Sunday, October 28, 2007

Parshat Chaye Sarah 2

In this week’s Torah reading Avraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Yitzchak. What is surprising is that the Torah not only relates the events surrounding Eliezer’s journey, but also repeats the whole story almost verbatim when Eliezer tells Rivka’s family what has happened. The Torah is normally concerned not to waste a single letter, and yet here we find whole paragraphs seemingly for no purpose.

Rashi addresses this question with his comment (Genesis 24; 42) “Rabbi Acha said: The speech of the servants of the forefathers is dearer to G-d than the Torah of their children, because we see that the section of Eliezer is repeated in the Torah, whereas many of the essential laws are [not even written in the Torah explicitly but are] only hinted at.” Rashi points out that this whole section appears to be redundant, but how are we to understand the answer? Why should G-d choose to prefer the story of Eliezer over the laws that will govern our lives?

Indeed this implies a more fundamental issue, namely, what is the purpose and function of the Bible? Is it a historical narrative or is it a code of law? Rashi’s very first comment on the Torah is: Rabbi Yitzchak said “The Torah should have begun with [the verse] ‘This month will be for you the first month’ (Exodus 12; 2), which was the first commandment given to the Jews....” In other words it would have made more sense for the Torah to have been purely a book of law, and not have included all the stories of creation and the patriarchs. Rashi’s answers that though these sections contain no legal codes, nevertheless we can learn from them moral and ethical behaviour, based on G-d’s creation of the world, and the actions of the forefathers.

Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt”l (Mishnas Aharon p. 132) explains why Eliezer’s search for a wife for Yitzchak deserves more space in the Torah than many of the laws and commandments. He explains that the principles by which Halacha can be deduced and derived from the text of the Torah were handed down by G-d to Moshe at Mount Sinai. Therefore even when there are few words explicitly in the text, it is a comparatively simple exercise to apply the hermeneutic principles and learn the details of each Halacha.

However there is another area of law which is more complicated, that is referred to by the Rabbis as Hilchot Derech Eretz (literally: laws of the way of the world). This is the way in which a person relates and interacts with his or her surroundings, and how they behave with other people. This is the part of Halacha which cannot be derived from merely reading books, or applying principles, but depends upon insight into human nature and the ways of the world. It requires years of serving experienced Rabbis (Shimush Talmidei Chachamim) and gaining a feel for reality. This is where the dry laws become real life, and turns the Torah into a relevant code for daily living. These laws are much harder to understand, they depend on the background of the person involved, and the details of the situation. No two decisions should ever be the same, reflecting the infinite variety of experience and life. It is these concepts which we can glimpse through the story of Eliezer and the repetition of his tale.

The Talmud (Avoda Zara 25a) alludes to this in understanding Yehoshua’s words “Is it not written in the Book of Yashar” (Joshua 10; 13). It explains that this refers to the book of Genesis, the book of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov who were the Yasharim (upright) of the world. They were upright in their actions and character traits, and from them we can learn how to relate to our environment and to other people.
From this story of Eliezer we learn the concepts of faith and trust in G-d. We also see that someone who sets out to do perform G-d’s will receives special help from heaven. Furthermore, we can derive the special qualities of the mothers of the nation, and also see the attributes that should be sought after in a spouse. From Eliezer’s encounter with Lavan and Bethuel we see how to interact with people who do not have the same goals and values as us. We see Eliezer’s modesty, and learn that we should not present ourselves as anything other than we are.

Eliezer himself also gained a clearer understanding of his own biases and personal prejudices from retelling the story and reviewing what happened. When he set out he asked Avraham what he should do if the prospective wife refused to return to Canaan to marry Yitzchak. Later he realises that he was hoping that his own daughter would be a suitable match for Yitzchak, and was looking for an excuse to avoid finding him another candidate. We too can learn from here that reflecting and reviewing our action can often lead to a better understanding of who we are, and what motives underlie our actions.

This is why the conversations of the servants of the forefathers are dearer than the laws of the children, for from their actions and words we can learn how to apply the rest of the laws. Hilchot Derech Eretz brings the religion alive. Without it none of the laws are worth much, as they have no application in our lives.

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