VOLUME 68 NUMBER 4
October 25, 2013
HESHVAN 21, 5774
Candle-lighting Time 5:47 PM
This edition of Sparks of Torah is dedicated in honor of Rabbi and Mrs. Esther Feldheim on the engagement of their daughter Miriam Adina. Mazel Tov!
Work the Votes
By Rabbi Raphael Leban
Judging by the constant barrage of election flyers that has been hitting our door and mailbox lately, there must be an election coming up. At such times, it’s important to keep the principles of good leadership in mind. I would like to offer something from this week’s parsha that is relevant for anyone chosen to be a leader, and indeed for every one of us who is at least in charge of him or herself.
The vast majority of this week’s parsha is taken up with the narrative of Abraham’s servant Eliezer and his errand to find a wife for Isaac. Several things about the story appear strange. For one thing, the moment Eliezer thinks he has found the right woman, he gives her lavish and expensive jewelry—before even asking her if she’s a relative of Abraham’s and thus the right woman after all. Why not check first and then give the gifts afterwards?
For another thing, when he arrives at her family’s home and is offered some food after his journey, why does he insist on telling them the story of his errand before eating anything? Couldn’t the story have waited until after their hospitable invitation?
And most noticeably, why does the Torah spend so much time telling and then retelling the narrative of Eliezer’s errand? So many important things are taught by the Torah in so brief a manner, why is this event recorded with so many precious words?
In answering these and other questions, the Alter from Novordok demonstrated a beautiful principle. He explained as follows.
While fulfilling Abraham’s errand, Eliezer had something else on his mind. He knew that if he couldn’t find a suitable wife for Isaac from amongst Abraham’s relatives that would return with him to Isaac, he was absolved of his errand. Our Sages teach us that Eliezer secretly desired that his own daughter should be the one to marry Isaac—something which could only happen if his mission failed. Thus Eliezer had his own personal interest that biased his actions. Aware of this fact, he had to make doubly sure that he fully and reliably fulfilled his duty, without slacking off or being dishonest.
Maimonides, in his introduction to his commentary on the Ethics of our Fathers, writes that if a person has a bad trait, he must act for a while in the opposite extreme of that trait, in order to arrive at the healthy ‘golden mean.’ For example, a person who gets angry too often must pointedly remain calm for a while—even when anger would be the appropriate response. Eventually he can achieve the proper balance, getting angry only when it is necessary and proper.
Worried about a potential bias based on his own personal agenda, Eliezer erred on the side of zeal. He risked incurring great expense and gave Rivka (Rebecca) jewelry to help interest her in his proposal even before he knew if she was the right woman. Similarly, he refused to become involved in a meal before he explained why he had come and received an acceptance of the proposed betrothal.
Our Sages offer the following reason for the great length of the whole narrative, “Greater is the speech of the servant’s of the Forefathers than the Torah of their descendants.” It seems to mean that the retelling of the story of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is more important than the considerable laws that later scholars would derive from an individual word or even letter—and thus it’s length. Difficult to understand.
The Alter points out that the primary goal of the Torah is to perfect man’s character—in accordance with G-d’s moral guidelines. Thus the narrative of Eliezer’s struggle to overcome his potentially biased behavior is so important—it’s an explicit lesson in character improvement. And that’s why it’s conceivably more ‘pleasing’ to G-d than the later Sages’ laws, the ultimate goal of which is to bring about the character development that Eliezer’s story deals with directly.
Understanding the personal biases and prejudices that inform our thinking and our actions is a critical skill set for an elected official, or anyone who votes for one. From Eliezer we can learn how much we must delve into the deep motivations behind our actions, and how hard we must strive to keep them pure.
What’s It All About?
by Rabbi Dovid Nussbaum
Eliezer is successful in his mission to find a wife for Yitzchak. Even though Rivka was raised in a home steeped in idolatry and deceit, her exemplary character traits shown forth and she was a true match for Yitzchak. Although her family was understandably not excited about the shidduch, they allowed her to return with Eliezer and marry Yitzchak. Before she took leave, they blessed her that she should merit thousands of descendants and they should conquer their enemies.
Interestingly, their blessing was the same blessing that the angel gave Avraham after the Akeidah. Certainly it was a notable blessing if it was what Avraham deserved after passing the last test and almost sacrificing his son! Why did Rivka’s family bless her at all, much less in such a wonderful manner?
Chasam Sofer cites the Midrash that explains that they were actually very upset that Rivka was leaving against their will. Therefore, although they blessed her verbally, in their hearts they bore evil thoughts. They wished her that her descendants should be wise people and possess much more knowledge than their counterparts and subsequently defeat them in an argument. This seems to be quite a fine blessing. However, their underlying hope was that Rivka’s offspring would not be settled and often be in exile and unable to focus intellectually and academically. As a result, they would not be competent or qualified enough to actually win an argument against their opponents. In effect, they were wishing that her descendants should find themselves more often than not in exile away from any stability. This was their true intent and it was obviously evil.
However, they did not foresee the silver lining contained in the blessing. Chasam Sofer explains that when we are exiled and studying Torah in the various countries around the world, we introduce the sanctity of the Torah into the world at large and this prepares the world for its eventual completion which Moshiach will herald. Although they did not consider this, the hidden meaning of the blessing, that we should ‘conquer our enemies’, will actually be fulfilled through their negative intent, despite their evil meaning.
The upshot of this entire episode is that Torah, like a wellspring of rushing water, cannot be constrained. Our enemies may attempt to cap it off in one area, however, due to its strength, it will break through all barriers and eventually succeed. This has been true in the past and it will eventually be realized in the future. We already have seen how the Soviet Union tried so hard to eradicate any remnants of Judaism for a seventy year span of time. Although thousands of Jews were lost in that unfortunate time, who would have dreamt that Yeshivas and schools to educate a new generation would dot the landscape of that country. Yet, today there are Jewish schools all over the country, a testimony to the eternity of our people.
Perhaps this blessing pertained specifically to Yitzchak because he typified the power of our people to overcome challenges as difficult as they might be. He survived the Akeidah where he almost met his end, yet he went on to be the second link of our illustrious Patriarchal lineage. Even though an Eisav came from him, so did Yaakov, indicative of the definitive subjugation of good over the evil which so pervades this world.
A BYTE FOR SHABBOS
Even though Eliezer had a daughter of his own that he wanted to marry Avraham’s son Yitzchak, Avraham had something else in mind when he sent Eliezer to search for a wife for Yitzchak. Realizing this, Eliezer committed himself completely to Avraham’s errand and dismissed his own thoughts. Such dedication earned him the lofty role of being Avraham’s servant.
Joke of the Week
You are stuck with your debt if . . . you can’t budge it.