Parshat Chayei Sarah — Rabbi Riskin (text)

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1- 25:18)

Efrat, Israel – “And Abraham said unto his servant, the elder of his house, that ruled over all that he had: ‘Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh. . . .  You shall go unto my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son, even for Isaac.” (Genesis 24: 2-4)

The portion of Hayei Sara comprises two chapters of the Book of Genesis: Chapter 23 deals with the death and burial of the matriarch Sarah, and Chapter 24 deals with the selection of a suitable wife for her son, Isaac.

The connection between these two themes is clear: With the loss of his beloved life partner, a bereft Abraham understands the awesome responsibility that lies before him to find a suitable mate for his heir to the covenant, Isaac. For this formidable and momentous task he chooses “his trusted servant, the wise elder of his household, who controlled all that was his,” Eliezer (Genesis 24: 2).

Eliezer demonstrates great skill in understanding what is required for the wife of Isaac. He understands that she must be a member of the Abrahamic family (Rebekah is indeed the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, Nahor), and must not dwell among the evil and accursed Canaanites. He further understands that the young woman must be willing to live with Isaac in Abraham’s domain rather than removing Isaac to the home of her family; Rebekah must come under the influence of Abraham. Most of all, he understands Isaac’s bride must have the character of Abrahamic hospitality, to the extent that she will not only draw water from the well for him, the messenger, but will also draw water for his camels. And of course he must arrange for the young woman to make the journey to Isaac and live her life in the Land of Israel and under the tent of Abraham.

Eliezer arranges a match that will determine the destiny of God’s covenantal nation with wisdom, tact and sensitivity.

The Bible states that Eliezer set out for his mission “with all the bounty [goodness] of his master in his hand.” (Ibid 24: 10) Rashi takes this to mean that Abraham gave Eliezer a blank check; he would pay any price for the right wife for Isaac. Rabbi Moshe Besdin gives the verse a very different thrust: All the bounty and goodness that had been expressed by Abraham was now placed in the hands of his most trusted servant because the future of Abraham was dependent upon Isaac, his heir apparent, and the future of Isaac depended on his future wife.

Strangely, throughout this lengthy biblical tale, Eliezer’s name is not mentioned.

He is referred to as “eved” (the servant) 10 times and as “ish” (the personage) seven times, but never once by his name.

Wouldn’t such an important individual, entrusted with such a significant mission, deserve to have his name in lights for everyone to see and remember? I believe that is exactly the point of the biblical record. Eliezer the individual has been completely overwhelmed by the immensity of this task: He is the servant of Abraham, committed to performing an act that will determine the continuity of the Abrahamic vision. A midrash even suggests that Eliezer had a daughter of marriageable age, whom he had expected to wed to Isaac, allowing his grandchildren to inherit the Abrahamic dream and wealth. But Eliezer forgets any of his personal ambitions or goals; he is the consummate servant of Abraham, using all of his wisdom and ingenuity to carry out his master’s will. (see Rashi on verse 24: 39 quoting Bereishit Rabbah 59: 9).

In this he is like Moses, who utilizes all of his spiritual and intellectual prowess in the service of his Master, the Lord, God of Universe.

Just as Moses was both an eved and an ish at the same time (See Deut. 33:1 and 34:5) – with his individual personality dedicated to God’s will – so Eliezer was an ish and an eved simultaneously.

Zev Wolfson immigrated to the United States as a refugee from a Siberian prison camp, having carried his dead father on his back until he found a place to bury him.

He took responsibility for his beloved mother and brother in the strange new world of America and he was one of the most brilliant people I ever met. He mastered both the stock market and real estate and navigated halls of influence and power. All of these gifts were channeled into creating learning institutions for Torah and strengthening the State of Israel.

He was a crucial figure in decisions by Congress to reduce Israel’s loan obligations and send the Patriot missile batteries to the State of Israel just before the Gulf War.

He would relentlessly pursue new people and new ideas, especially striving to identify rabbis and educators who would create new avenues in kiruv (outreach) and bring assimilating Jews back into the fold.

Whenever I was with him, I knew in advance that there would be no time for breakfast, lunch or dinner; we rarely had a chance to drink water. His energy and his drive gave him no rest when it came to doing God’s work. He was probably the greatest builder of Torah institutions in the history of the world. Despite this, not one building, classroom or project bears his name. He was a servant of the Lord and a man of God who lived selflessly and modestly for the sake of his mission.

He was truly Eliezer.

Shabbat Shalom

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