Monday, October 29, 2007

Tiferes Yonasan - Chaye Sarah

From the very beginning humans were expected to expend effort to attain their goals. When G-d created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, He commanded them to “Work it and to guard it” (Genesis 2; 15). Even though everything was provided for them they were expected to earn their keep.

In our Torah reading it is surprising to find that Yitzchak seems to make no effort to find himself a wife, but relies on his father to appoint someone as matchmaker for him. Furthermore, when Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, arrives in Padan Aram he also makes no effort to find the suitable match, but tells G-d to show him the object of his quest. Comparing his actions with those of Ya’akov, when he arrives in Padan Aram, highlight the failure of Eliezer to make an effort to find Yitzchak’s prospective bride. Ya’akov arrives (ibid. 29), and ascertains that he has reached his destination, then begins asking questions about Lavan and his family, to try and find who his bride should be. When he sees Rachel he realises that she is to be his partner without having to make tests for her. Eliezer on the other hand simply tethers his camels, and tells G-d to do the rest.

Though we are supposed to have faith and trust in G-d, total reliance on Him is an abdication of responsibility, and a failure to take up his role as a partner in the activity going on around us. In fact the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 60) criticises Eliezer for his request, which is described as improper.

Eliezer is described by the Torah as Damesek (Genesis 15; 2), which the Talmud (Yoma 28b) understands as a contraction of the phrase Doleh U’Mashkeh, ‘drawing water and giving to drink’. This describes his relationship with Avraham, that Eliezer is able to take the Torah which Avraham teaches, and disseminate it to the masses. However, the one thing that Eliezer is unable to do is initiate creative thought, or transmit his own teachings. He seems to be totally incapable of acting on his own.

Halachically we say that a non-Jewish slave does not own anything, anything he has belongs to his master. Eliezer seems to have taken that to the extreme that even his thoughts are not his own. In fact the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 59; 8) tells us that he even looked like Avraham - he had completely lost any independent identity.
This is why Avraham sent Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak. He was faced with a dilemma. Yitzchak was not permitted to leave the Land of Israel, for only a wife who would be prepared to leave her family and customs, and come to Israel (as Avraham and Sarah had done) would be a suitable matriarch for the new nation. He could not take a wife from the local population, because Avraham knew that the continuation of the nation would be through the children of Terach. However, he had to find a wife to ensure the promised continuation of the fledgling Jewish nation. Though we are normally expected to do everything that we can to help ourselves, and may not rely solely on G-d, when faced with the impossible we have no option but to place our trust solely in G-d.

Having reached that point, any action that we would take could only be counterproductive. Before setting out on his journey, Eliezer checks whether there is any ‘backup’ plan for finding Yitzchak a wife. “Perhaps this woman shall not wish to follow me to this land...? Avraham answered him ... G-d will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there”. (Genesis 24; 5-7). Upon realising that there is no option but to rely on G-d, Eliezer does precisely that. Perhaps this is the reason that Avraham did not embark on this journey himself, but sent his trusted servant. Maybe he was concerned lest his personal emotional involvement prevent him from seeing the hand of G-d as clearly.

Yitzchak himself epitomised total trust and faith in G-d. Though Avraham was faced with a true test of his faith when G-d told him to offer his son on Mount Moriah, Yitzchak had already reached a level of faith where his only concern was that perhaps he would involuntarily flinch as the knife was placed on his throat, and invalidate the offering. In a sense he remained bound on the altar for the rest of his life, so totally dependent upon G-d that he had no need to be personally involved in planing his own future.

This total dependence and reliance on G-d is a high level to aspire to, which is not attained by most. The Talmud (Brachot 35b) records an argument between Rabbi Yishmael, who says that the verse “This Torah shall not depart from you mouth day or night” (Joshua 1; 8) only applies when one is not involved in earning a livelihood. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai maintains that if a person acts in accordance with G-d’s wishes, their work will be done for them by others. Abaye concludes “Many people acted in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, and they succeeded. There were those who followed Rabbi Shimon’s opinion, and they did not succeed.”

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