The Meaning and Significance of a Vow

And Avraham said to his servant, the elder of his household, the one who had authority over all of his possessions: Place your hand under my thigh. And swear by Hashem, the G-d of the heavens and the G-d of the earth, that you will not take a woman for my son from the daughters of Cana’an that I dwell among. Rather to my land and the place of my birth you shall go and take a wife for my son – for Yitzchak. (Sefer Beresheit 24:2-4)
And the servant said to him: Perhaps the woman will not wish to accompany me to this Land. Shall I return your son to the Land from which you went forth? (Sefer Beresheit 24:5)
Hashem, the G-d of the heavens, Who took me from the household of my father and the land of my birth, Who spoke to me and swore saying, “To you descendants I will give this Land”, He will send His angel before you. And you will take a wife for my son from there. (Sefer Beresheit 24:7)

1. Avraham’s directive to Eliezer
The above passages introduce the Torah description of the process through which a wife is found and secured for Yitzchak. Avraham determines that the time has arrived for his son Yitzchak to marry. Avraham decides to identify and secure the appropriate woman for his son. He does not assign the responsibility of finding the proper wife to Yitzchak. Instead, he charges his loyal servant Eliezer with the responsibility. However, he does not give Eliezer unlimited authority in selecting a wife. Eliezer’s selection must meet specific criteria. She may not be from the nation of Cana’an. Avraham directs Eliezer to return to Aram Naharayim – Avraham’s birthplace. In this distant land, he must seek a wife for Yitzchak. In addition to the restrictions outlined in the above passages, Avraham places further limits on Eliezer’s autonomy. He must persuade the woman he identifies as the appropriate wife for Yitzchak to leave her home and return with him to the Land of Cana’an. He may not take Yitzchak to Aram Naharayim to meet the perspective wife and her family. He asks Eliezer to accept the mission and to vow to him that he will faithfully fulfill his duty.

2. Eliezer’s quandary and Avraham’s response
Eliezer asks an obvious question. What are his directions in the event that the perspective wife refuses to return with him to the Land of Cana’an? Under these circumstances, may he take Yitzchak to Aram Naharayim?

Avraham responds that he has complete confidence in the success of the mission he has assigned to his servant. Hashem has made a covenant with him that his descendants will possess the Land of Cana’an. The fulfillment of this covenant depends upon Yitzchak marrying and creating his own family. Eliezer’s mission is essential to the fulfillment of Hashem’s covenant with Avraham. Therefore, Avraham is confident that Hashem will guide and assist Eliezer in his mission.

In short, Avraham instructed Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak in Aram Naharayim and to bring her back to the Land of Cana’an. Eliezer foresaw the possibility that he may find the perfect wife but she will not consent to travel to far-away land to marry an unknown man. He asks Avraham whether he may take Yitzchak to Aram Naharayim to complete the match. Avraham responds that Eliezer need not concern himself with this issue. He is certain that Hashem will guide him towards the successful completion of his mission and he will not need to take Yitzchak to Aram Naharayim. Now, however, something strange occurs.

And if the woman does not wish to return with you, then you are released from this vow you make to me. But do not return my son there. And the servant placed his land under the thigh of Avraham his master and he took an oath in regards to this matter. (Sefer Beresheit 24:8-9)

3. Avraham’s apparent ambivalence
Avraham has assured Eliezer that Hashem vouchsafes the success of his mission. Yet, he now tells Eliezer that if he does not persuade the woman to return with him, then he is exempt from his vow to Avraham. Only at this point, does Eliezer accepts the mission and communicates his complete commitment through an oath of obedience. In other words, after assuring Eliezer that his mission will be guided to its successful completion through the influence of Divine providence, Avraham then considers the possibility that Eliezer may fail. He tells Eliezer that under such circumstances, he is exempt from his oath. Only at this point, does Eliezer agree to the mission and the oath.

Avraham’s message to Eliezer is very ambiguous. He tells him he is assured of success and then, he immediately discusses the possibility of failure. He treats failure as a real possibility and tells Eliezer that he will not be guilty of violating his other if he fails to persuade the prospective wife to come of the Land of Cana’an. Was Avraham indeed certain of Eliezer’s success or not?

4. Eliezer’s moral dilemma
Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur makes an interesting comment on Avraham’s final statement. He explains that Avraham told Eliezer that he is not requiring that he make a vow that he will complete his mission. He is asking him to promise that he will make every effort to fulfill the mission he has been assigned.[1] Although these comments do not directly address the apparent contradiction in Avraham’s dialogue with Eliezer, they provide an important insight into the underlying issues that were guiding the conversation.

Apparently, even after Avraham provided Eliezer with his assurance that Hashem would guide him to success, Eliezer was unwilling to take the vow that Avraham required. What was the source of his reluctance? Two factors were at-play. First, Avraham had asked Eliezer to undertake a mission that – on its surface – was preposterous. He had asked Eliezer to travel to a distant land and find there a wife for Yitzchak. He was to then persuade this perfect wife to abandon her home and family, embark upon a long, arduous, and dangerous journey to an alien land. She should do this in order to marry an unknown stranger, who for some mysterious reason, could not come to her. Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur is indicating Eliezer’s attitude towards this mission. He had reservations.

Second, Eliezer understood Avraham to be demanding that he take an oath to complete the mission. He must swear by the Creator Who rules the heavens and earth that he will fulfill his assigned task. What is the meaning of such an oath? It means that the person taking the vow is making a commitment that is as absolute and true as the existence of the Creator. In short, Eliezer understood Avraham to demand an absolute commitment to succeed in accomplishing the absurd!

5. Avraham’s response to Eliezer’s dilemma
Avraham was not unaware of the paradoxical nature of his demand. However, he knew that all of the obstacles that Eliezer foresaw would be overcome through Divine providence. He was certain of this providence because he understood this mission as an essential step towards the realization of the covenant that Hashem had made with him. For Avraham, there was no paradox. The success of the mission that seemed preposterous to Eliezer was absolutely certain from Avraham’s perspective.

Avraham had no doubt that Eliezer would succeed. However, he realized that Eliezer could not take the oath that he understood was required by Avraham. Eliezer appreciated Avraham’s certainty. But unless he could embrace that self-same level of certainty that Avraham experienced, he could not morally take the vow. He could not vow to succeed unless he was certain of success. This dynamic created a deadlock. Avraham required a vow. However, Eliezer could not possibly provide the vow he understood to be required.

It was up to Avraham to resolve the deadlock. He told Eliezer that if he did not succeed, he would be exempt from the vow. In other words, he only required Eliezer’s absolute, best effort. Avraham was not expressing any doubt or wavering of his own certainty. He was acknowledging that his personal certainty was not relevant to Eliezer’s decision. He was acknowledging Eliezer’s inadequate certainty. In effect, he said to Eliezer: I am certain that you will succeed. But I realize that my certainty is a product of my prophetic experiences and the covenant that I have witnessed between myself and Hashem. I acknowledge that you are not completely certain of your success and cannot morally take a vow to succeed. Therefore, I require only your vow that your effort will be absolute.

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1. Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 24:8.