Why Go Back?

Context:

As Avraham’s life draws near its end, he turns to his trusted servant (identified by the rabbis as Eliezer) and instructs him to return to his homeland, Aram Naharaim, in order to find a wife for Yitzchak. He specifies that he does not want Yitzchak to marry a woman from the Canaanite nations that surround him. (Aram Naharaim is generally identified as the area bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Padan Aram, mentioned in the text as the birthplace of Rivka and the home of her extended family, refers to a specific region within Aram Naharaim.)

Questions:

Avraham’s decision seems completely counterintuitive. Why does he send Eliezer back to Aram Naharaim to find a match for Yitzchak? After all, isn’t this the very land that Avraham himself was commanded to leave at the dawn of his career? The patriarch’s own journey was launched when God commanded him to separate himself from his homeland, his birthplace and the home of his father. What possible reason could there now be to return to that land?

Complicating matters is the fact that there would seem to be absolutely no moral difference between the inhabitants of Canaan and the inhabitants of Aram Naharaim. Both locations are populated by idol worshipers.

It cannot be said that Avraham does not want his son to intermarry; there are no Hebrews in either location.

Approaches:

A. Some classical commentaries suggest that Avraham specifically wanted a wife to be chosen for Yitzchak from his own family.

The Midrash Hagadol suggests two reasons for this preference. Firstly, Avraham reasoned to himself, “The people I should first convert to Judaism are the members of my own family.” Secondly, Avraham believed that the members of his family were “nearer to repentance.”

One possible problem with this interpretation lies in the fact that Avraham does not directly refer to his family in his instructions to Eliezer. He simply tells his servant to return to his land and his birthplace.

Eliezer, on the other hand, during his negotiations with Lavan and Bethuel (Rivka’s brother and father), does mention that Avraham wanted him to choose a wife from the patriarch’s own family. The commentaries note that this is one of a number of variations between Avraham’s instructions and Eliezer’s repetition of those instructions. These variations demonstrate Eliezer’s diplomatic skill as he endears himself to Rivka’s family.

B. A number of commentaries, among them Rabbeinu Nissim Ben Reuven (the Ran) do suggest a fundamental moral contrast between the inhabitants of Canaan and those of Aram Naharaim. While both cultures were idolatrous, Canaanite society was particularly marked by its evil practices. Over and over again, the Torah speaks of the abominations perpetrated by the nations of Canaan. Rashi states, “The nations [of Canaan] conquered by the Israelites were more corrupt than any other.”

Forced to choose between two idolatrous societies as the source of a potential mate for his son, Avraham avoids the society marked by immoral behavior.

Given the evil nature of Canaanite society, one might ask why God commanded Avraham to relocate specifically to Canaan. Two answers might be proposed:
1. The land itself embodied a special sanctity in spite of the evil nature of its inhabitants.

2. Avraham was safer in a society that was more clearly evil than in his homeland, where the danger was more subtle and the culture potentially more attractive.

C.Perhaps, however, a totally different explanation for Avraham’s decision to send Eliezer back to Aram Naharaim might be proposed. This approach depends upon seeing Parshat Chayei Sara as a cohesive unit with one overarching theme that marks the culmination of Avraham’s career.

Parshat Chayei Sara can be neatly divided into two major sections: the purchase of the Cave of Machpeila as a burial site for Sara and the selection of Rivka as Yitzchak’s wife. As we have noted elsewhere, however, beneath the surface of the first section lies an even more important narrative: Avraham’s dramatic negotiation for self-definition as a ger v’toshav, a stranger and a citizen.

We have also discussed how Avraham, through this two-word phrase, not only describes himself but also delineates the place his descendents will take in society throughout the ages. To survive and to succeed the Jew must be both a stranger and a citizen in in any country where he lives, participating in the culture that surrounds him while maintaining his own unique identity.

Having arrived at his own self-definition, perhaps Avraham now looks towards the future and begins to fear: “I have been able to strike the balance necessary for my survival because I began in this land as a stranger. I came from a foreign land, and have always been able to maintain my distance from those within Canaan. Yitzchak, however, is different. My son was born here. He is too close to those around him. He is familiar only with this culture, with this population and with this land. How do I know that he will learn to discern the dangers that surround him? How do I know that he will be able to distance himself from elements of this society counterproductive to his spiritual development? How do I know that he will maintain the appropriate balance and truly be a ger v’toshav?”

Avraham then sets about guaranteeing the continuation of his legacy. He determines that at least one member of the next generation must make the same journey that he made, from Aram Naharaim to Canaan. More important than the physical journey, however, will be the philosophical journey. Yitzchak’s wife will, it is to be hoped, be able to see herself as a ger v’toshav. She will begin with a natural distance from the Canaanites surrounding her. Given her foreign background, she will have a head start in maintaining the perspective needed to discern and confront the dangers around them.

In short, Avraham does have a deep ulterior motive for sending Eliezer back to his birthplace to find a wife for Yitzchak. The patriarch hopes that his son’s wife will ensure the survival of the Jewish people by maintaining the delicate balance of self-definition that he himself has achieved.

Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.