daughter’s hand. In this tale, Eliezer mentioned that he had asked Abraham what to do if perchance Rebecca were unwilling to relocate, and he relayed Abraham’s response.
Biblical commentators point out that this was a wise business strategy. Demonstrating that Rebecca was his first choice, flattered her family, and gave them incentive to consent. Showing them that he had additional options, blocked whatever negotiating advantage this might have given them.
I want to focus on an anomaly in the Hebrew rendition of this story. The word perchance in Hebrew is ulay. When the Torah recounts Eliezer’s rendering of the story, the word is spelled elay, which means to me. Rashi, the famed biblical commentator, noticed this anomaly and offered a fascinating insight.
When Eliezer recounted his conversation with Abraham, he experienced a Freudian slip. Rather than say ulay—perchance—the word that slipped out of his mouth as elay—to me. With this, Eliezer informed the family how fortunate they were. I too have a daughter, he told them, and it was my wish that Isaac come elay—to me—to my family, in marriage to my daughter. Abraham, however, told me that this was not to be. Upon hearing this, the family was even more impressed by how selective Abraham was and how much stock he placed in their daughter.
It is interesting, however, that this anomaly only appears in the Torah when Eliezer shares this story with Rebecca’s family. When the Torah first documents this story, the word is properly rendered as ulay. Why doesn’t this anomaly show up the first time around?
The answer offers a deep insight into human nature and the way that our personal narratives work. It is exceedingly difficult for us to be fully objective and impersonal when we engage in a project. Even if we get involved in the project to help another, we usually have a personal motive.
It is embarrassing to acknowledge a personal agenda when doing a favor for another, so our inner psyche engages in psychological subterfuge. It conceals our personal agenda so well, embedding it deep within our subconscious. that even we aren’t aware of it. On the surface, we think that we are doing it altruistically, but under the surface, our personal motive is vibrant and strong. It bides its time until it must make its move, but until then it remains concealed.
Say, for example, you are walking down the street and see a poor panhandler. You reach into your pocket and pull out a dollar bill. You are only aware of an altruistic desire to help the poor fellow. But buried beneath, is often an additional motive that is served simultaneously. It can be to score points with passersby or to assuage your conscience for some other shortcoming, or something else. I am not saying that we always have such an agenda, but if we self examined, in front of an honest and revealing mirror, we would often find one.
Eliezer harbored a longstanding wish that Isaac marry his daughter. He even brought it up with Abraham at one point and was turned down. However, when Abraham charged him with the appointment to find a bride for Isaac, Eliezer was prepared to discharge his duties honestly. He was a loyal servant and he always put Abraham’s needs first.
When he first asked what to do in the event that the girl refused to travel to Israel, he was unaware that his subconscious motive for the question was his hope that Abraham would consent to Isaac marrying his daughter. He was only aware of a sincere desire to fulfill Abraham’s wishes. At that time, the word ulay came out correctly because his conscious intention was to know what to do in that eventuality.
After his astounding experience at the well, it became clear to him that Rebecca was destined for Isaac. At this point, he realized that his secret hope would never materialize. Only now that it was no longer an option, could Eliezer self examine and see the truth. Only now could he objectively admit to himself that his subconscious motive for this journey was to see his longstanding wish fulfilled if his mission were to fail. Now that he knew it, the word elay slipped from his mouth and, thus, the family learned the truth.
Why was it necessary that we learn this unflattering detail about the loyal servant? After all, he was loyal, and his conscious objective was to fulfill Abraham’s directive. Why do we need to know that buried deep beneath was a self-serving purpose?
We know that the Torah is not a book of history, it is a book of instruction. The Torah did not inform us of Eliezer’s shortcoming to criticize this loyal servant. The Torah informed us about it to teach us that such self-serving motives are prevalent within us. Knowing that they are there allows us to wrestle with them and overcome them. If the Torah hadn’t mentioned it, we wouldn’t even know to look for it because it is so well buried. By telling us that it is there, the Torah empowers us to seek and find it so that we can ensure that our altruism is genuine, and our devotion is authentic.
So why didn’t the Torah just inform us of this human affliction and instruct us to look for it within?
The answer will become obvious to you when you reflect on your thoughts as you read this article. When I wrote that it is difficult for us to engage in pure altruism without a hidden self-serving agenda, you refused to accept it.
You don’t need to tell me that you rejected it, I already know it. And I will tell you how. Because I rejected it too. You told yourself what I told myself. This might be true of other people, but not of me. Then I wrote that it isn’t true every time, but it does happen often. At this point, you probably did the same thing I did. You allowed that it might happen to you sometimes, but surely not all the time.
By telling us about this in the third person, talking about Eliezer rather than directly to us, G-d allowed us to be open to the suggestion. If this was true of this loyal servant though he was completely unaware, it just might be true of me. Maybe a little true. Maybe just sometimes. But if it is true sometimes, I can and must look for it, find it, and combat it.