In some sense, the rabbinic sages were literary critics who asked of the Torah serious questions regarding its storylines. Such is the case in this week’s parashah. What happens when a seemingly minor character breaks out of obscurity and becomes a major character? Avraham’s servant, who is in our story anonymous, but is identified in the tradition as Eliezer, Avraham’s named servant, plays a supporting role in the stories of the Avot and Imahot (the patriarchs and matriarchs); nevertheless, he has an oversized role in this week’s parashah, overshadowing almost all of its other characters. His search for a wife for Yitzhak, his master’s son, is described meticulously, with innocuous details elevated to high drama.
After the meeting at the well, where the servant discovers Rivka and decides that she was fit to be Yitzhak’s wife, he is brought to the family’s abode. There he is greeted by Rivka’s brother, Lavan, and then the storyline veers to a description of seemingly banal and insignificant detail:
And the man came into the house and unharnessed the camels; and he gave bran and feed to the camels and water to bathe his feet and the feet of the men who were with him… (Genesis 24:32)
These details may add color to the story, giving the reader a sense of the generous hospitality being offered to Avraham’s servant, but for some among the sages, who were likely motivated with an eye for legal content, this description is hard to explain, leading to the following midrashic comment:
“He gave bran and feed to the camels” – Said Rabbi Aha: The conversation of the servants of the patriarch’s household are more significant than the Torah laws of the descendants. The passage about Eliezer is two or three columns long, it states it and repeats it while the [law of impurity of] creeping animals is one of the fundamental laws of the Torah, but the fact that its blood imparts ritual impurity, like its flesh, is learned only from a derivation based on an extra letter in a verse. (Bereishit Rabbah 60:8; Theodore-Albeck ed. p. 650)
Rabbi Aha’s message is that the abundant attention given to this story is purposeful and deserves our attention. While this midrash does not spell out exactly what that message might be, others have used it as a homiletic springboard. Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, the second Gerer Rebbe, taught the following:
Regarding Eliezer, since he served the Tzadik (Avraham) faithfully, it transformed him from someone who was wicked into someone who was righteous; how much more so, someone who serves the Righteous One of the World, blessed be He (God), who by serving God removes the world from curses to blessing… For since the destruction of the Temple, one day is more cursed than the next, but the righteous turn the curses into blessings through their faith. For in truth, the blessings of the Creator, blessed be He are found in creation, only ‘darkness covers over the earth’ (Isaiah 60:2), but through faith, one becomes aware of the inner “Godliness” … for this reason human beings were sent into the world… This is the reason why Avraham’s servant was sent to a place of darkness – for through faith, he found there the blessing that was beloved before God. (Sfat Emet Bereshit 5639, Or Etzion ed. p. 169)
For the Sfat Emet, by acting out his faith, Eliezer transformed himself not only as a person but also for all those around him. By choosing to teach this message through a minor character in the story, we are reminded that this mission is intended for all of us. We all must try to see through the darkness and by acting out our faith in righteousness and through good deeds similarly to scatter the darkness and bring forth light.