Chayei Sarah: The Root of Blessing

November 20, 2008

“But the shadchan said, this one she will be different” – a not so famous Jewish folksong

In search of a daughter-in-law, Avraham entrusts Eliezer with the sacred mission and tall task of finding the next matriarch – a spiritual fiddle to enhance Yitzchak’s brilliance.

But it is not without hesitation (1):

Avraham said to his servant, the senior [servant] of his household, who was in charge of all that he owned, “Place your hand under my thigh. I will have you swear by Hashem, G-d of heaven and G-d of earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live.

R. Chaim Soloveitchik would fondly point out the text’s subtle alignment of priorities. Avraham’s financial confidante par excellence, Eliezer, does not receive a pass for all things spiritual; after all these years he must still vow his allegiance to the matriarchal mission. The message, life’s greatest treasures don’t have a cash value. Twenty years after her soft words, my (Bnei Brak) aunt’s subtle rebuke of minhag America to leave our children with the very same help from whom we hide our jewelry, still rings in my ears.

But there’s more in the midrashic subtext that engenders Avraham’s suspicions (2):

Eliezer had a daughter and he was looking for an excuse so that Avraham would … turn to him to allow his daughter to marry [Yitzchak]. Avraham responded, “My son is blessed, whereas you are cursed and one who is cursed cannot cleave to one who is blessed.”

Eliezer then might not be so motivated to succeed. And yet Avraham’s tough tone is troubling; and his essential worry still remains problematic. Is this not Eliezer, who risked his very life, waged war faithfully, and managed all of his master’s affairs for decades? Does Eliezer’s against-all-odds supreme loyalty really need confirmation?

Again, a midrash cited by Rashi. The backdrop: Eliezer’s follow-up question to Avraham’s oath request (3):

“Perhaps (אלי) the woman will not want to come back with me to this land? Shall I bring your son back to the land from where you came?” Rashi – The word ulai (perhaps) is written deficiently (without the vov) and can therefore be also read as elai – to me. This hints to Eliezer’s agenda to have his daughter marry Yitzchak.

It’s not merely an objective presence of bias. Avraham actually sniffs a whiff of personal agenda.

Vilna Gaon (4) however is not satisfied with Rashi’s midrash. Eliezer asks a perfectly reasonable question: What if I find the right women, but she doesn’t want to make Aliyah (it’s happened before) – am I still bound? How can one fault him for a simple contingency clause (5)?

In a display of the Gaon’s classic luminescent brilliance, he detects Eliezer’s agenda not in the essential question, but rather in its particular formulation. Two words grace the Hebrew language to express a “maybe” notion.

One is the word פן pen, as in(6):

Hishamru lachem pen yifteh … Look out for yourselves lest your heart be misled and you turn away… Hishamer lecha pen tishkach … Look out for yourself lest you forget Hashem your G-d …

The other is the word אולי ulai, as in(7) :

Ulai ibaneh mimaneh … Sarai said to Avram… pray, come to my handmaid perhaps I will be built-up through her.”

Ulai yesh chamishim tzaddikim… Suppose there are fifty righteous people in the midst of the city, will You … not bear with the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people

Can you see the distinction? While both words reflect the notion of possibility, each has a decidedly different flavor. Pen is a maybe whose outcome one does not wish while ulai speaks of the desired outcome(8).

Our midrash comes alive! Eliezer, in formulating the contingency states: “ulai the woman won’t follow me”. Echoes of the delicious possibility of failure reverberate in the background (9). Apparently then, the great Eliezer who can overcome financial temptations and even risk his physical life was not able to transcend the tantalizing possibility that after all these years he might be mishpacha (family, related) forever with his beloved and holy master. Now, Avraham’s uncharacteristically difficult response resonates – for he seeks to penetrate Eliezer’s psyche, alerting him to a bias that perhaps even Eliezer had subconsciously buried.

Flash ahead. About 900 years later, poor tattered Naomi returns to Israel trying to rehabilitate her life. She commands Ruth to approach Boaz at the granary in a rather unconventional manner (read the story for details). Ruth responds (10):

.כל אֲשֶׁר תּאמְרִי אֵלַי אֶעֱשֶׂה – Whatever you ask of me (elai) I shall do.

From Ruth we hear unquestioning acceptance in the face of personal discomfort and probable shame. A bit later Boaz sees Ruth and after his initial fright, Ruth tells Boaz her story and is blessed by him.

Through Ruth’s responses (to Naomi and Boaz), we are introduced to a new construct in the Biblical canon, a phenomenon known as the unwritten yet spoken word (keri v’lo kesiv). Twice(11), the word elai (to me), is read but not written. The message, says Rav Shimon Schwab (Germany, Manhattan 1908-1993), is that Ruth was able to take herself and her personal agenda, her elai, completely out of the picture – focusing on what was best for Naomi, Boaz and ultimately for the Jewish people. Her response evokes a high compliment from Boaz (12):

Berucha at l’Hashem – You are blessed to God

Ruth’s ability to transcend her deepest personal bias to do for others gives her the vaunted title of a berucha; one who is blessed and the source of all blessing. One can only bless others if they truly desire what is good for the other. Thus Avraham, the one who loves all humanity becomes the source of all blessing. Avraham and Ruth are called baruch.

And Eliezer who is guided by agenda – is not.

Flash back to our story. Eliezer carries out his mission to a tee. All’s well that ends well – Yitzchak and Rivkah live happily ever after. But there’s a hidden drama here – that of Eliezer’s final transformation. He shows that he is able to shunt aside his personal plan and gird himself for an exalted task. When Lavan sees Eliezer he calls out to him and says, bo beruch Hashem, Come in you who are blessed by Hashem (13)

On this, the midrash makes a beautiful, fitting and stunning comment (14):

R. Jose, son of R. Dosa said: Canaan was Eliezer, yet because he faithfully served that righteous man, he passed from the category of the accursed into that of the blessed,’ as it says, And he said: Come in, You who are blessed by Hashem.

Whether we are to take the midrash literally or not is irrelevant. Eliezer is either Canaan or from that stock. Canaan is cursed by Noach for letting self interest defile his very father. After a life’s work, Eliezer accomplishes a complete transformation.

Ironically and heroically, that very baruch status which Eliezer sought through a union with Avraham’s family, he ultimately achieves by finding Rivka; for in that search he is able to look deeply (and honestly) within, transcend his parochialism. How wondrous it is that he becomes the first person since Noach to actually give a blessing to the Almighty, uttering words that have almost become the mantra of the Jew: Baruch Hashem (15).

May God give us the ability to confront our own biases with the same honesty and strength. It will surely be a blessing.

Good Shabbos – Asher Brander


1. Bereishis, 24:2-3
2. Rashi, 24:39 based on Bereishis Rabah 59:9
3. Rashi, ibid based on Yalkut Shimoni, 528
4. Kol Eliyahu al HaTorah, ibid
5. Perhaps, by spelling the word deficiently, the Torah is hinting to us Eliezer’s subconscious (or conscious) bias – but how is Avraham to know this? Presumably, Eliezer did not spell out his formulation to Avraham.
6. Devarim, 11:16 and Devarim, 8:11 respectively
7. Bereishis, 16:2 and Bereishis 18:23 respectively
8. English language roughly distinguishes between the word lest and perhaps, although perhaps is probably a more pareve term.
9. R. Nosson Bamberger asks a brilliant question on Vilna Gaon’s axiom. When Rivkah instructs Yaakov to snatch the blessings, he turns to his mother and says ulai yemushaeina avi (maybe my father will feel me) .. and then he will curse me. Surely, this is not a specter that Yaakov was looking forward to?! Perhaps the resolution is that Yaakov, who so greatly personified the attribute of truth would rather have been caught than deceive his father. He thus lodges a protest to his mother in veiled terms so as not to engage in this ruse in the first place.
10. Ruth, 3:5
11. Ibid and ibid,17
12. Ibid, 10
13. Bereishis, 24:31
14. Bereishis Rabah, 60:7
15. Bereishis, 14:19

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.