In this week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, the Torah describes the details of the great Shidduch of Avraham and Sarah’s only son Yitzchak, with his soul mate, the righteous Rivka. It is Avraham’s loyal servant and student Eliezer who is charged with the mission of finding Rivka and obtaining her acquiescence for the marriage. The fine detail the Torah goes into in describing Eliezer’s assignment (some 67 pasukim) is quite surprising, especially in light of the fact that major portions of Torah law are only hinted at in various verses in the Torah. Indeed, our Sages reveal that in this ‘servant’s expeditions and conversations, there are great lessons to learn – “Yafeh Sichatan Shel Avdei Avot, Mitoratan Shel Banim” – “ Greater are the conversations of the servants of our forefathers than the Torah of their children” (Rashi Bereishit 24:42, quoting the Midrash Rabba).
Let’s delve into one message learnt from Eliezer’s experiences which sheds great light to guide us in how we are to fight our own inner battles for daily growth.
If one reads through the Torah’s description of Eliezer’s mission, one will find a number of strange modes of behavior on his part. Eliezer is commanded by Avraham to find a girl from his own family in Aram Naharayim rather than a Canaanite girl. He travels there and waits by a well for the young ladies to draw water. He reasons that if a girl appears who both gives him to drink and also waters his camels it is a sure sign from Hashem that this is ‘the one’ for Yitzchak. Indeed, Eleizer’s sign is granted immediately with Rivka and her wondrous Chesed providing water for both him and his camels. Eliezer then gives over expensive jewelry to this girl, giving a clear message of his plans to discuss shidduchim, all this before he has even asked her name, or if she is indeed fitting as part of Avraham’s family. Skipping ahead in the account, we find Eliezer in Rivka’s home about to begin discussing the prospective shidduch with Rivka’s parents and he is offered some food. He declines and says that he will not eat until he has said what he needs to say, explaining why he was sent and what his intentions are. Further on in the meeting with Rivka’s family, Eliezer finishes describing his mission as sent by Avraham and the Divine signs he received along the way to affirm his surety that Rivka is the one for his master’s son. Rivka is clearly excited at this prospect, but her family, while agreeing in theory to the shidduch, do seem a little hesitant. They say that Rivka should stay in Aram Naharayim for a year or so (see Rashi 24:55) to prepare for the marriage. Eliezer responds that she should journey with him to Yitzchak right away without any further delay. The family asks Rivka and she agrees and Eliezer escorts her immediately to reunite with her Divinely assigned soul mate.
There are a number of questions one could ask on Eliezer’s behavior above – we shall focus on 3: Why did Eliezer give the Jewels to Rivka before even being sure she was indeed from the house of Avraham? Why would Eliezer refuse to eat before explaining his case before Rivka’s family? And why was Eliezer so insistent on leaving Rivka’s home immediately?
To uncover the treasure hidden in Eliezer’s behavior, we must first delve into a fascinating insight into Eliezer and his background in taking on this mission.
Eliezer was a loyal servant and student of Avraham. He is called the “Dameshek” by Avraham which our Sages teach means that he would Doleh (‘draw out’ the Torah from Avraham) and Mashkeh (‘water’ others) with the teachings of Avraham about Hashem and Torah (Rashi on Bereishit 15:2). He was the one who fought by Avraham’s side in the great war against the evil kings in last week’s parasha. For such a loyal student and servant, Eliezer hoped that Avraham would perhaps marry off the holy Yitzchak to Eliezer’s own daughter (Bereishit Rabba, Parasha 49). He must have been greatly disappointed when Avraham made him swear that Yitzchak’s match must only be found amongst Avraham’s own family and not from the daughters of Canaan (Eliezer’s own people).
Indeed, when recalling the conversation he had had with Avraham to Rivka’s family, Eliezer recollects that he said to Avraham “Perhaps she (the prospective bride) will not want to come with me?” The word ‘perhaps’, “Ulai” is spelled with a missing Vav, which can thus be read “Elai” – meaning; “to me”. Rashi (on Bereishit 24:39) based on the Midrash Rabba (above) explains that the Torah is revealing Eliezer’s hidden personal bias with this question as if to say to Avraham “If she doesn’t want to come with me, then perhaps you will turn to me, to my daughter to marry off Yitzchak”. The Maharal in his Gur Aryeh (a commentary on Rashi) explains that originally Eliezer harbored this yearning of marrying off his own daughter to Yitzchak, but it was a hidden desire which Avraham recognized and quelled. Once on his mission, Eliezer had already come to terms with the fact that his daughter was not an option, and he went forward on his expedition, he did so consciously wanting to succeed with a full heart. However, great people, such as Eliezer, know very well that even when one seems to have removed any trace of hidden bias and selfish motives in a given action, one should always be on guard and acutely aware of these biases resurfacing.
It is this very insight that the great tzadik, the Alter of Novardok, Rav Yosef Yozel Hurvitz, in his Madregas HaAdam (quoted in the Sefer Lekach Tov on this week’s parasha) focuses on in order to answer the 3 questions on Eliezer’s behavior that were presented above (these questions are raised by the Alter). The Alter explains that Eliezer was worried that his original bias may adversely affect his mission causing him to subconsciously allow for potential procrastination to sabotage the mission altogether. In other words, Eliezer now wanted his mission to succeed; however, he was also acutely aware that he had harbored personal bias for it to fail. This bias, he thought, may still exist, albeit subconsciously, and undermine the mission’s success. Therefore, at any moment where any delay might allow for an opening for the mission to be endangered, Eliezer ensured to act with great alacrity. Once he got the signs from Hashem that this girl was the ‘one’ he immediately gave her the Jewelry, before having even asked for her lineage. When given the opportunity to eat before explaining his case to Rivka’s family, he refuses the sustenance, worried that the slight delay may endanger his success. Finally, when Rivka’s family wants her to remain at home for a while before the wedding, Eliezer is adamant that he must escort her right away.
The Alter teaches that the Torah is revealing to us a deep secret in how to battle our own inner selfish desires of our Yetzer Harah. When we set out to do some holy positive action in our daily lives, the best technique the Yetzer Hara has against us is simply to cause us to delay. It knows that this delay will provide an opening for further procrastination and before long we will be too busy with something else and the positive deed will be left undone.
For example, take the classic case of Chesed. Imagine you notice a family member, friend or workmate who is in need of a kind word or sensitive loving ear to bear their troubles. You notice this, and you even decide to do something about it, but then all of a sudden, there is the voice which says “OK, that is really something I should do, so I’ll do it in a second, as soon as I have just sent this email (or the like)”. Before you know it, you are busy with something else, and you never seem to get round to the kind act that you said you were going to do. Just like with Eliezer, the Yetzer Harah attempts to hold us off from succeeding in our spiritual missions on a daily basis, we just need to be aware of its vices. It is not stupid enough to outright tell us: “Don’t help that person, checking Facebook is far more important”. Rather it cleverly uses the technique of subtle delays until the mitzvah is gone completely and our growth mission fails.
To combat this we need to develop the trait of alacrity in doing good – what is known as the trait of Zrizut. The Ramchal in Messilat Yesharim explains that the art of Zrizut involves grabbing hold of mitzvah opportunities with enthusiastic alacrity and that it is one of the critical initial rungs in the ladder of spiritual growth to combat our natural lazy desires for stagnation (Messilat Yesharim, Perek 6). In fact, the Ramchal says you must chase after mitzvot. You only need to chase after something that is moving away. We need to see mitzvot as opportunities that are going to be gone in a moment if we don’t grab onto them immediately. As the Ramchal says, with every new moment, there are new potential obstacles that will come up to stop you from doing the mitzvah. As the mishna in Avot says “Don’t say, when I have time to learn I will learn, perhaps you will not have time”. Every moment of holding off from a positive action presents great danger that the action will fall away completely. Imagine a million dollar diamond sitting on the edge of a windy ledge about to be blown away. You would grab it as soon as you can and hold on with all your might. All the more so with mitzvot whose worth is incalculable, unfathomable and eternal.
Try this out. Next time you a presented with a growth opportunity, a mitzvah, make yourself acutely aware of your inner selfish desires to push it off. Don’t listen to the voice of stagnation – rather choose life, and grab onto it with everything you have.