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Chayei Sarah 5778-2017

“Who is Eliezer the Damascan?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we read of the death and burial of Sarah, the betrothal and marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, and the death of Abraham. The parasha concludes with a list of the descendants of Ishmael.

A central figure in parashat Chayei Sarah is Abraham’s Damascan servant, Eliezer, who is sent to Haran to find a wife for Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac. So central is the personality of Eliezer and his activities to the parasha, that his story is repeated two and a half times, and a full 67 verses are devoted to describing his mission of finding a wife for Isaac.

The rabbis are astounded by the length of the narrative, especially in light of the fact that the Torah is always very sparing on words and hardly ever repeats. The sages therefore state in Bereshith Rabbah 60, יָפָה שִׂיחָתָן שֶׁל עַבְדֵי בָּתֵּי אָבוֹת מִתּוֹרָתָן שֶׁל בָּנִים , the “table talk” of the servants of the patriarch’s household is more notable (literally: beautiful) than the scripture (literally: Torah) of their descendants.

The fact that the story of Eliezer takes up two or three pages of the Torah, while major laws of Judaism are recorded in merely two or three words, underscores the major role that Eliezer plays in the history of the Jewish people and the critical importance of his service to Abraham.

Ironically, later on in the parasha, when Eliezer reports the betrothal encounter to Isaac, he does so succinctly, in a single sentence. In Genesis 24:66, the Torah records, וַיְסַפֵּר הָעֶבֶד לְיִצְחָק אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה , the servant [Eliezer] told Isaac all the things that he had done. The Torah, in this instance, does not provide any details, illustrating how the Torah, if it wished, could have easily limited the description.

The questions remain, who is Eliezer and why is he so important, that his words are recorded and repeated for posterity for all the generations? To add to the intrigue, the name Eliezer appears only once in the entire narrative, and does not appear even once in the lengthy account of his mission.

The name, Eliezer, is recorded only in Genesis 15:2, when G-d appears to Abraham and promises him that He will be Abraham’s shield and that Abraham’s reward will be very great. Abraham answers, השׁם א־לקים מַה תִּתֶּן לִי וְאָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי, וּבֶן מֶשֶׁק בֵּיתִי הוּא דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר , My L-rd, G-d, what can You give me, seeing that I go childless, and the steward of my house is the Damascan Eliezer?”

Throughout the entire narration of the mission, Eliezer is referred to by other appellations, but never “Eliezer.” In Genesis 24:2, he is called by Abraham, עַבְדּוֹ זְקַן בֵּיתוֹ, הַמֹּשֵׁל בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ , the oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he [Abraham] had. In Genesis 24:5,9,10 and 17, Eliezer is referred to as הָעֶבֶד –“Ha’eh’vehd,” the servant. In Genesis 24:21,22,26,29,30,32 and 58, he is called, הָאִישׁ –“Ha’eesh,” the man. In Genesis 24:52 and 59, he is referred to as עֶבֶד אַבְרָהָם –“Eh’vehd Avraham,” Abraham’s servant. In Genesis 24:61, he is called both “Ha’eesh” and “Ha’eh’vehd,” the man and the servant, and in Genesis 24:65 and 66, he is referred to, three times, as “Ha’eh’vehd,” the servant.

The commentators are perplexed by the absence of Eliezer’s name in the entire narrative of the mission of finding a bride for Isaac. Some suggest that Eliezer realized that it was beyond the capacity of a Damascan slave to find an appropriate mate for the exalted soul of Isaac, who is known after the Akeida as עוֹלָה תְּמִימָה –the “pure sacrifice.” Eliezer knew that only his total dependence upon G-d and the merits of Abraham would help him succeed in his mission. He therefore introduced himself to Rebecca’s family by saying, Genesis 24:34, “I am a servant of Abraham,” and consistently refers to himself as a lowly servant.

An additional fascinating element to the story, developed by the rabbis of the Midrash, is based on the fact (Genesis 15:3), that Abraham is concerned that Eliezer will be his sole heir. This concern is cited by the rabbis of the Midrash as the source for attributing to Eliezer the desire that the mission to Haran not succeed. When Eliezer inappropriately suggests to both Abraham and to Rebecca’s family that perhaps the woman would not return to Canaan with him, the rabbis suggest that Eliezer had a daughter whom he hoped would marry Isaac, and hence, he was really trying to sabotage the match with Rebecca.

The Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer, chapter 31, suggests that when Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, he was accompanied by both Eliezer and Ishmael. Assuming that Isaac would soon die at Abraham’s hands, both Ishmael and Eliezer each suggest that they would be the appropriate heir to the great Abraham. Ishmael reputedly said to Eliezer, “Once Abraham sacrifices Isaac, I will be his firstborn and his sole heir.” Eliezer says to Ishmael, “Abraham has already chased you away into the wilderness, hence, I will be Abraham’s heir.” The Divine Presence responded to Abraham, “Neither of these will inherit you.”

According to the Midrash Genesis Rabbah 59:12, Abraham was well aware that Eliezer wanted his daughter to wed Isaac. Therefore, he specifically instructed Eliezer and made him swear, Genesis 24:3, אֲשֶׁר לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי מִבְּנוֹת הַכְּנַעֲנִי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב בְּקִרְבּוֹ , You may not [under any circumstances] take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell. Rather, go back to my land, to my kindred shall you go, and take a wife for my son, for Isaac.

The rabbis (Genesis Rabbah 60:9), saw this statement as a direct rebuke to Eliezer, the Damascan, who is a descendant of the cursed Canaanites. Embedded in Abraham’s words is the message: “Eliezer, you are cursed and I am blessed. Your descendants may not cling to mine.” Nevertheless, the Midrash does conclude that because of his faithful service to the righteous Abraham, Eliezer was no longer considered amongst those who were cursed, and became blessed.

According to many, it is the exemplar of Eliezer’s total reliance on G-d and Divine Providence, as well as his commitment and loyalty to Abraham that earns Eliezer a full chapter in the Bible in which his every word is analyzed and studied for the secrets of wisdom and faith they contain.

The Tanna D’bai Eliyahu Rabba goes so far as to list Eliezer among the nine people whose righteousness was so great that they entered the Garden of Eden while they were still alive.

May you be blessed.