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Parashat Hayyei Sarah

November 12, 2014

“Where is Eliezer?”
by Rabbi Isaac Mann

This week’s Torah portion elaborates on two life-cycle events involving Abraham and his family — the death/burial of his wife Sarah and the betrothal/marriage of his son Isaac. There are some interesting similarities between them, most notably that both contain dialogues or speeches that seem either redundant or unnecessarily detailed or possibly both.

The first part of the sidra (Sabbath Torah portion) details Abraham’s quest for a burial place for Sarah and his verbal exchange with Ephron, who possessed the portion of land that the patriarch wanted to purchase as a burial plot. The second and longer part of Hayyei Sarah deals with the mission that Abraham assigns to his servant to find a wife for Isaac and how that mission is carried out. The latter can be divided into two sections. The first is the narrative itself, wherein we have Abraham’s assignment to the servant, the latter’s prayer to G-d for assistance in choosing the right woman, the test he devises, Rebekah’s passing the test, thus demonstrating kindness and compassion, the servant’s bestowal of gifts to Rebekah, and finally her introduction of him to her family. So far so good. But then we have a soliloquy in which the servant relates to Rebekah’s father (Betuel) and brother (Laban) everything that we were already told in the narrative. To be sure there are some minor discrepancies between the narrative itself and the servant’s recounting of his story, but overall the first-person retelling by the servant seems redundant and unnecessary. The Torah could have simply said — “And the servant told the family all that had happened to him.”

The unusual repetitiveness that we encounter here did not escape the attention of the Midrash. The Rabbis saw in the words of the servant a simple and sublime testament of faith in G-d’s providence as he recounted to Rebekah’s family what had brought him to their locale and how their daughter/sister showed the trait of kindness, and the Rabbis concluded: “Greater is the ordinary conversation of the patriarch’s servants than the Torah (i.e. the halakhic portions) of their descendants. The latter is often brief and cryptic, whereas there is no mincing of words in the servant’s long statement to the family (see Rashi on 24:42 quoting this teaching in the name of R. Aha).

The servant’s soliloquy cannot but impress the reader with the extent to which he showed faith in G-d’s involvement in the quest for Isaac’s mate. It wasn’t a patriarch expressing his belief in an all-powerful Deity, but a simple servant. Indeed, the name of Abraham’s servant is not even mentioned in the entire sidra. While it is commonly assumed that it’s Eliezer, who is Abraham’s faithful servant (see Bereishit 15:2), his name does not appear here. He is always referred to as ha-eved (the servant) or eved Avraham (Abraham’s servant). Perhaps he wasn’t Eliezer, but another trusted servant who remains anonymous. Or more likely, he may have been Eliezer, but the Torah leaves out his name, for it wishes to emphasize that it wasn’t only one unique individual in Abraham’s household who was such a believer in G-d’s providence. All the servants, by virtue of the patriarch’s infectious influence on all those around him, brought people closer to G-d and turned them into ma’aminim (believers).

Perhaps the greatest demonstration of the servant’s sincerity and humility and the ability of his words to penetrate the hearts of his listeners comes from the remark that Rebekah’s family made after hearing the servant tell his tale: Mai-Hashem yatza ha-davar (“this matter has come from G-d” – 24:50) — an acknowledgement of G-d’s role in human affairs that one would have hardly expected from outside Abraham’s immediate family or household. Apparently the words of the servant and his pious and enthusiastic telling of his story had an impact on all around him.

One need not be a rabbi or cantor or scholar to influence other people and draw them closer to Judaism. Simplicity of faith along with humility and sincerity can often be quite effective in promoting our belief in G-d and bequeathing it to others, as Abraham’s servant demonstrated.


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.