November 7, 2015 Leave a comment
This is the drasha I delivered this morning at Kesher Israel congregation.
This week’s parsha is Hayei Sarah, and it is notable as the favorite portion for anyone giving a wedding or sheva berakha talk. Of course, the rationale for this popularity is the description of hashgaha pratit – Divine guidance – in finding Rivka for Yitzhak, and the lovely descriptions of her character as the qualifiers. Left unstated is that in this, Yitzhak gets Lavan as an in-law, setting the template for touchy relationships with in-laws down through history, but be that as it may, Yitzhak and Rivka are still one of the shining examples of a Biblical couple who behave like a couple in love.
But that story of a match made in heaven is not the only thing in the parsha. There’s Avraham’s purchase of Ephron’s cave to bury Sarah in Hevron, which is the first evidence of actual Jewish ownership of land in perpetuity. There’s Avraham’s awareness of his own mortality and realization that Yitzhak has not found a wife, Avraham’s later marriage to Keturah, and then his death. His burial briefly rejoins Ishmael to the family, and then we have the descendants of Ishmael listed. The days are just packed!
But what really caught my eye as I looked this week was the character of Eliezer. We first met him two weeks ago in parshat Lekh Lekha – known in the south as “go on, git” – just before the Brit bein ha-betarim (the covenant of the pieces) where Avram is talking with God, and upon hearing that he will be blessed asks “what are you going to give me, given that I have no children, and Eliezer of Damascus will be my heir?”
God promptly rejects this notion, and gives Avram what must have felt like a rather improbable promise – that his own child rather than his servant will inherit him.
Eliezer, thus, gets disinherited by Heavenly decree, and continues to serve Avraham faithfully for decades more. Along the way, he silently watches Avraham have several more adventures, up to the births of Ishmael and Yitzhak, and the circumcisions of everyone present. And then he sees Ishmael exiled with Hagar, and following that, sees Avraham take Yitzhak up to the top of a mountain to offer him as a sacrifice. It should be noted that this is not a recommended tactic to address youthful rebellion. Let’s take a moment to consider Eliezer’s perspective of the Akedah: maybe he’ll be inheriting after all? Perhaps what he’ll have to do is just out-wait Yitzhak, and then the full blessing will pass to him?
Anyway, when Avraham comes down the mountain with Yitzhak, Eliezer is back where he started: disinherited, but continuing to serve as the majordomo for Avraham’s estate. And then come the events of this week’s parsha. Avraham not only makes Eliezer take a vow, he does so in a highly personal way (putting their hands under each others’ “thighs”), and regarding what?
Eliezer has to go find the wife for Yitzhak to make sure that his lineage will continue. Avraham specifically made Eliezer the instrument of his own disinheritance.
And what does Eliezer do? He collects more information about what’s precisely required from Avraham, making sure that his instructions are clear, and then prays for Divine assistance – even to the point of giving God conditions – so that he’ll recognize the signs that God sends.
And what happens after that? He faithfully proceeds to carry out Avraham’s wishes.
This is remarkable – the modern day analogue here is a person who is laid off being asked to train his or her replacement and then does an awesome job of it. I know for myself, that wouldn’t feel too good – it would be an extra kick when I was down.
So why is this here? What are we supposed to be learning from this example?
Let’s take a look at what Antignos of Sokho says in Pirkei Avot (1:3):
“Be not like the slaves who serve the master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like the slaves who serve the master not for the sake of receiving a reward – and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.”
I must confess that for a long time, I didn’t really grasp that verse – I couldn’t see how you could truly serve God without being influenced by the promise of God’s blessing for obedience and good conduct, but right here in front of me was an example of precisely how to do that exact thing.
When Rivka sees Yitzhak in the field, many commentators discuss her dismounting as a sign of various positive attributes, but largely unnoticed is the fact that Eliezer at that point refers to Yitzhak as “my master.” Up until that point, he had used the term to refer to Avraham. By this subtle transference of authority, Eliezer demonstrates that his service is not merely to an individual – even to the holiest of holy men – but rather, his service is to the Jewish people.
Eliezer serves Avraham and Yitzhak in exactly the manner described in Pirkei Avot: loyally, faithfully, even to the point of self-abnegation. We too can endeavor to serve God in the same way – loyally and faithfully, even when our own interests must be overridden. May we have the strength and merit to put God’s will before our own, even when it is personally difficult.