Devar Torah Chayei Sarah: Eliezer, Slave To Avraham

For this week’s dvar torah, I would like to draw a rather broad character analysis of Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, who features in much of the narrative of this week’s parsha, being sent by Avraham to find a wife for Yitzchak. Despite the sheer amount of text dedicated to the stuff he does and says, including an entire repetition of a story that seems just wholly unnecessary, we know very little about him personally. In fact, our parsha doesn’t even mention his name, and we only know it from back in Lech Lecha. There, God promises Avraham that he will protect him and give him great reward, and Avraham responds (15:2)  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֲדֹנָי יֱקֹוִק מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִי וְאָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי וּבֶן־מֶשֶׁק בֵּיתִי הוּא דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר, what can you give me, I’m infertile and all I got is this Dameshek Eliezer. Now, peshat is, that this Eliezer is from Damascus, but Rashi, after noting the peshat, quotes a midrashic comment that may double as valid literary analysis, that Eliezer is a portmanteau word for דולה ומשקה, drawing water and giving people to drink, because Eliezer was דולה ומשקה מתורת רבו לאחרים, he drew from the Torah of his master and gave it to people to drink.

I once had a rebbe in high school who gave us a mussar shmuess about how we see from this Rashi how great of virtue it is to give over one’s rebbe’s Torah to others, to serve as a tool of spreading the Torah of one’s teacher. I pointed out to him, young firebrand that I was, that the passuk does not seem to see this quality of  דולה ומשקה as a positive quality. Avraham is saying to God, I’m infertile, and all I have to succeed me is this darn דולה ומשקה, Eliezer. If anything, it would seem that Avraham takes issue with this exact character trait of Eliezer. Now, why would this be? What’s wrong with spreading Torah of your rebbe? Spreading Torah is good! Having a teacher and role model to look up to in a rebbe is also good! What could possibly be the problem.
(It’s worth mentioning I switched out of this particular rebbe’s shiur the next week. It was a somewhat mutual decision)

To answer this question, I think we need to build a broader picture of Eliezer’s character from the subtle clues provided to us in the story in our parsha. One thing I like to pay attention to when going through the parshiyot of Bereishit is the way the characters in the story refer to God, this monotheistic divinity who just came to them in this polytheistic culture, and I’ve written about this previously. If you pay attention to the way Eliezer refers to God throughout our parsha, it is, without exception, either יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם, YHVH the god of my master Avraham, or with reference to his master close by. Eliezer never calls him “My God”, and even in his requests of God, only asks for God to עֲשֵׂה־חֶסֶד עִם אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם. He has no personal relationship with God or personal connection to God, God is only the divinity worshiped by his one and true master, his superior.  It is thus entirely appropriate that in this narrative, he has no name, because his identity and autonomy have been entirely abdicated. He is not an individual personality, he is merely a tool of Avraham’s.

I think this kind of personality has two main bad consequences, which can be summed up by the title we saw given to him, that of דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר.

First off, he is דַּמֶּשֶׂק, he is דולה ומשקה, he devoutly gives over the Torah of his master perfectly verbatim. But without a personal connection to God, as long as God remains merely אֱלֹהֵי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם, that is all he will be. He is no well digger, like Avraham or Yitzchak, he is a water drawer. He is not an innovator, he is a repeater. In what seems to be a rather sly character illustration, much of the space occupied by Eliezer in the text has him repeating things, from the most obvious example, his 15 passuk long repetition of his encounter with Rivkah, to more subtle examples, like his repetition of Avraham’s oath in 24:9. Lacking the confidence borne of a personal connection with God and a personal stake in the religion, he cautiously sticks to the repetition of what has happened previously. He cannot boldly respond and innovate in the face of new problems and new ideas. It shall only suffice to repeat.

That is not to say, though, that such conservatism does not breed its own sort of innovation. Eliezer does seem to bring up new ideas, and innovate new, perhaps even bold, practices. In 24:5, He asks Avraham what he should do if the girl doesn’t want to come back with him. And in 24:12-13, he boldly asks God for a test to prove to him which girl is right for Yitzchak. But what motivates these actions, these innovative practices and solutions? In both cases, fear and insecurity, that one could argue was entirely misplaced. Avraham is asking him to go get him a girl for his son from his family back home. This should have been simple enough. But Eliezer doesn’t trust that things will be okay. God only concerns himself with my master Avraham, not such humble people like me. He needs to know, what if she doesn’t want to come? He needs his hand held, he needs reassurance, and Avraham tells him, don’t worry God will be with you. And if Avraham says it’ll be all right, it’ll be all right. But then he gets to the well, and then he is totally overcome by insecurity. How will I know I’ve picked the right girl? How can I tell? He doesn’t trust his own ability to make these decisions, and Avraham isn’t around to make the decisions for him. He wants clarity and certainty and he can’t get that without an authority. He doesn’t know what to do. So there, he says to God, send me a sign. Send me some signal which tells me that I am making an unambiguously correct decision. Take the decision making out of my hands, let you tell me what to do. (true, it does work, but that didn’t stop Chazal from noting that Eliezer’s request was inappropriate, in the same category as Yiftach, in Taanit 4a). It is thus somewhat fitting that what name Avraham’s servant does have is, his only identity, is, taken literally, a cry for help.

I’m gonna be blunt: I look out in the Orthodox world and I see a lot of Dameshek Eliezer’s. I see a Jewish Education system which has failed to provide its students with the sense that they have a chelek in Torah, that they have what to contribute to the tapestry of Jewish tradition. I see a strong tendency in the community that encourages the rote repetition of what came before and is profoundly uncomfortable at the prospect of anything bold and creative that responds to the complex issues and problems of today. I see a lot of people who are afraid of striking out new territory, afraid of being called a heretic by the right, or being called backwards and regressive by the left, a community whose ideological battles have made the expression of creative religious ideas a dangerous proposition, a community where I need to be concerned about a guy like R. Avrohom Gordimer taking a quote of mine out of context in his latest roundup of “look at the stuff these kofrim are saying” and get me kicked out of RIETS, where I went for a reason, suffice it to say.

It doesn’t have to be this way. When Avraham said he didn’t want his successor to be this Dameshek Eliezer, he got his wish. He got a Yitzchak, a fellow well digger (see perek 26), unsatisfied with merely being דולה ומשקה who merits for God to be called by his name in the first bracha of Shmone Esrei, because God was not merely his father’s God, but his God too, and us Jews, who sang זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ at the sea (Shemot 15:2), come from that ancestry. Let us not be slaves to repetition, let us overcome fear and insecurity, and let’s be bold in reclaiming our chelek in Torah.

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