The Chavruta Study Shiur 5760 – No. 5
by Rabbi Alex Israel
Parshat Chayei Sarah
by Rav Alex Israel.
This is a parsha in which one woman dies and another enters the family. Sarah’s burial, described in painstaking detail by the Torah is matched by the lengthy description of Abraham’s servant on his mission to search for a suitable wife for Yitzchak – a matriarch to fulfill the place of Sarah. With this marriage, Yitzchak and Rivka are to fill the role of the covenantal couple as we witness the legacy of Avraham pass on to the next generation.
There is no doubt that the lion’s share of our Parsha is taken by the story of the search for a suitable partner for Yitzchak. It is the unusual length of the description of this episode that takes us by surprise. The Torah, whose hallmark is economy of phrase, chooses to tell this story with uncharacteristic verbosity. The entire saga, told at length the first time round, is then repeated word for word by Abraham’s servant in front of Rivka’s family, and the Torah stays to eavesdrop. We hear the account word for word. Why? What is this lengthiness meant to achieve.
Chazal were also sensitive to the issue:
“Rav Acha said; the mere conversations of the servants of the patriarchs are dearer to God than the Torah of their [the Patriarch’s] children. After all, the parsha of Eliezer is recorded and recapitulated in the Torah whereas many fundamental laws can only be derived through subtle hints in the text” (Rashi 24:42 from Bereshit Rabba 60:8)
As is the way of Chazal, they search for (even miniscule) differences between the original story and the repetition in order to discover a hidden agenda, a message. The repetition cannot possibly be in vain. Modern scholars also affirm that these are the methods of the Biblical text:
“…the Biblical narratives astutely discovered how the slightest strategic variations in the pattern of repetitions could serve the purposes of commentary, analysis, foreshadowing, thematic assertion, with a wonderful combination of subtle understatement and dramatic force” (Robert Alter. The Art of Biblical Narrative pg.91)
SOURCES AND QUESTIONS FOR YOU AND YOUR CHAVRUTA
- Read the Parsha. We are focusing on Ch.24.
Nehama Leibowitz did some wonderfully comprehensive work on this perek from which we can all benefit. See her book on Bereshit; the articles, “I’ll water the camels too!”, “Table Talk of Patriarch’s Servants” and the other articles on this chapter.
- THE IDENTITY OF THE “EVED”.
*Note the changing identity of this servant throughout the parsha. What two titles are used to describe Avraham’s servant? (See Nechama pg.227-8)
*Is there a logic as to why one title is used as opposed to another or are they being used interchangeably?
*Chazal identify Avraham’s servant as Eliezer. This is based upon 15:1-3. See in this connection Rashi on v.39.
*What is added to the parsha by the fact that we are unaware of the servant’s personal identity?
- REPETITION AND DIFFERENCE:
Where in the “eved”s repetition of events do we find a distortion of the facts?
*Compare v.4 with v.38
*see Rashi 24:47
Why these differences? Do you notice any others?
THE SHIUR SECTION:
One of the things that has struck me about this parsha is the stark disparity between the lightning swiftness of the events within the story and the relaxed lengthiness of the Torah’s description of events.
The Torah reports to us that Avraham’s servant arrives by the well,
“…at evening time, the time when the women come out to draw water. And he said, ‘O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune THIS DAY, and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the well … whoever replies “Drink, and I will also water your camels” – let her be the one you have decreed …’.” (24:11-14)
Avraham’s slave arrives at dusk, but yet, requests that God fulfill his mission with immediacy – “grant me good fortune this day!” But this is not the only place in which we feel that events are hurried. Events continue at a rapid pace:
“He had SCARCELY FINISHED speaking and Rivka came out … The servant RAN to her … she QUICKLY lowered her jar … she HURRIED, emptying her jar into the camels trough and RAN back to the well … The maiden RAN and told all this to her mother’s household …” (24:15-28)
The amount of hurrying and running here is astounding. And Rifka is not the only one who is in a hurry. The slave arrives at Betuel’s house to eat supper and refuses to begin the meal until he has spoken – “I will not eat until I have told my tale” – and in but a few moments, Rivka’s family have given their agreement to the marriage proposal. The whole story takes not more than an hour or two.
The speed of events is not matched by brevity of phrase by the Torah. The opposite is true. The Torah text seems to delight in slowly describing each developing stage of the unfolding drama. It is not simply the description of the events with Rivka that the Torah describes but the entire story is repeated verbatim by Abraham’s slave when he presents Rivka’s family with the marriage proposal. Why?
There is no doubt in our minds that the wording in this parshiot are chosen with exactitude. The wordiness of this parsha is not a mistake. The Torah did not get a little tired and as we do at times, just babble on in an unfocussed manner. I say this not from a theological standpoint – that the Torah must have meaning because God gave it, or that every word is of significance. That is true as well, but I will try to argue my case here from a more literary perspective. Looking at the choice of language we notice an unusual attention to detail which is typical of the Torah in all its parshiot.
One first example is the description of Avraham’s servant. Chazal identify him as Eliezer but that is not mentioned in the text. Rather, he is described under two titles. Either “eved” or “ish”. Pay attention to the uses of each term When the man is described in relation to Avraham’s household, he is called an “eved”, however when he relates to other people eg. Rivka, Lavan, he is seen as an “ish”, a gentleman. This is a typical literary motif of the Torah (For further examples, see Nehama Leibowitz. Torah Insights pg. 172-173) whereby we can have a dual view of this slave. He is on one hand, Abraham’s servant and subject to his command. But he not a manual slave, a labourer. He is an Ish, a man of status. Maybe, this is the reason why ChaZal looked for an employee of Avraham who was also a dignified figure in his own right, and they emerged with the figure of Eliezer who we have already come across in Lech Lecha.
A second example might be the theme of “chesed.” This word is repeated throughout the parsha. The number of verbs for welcoming people with food and drink are astounding. This clearly is supposed to draw our attention to the similarity between the midot of Rivka and the home of Avraham, which prides itself in the welcoming of strangers and passing travelers.
THE HAND OF GOD
Some have suggested that rather than chesed, one of the emphasis in this parsha is the delicate but focal role of God so visible in this remarkable story. Or maybe, let us refine that; the Torah’s deliberate description of the unfolding of events, stage by stage, is so that we too may understand, joining with the characters in the story, the unexpected sense of Hashgacha in this story.
What do I mean? Let us note a few alterations that the slave makes in his report to Betuel and Lavan. We will use these alterations to focus upon the original story and some of its finer nuances.
When Avraham instructs his slave he does not tell him to seek out his family. Rather, he is sent to “my land and my birthplace” (v.4). Many mepharshim (Rashbam, Radak) suggest that this was a distinct directive to seek out Avraham’s relatives, after all, we read just a chapter ago (22:20-24) that Avraham had been informed of the birth of Rivka. To my mind, this is a problematic reading. I say this because linguistically the “moledet” means something different to “beit avi” – see the opening lines of Lech Lecha. But moreover because it is on this point precisely that we see the servant’s diplomacy at its height. Avraham had instructed him to find a wife in “my land and my birthplace”. Avraham’s direct relatives are not mentioned. But when the slave repeats the story to Lavan and Betuel, he says “Now my master made me swear … but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred and get a wife for my son.” (v.38) Lest we think that this difference is insignificant, the servant repeats these words again the very next passuk (v.39). Why does the slave alter the words of his instruction? We cannot help but get the impression that the slave is trying to emphasize the family connection, after all, he needs to convince the family that they should marry off their daughter, but WE know that Avraham never mentioned his family explicitly. Is this point, this alteration just there to emphasize the servant’s diplomatic skills, or is something else happening here?
Another strange difference relates to the timing of the gift of Jewelry to Rivka. In the report to Rivka’s family, the servant tells us that “I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ and she told me, ‘The daughter of Betuel…’ and I gave her a nose-ring and placed bracelets on her arms …” (24:47) But in the “real” story events happen otherwise: “When the camels had finished drinking the man took a beka weight nose ring, and two … bracelets on her hands. He inquired, ‘Whose daughter are you?'” (24:21-22) Again certain mepharshim (eg. Rashbam) want to resolve the differences and the surprise at the servants capricious behaviour, suggesting that he simply took out the jewelry but did not actually give it to her until he heard her name. But that is not the order of the pesukim. It is fully understandable that the servant would have tactfully changed the order here. After all, Betuel would not want to hear that the servant would have taken any girl who had fulfilled his prayer. But this just emphasizes the strangeness of events. Why -according to peshat- did the servant give Rivka the jewelry before he even knew her identity?
Let us follow the story to see what is happening and maybe the answers will come clear. The servant knows he must find a wife for Yitzchak in Avraham’s birthplace. According to Avraham’s directive, he does not need to find Avraham’s family specifically. The slave arrives late in the day and immediately asks God to help him on his quest. He devises a test whereby God can show him the right girl, the girl who will be a suitable match for his master’s son and heir. And then, behold, within seconds, the girl comes out and fulfills every last detail of his prayer! This is beyond belief. Without a moment’s hesitation, he showers her with jewelry. He hasn’t even asked her name! But he doesn’t need to. He is so convinced that this is the person, the girl, that God has fulfilled his prayer so perfectly that he is absolutely certain. Clearly God has given him a clear message and with such immediacy. He is in no doubt that this girl is the one.
It is only after this that he asks her for her identity. When the servant hears that she is from Avraham’s family he bows down and prays. This is truly unbelievable. It is at this point that he turns to God to thank Him: “I have been guided on my errand by the Lord,” he says, “to the house of my master’s kinsman.” His prayer expresses his surprise at the remarkable divine providence in the unfolding of events. Not only has his prayer been answered but also the girl is from Avraham’s family!
We might suggest that the story is repeated to emphasize the reaction that it has on the listeners. They can all see God’s hand in this sudden occurrence. After all, we hear the servant repeat the story word for word, he must change certain details so as not to offend the family, maybe to convince the family. However, their reaction closely resembles the reaction of the servant: “Lavan and Betuel answered, ‘This clearly comes from God! We cannot speak bad or good! Here is Rivka before you; take her and go and let her be a wife to your master’s son as the Lord has spoken.'”(24:50-51) But God has not spoken! Only that the events are so remarkable that God’s hand is clearly evident.
Let me return to my opening remarks. These events happened at a rapid pace. Maybe the entire story from start to finish took not more than an hour. (No wonder that Chazal want to say that the servant had “kefitzat haderech”!) But in this story, every nuance, every minute stage is replete with God’s help. This hand of God seems to be so transparent to every player in the story that they are powerless to stop this match from happening. They just stand back in awe at the strangeness of reality. Maybe this explains the strange length of the story in contrast with the speed of events. This literary style is designed to engender a feeling in the reader, the listener of wonder and amazement at the way that God assisted in this story. Avraham’s worry, expressed by his caution and insistence leading him to commit his servant to an oath, are taken care of by God. Not by the servant.
Indeed, Avraham tells the servant : “Hashem, the God of the heavens who took me from my father’s house and my birthplace …. He will send his angel (messenger) ahead of you and you shall take a wife for my son from there.” (24:7) It would seem that this angel did the bulk of the work! In many ways the servant was just an officiary. The servant knows it, and so does Lavan and Betuel.