Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Mystery surrounds the search for Yitzchak’s wife.
Although the rabbis identify the servant sent by Avraham to Aram Naharaim as Eliezer, he is not mentioned by name in the text at all. Instead, two terms are used interchangeably throughout the narrative to describe the anonymous envoy: eved, “servant,” and ish, “man.”
Why does the Torah fail to identify Eliezer in his central role in this pivotal event?
What is the significance of the seemingly interchangeable terms eved and ish in the narrative, and why does the Torah text fluctuate between the two?
The mystery of Eliezer’s “absence” from the text raises a series of tantalizing possibilities within rabbinic literature.
Some authorities actually suggest that the omission of Eliezer’s name reflects a fundamental ambivalence on the servant’s part concerning the possible success of his mission. At some level, Eliezer may well have hoped that he would fail.
Until the birth of Yishmael and Yitzchak, Eliezer was the heir apparent to Avraham’s wealth and spiritual legacy. This fact is reflected in Avraham’s own complaint to God: “And the controller of my home is Eliezer of Damascus.”
Eliezer, say these scholars, still harbored a hope that he would somehow be Avraham’s heir. He even believed that if his journey to find a wife for Yitzchak ended in failure Avraham would consider a marriage between Yitzchak and Eliezer’s own daughter.
The Midrashic tradition of Eliezer’s ambivalence reminds us that the Torah narrative reflects the lives of real individuals in complex situations. Avraham’s servant could well have patiently guarded his own personal aspirations over years of faithful service to his master, only to find those very aspirations now threatened by a mission in which he is to play the pivotal role. The Midrash thus adds a poignant and complex human twist to a familiar biblical tale.
Whatever the truth concerning Eliezer’s intentions, however, the textual evidence is clear. This faithful servant responds to Avraham’s wishes completely and without hesitation.
Perhaps the Torah omits Eliezer’s name from the narrative to demonstrate the total sublimation of his personal aspirations as he fulfils his respected master’s will. He is, in this tale, truly and completely the nameless servant of Avraham.
More significant, perhaps, than the omission of Eliezer’s name in the narrative is the seemingly arbitrary alternation between two terms in the Torah’s description of the messenger sent by Avraham. At times the envoy is referred to as an eved, “servant,” and at times as an ish, “man.”
While this linguistic fluctuation might seem inconsequential, a careful review of the narrative reveals, once again, that no word in the Torah text should ever be taken for granted. By alternating between these two terms, the Torah creates a subtle pattern which courses beneath the surface of this tale. Once revealed, this pattern chronicles significant changes in Eliezer’s role as his mission progresses.
Eliezer’s journey can be divided into three major sections. During the first, he receives instructions from Avraham, agrees to carry them out, travels to Aram Naharaim, prays to God for success and devises a test by which a wife will be chosen for Yitzchak. Throughout these steps he is consistently referred to as Avraham’s eved, “servant.”
Suddenly, however, Eliezer’s efforts are blessed with success. Rivka appears and passes her test, and the second phase of Eliezer’s mission begins. The servant is now in uncharted territory. He has come to the point where he no longer has clear instructions from his master telling him what to do. On-the-spot decisions now must made. Serious diplomatic skill will have to be brought to bear as he enters into active negotiations with Rivka’s family. Personal initiative and inventiveness will be required if his delicate mission is to be blessed with success.
As Eliezer moves into this new, autonomous arena, the Torah no longer refers to him as an eved, “servant.” He is now ha’ish, “the man.” He has become an independent operator who must move beyond the instructions he has received if he is to succeed in fulfilling his mission.
Evidence of Eliezer’s new role can be clearly seen in the text as the envoy repeats Avraham’s messages to Rivka’s family. The Abravanel enumerates no less than ten substantive changes between Avraham’s instructions to Eliezer and the way the servant repeats those instructions to Rivka’s family. Other commentaries also illuminate additional variations.
This is one of a number of instances where the Torah repeats a conversation or an event. As we have noted before, such repetition serves as a red flag and challenges us to compare the two versions before us. The differences that emerge are invariably meaningful and instructive.
While each variation in Eliezer’s dialogue warrants its own study and explanation, an overall pattern begins to surface. Eliezer changes his master’s very words in order to make the messages more palatable to his audience. To cite a few examples:
|1. “You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell.”||1. “You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose land I dwell.”|
|2. “Go to my land and to my birthplace and take a wife for my son Yitzchak.”||2. “…to the home of my father shall you go and to my family and you shall take a wife for my son.”|
|3. “He [God] shall send His angel before you and you shall take a wife for my son from there.”||3. “[God] shall send His angel with you…and you shall take a wife for my son from my family and from the home of my father.”|
The differences between Eliezer’s words and Avraham’s words are extremely telling.
Avraham has successfully fulfilled God’s commandment of Lech Lecha and has effectively severed his connection with his past. Canaan is now his land and he no longer refers to his family as his family at all.
Eliezer, on the other hand, correctly perceives Avraham’s severance with the past as an insult to the patriarch’s family. He therefore alters the text of Avraham’s message to suit the situation.
Eliezer’s diplomacy is revealed through his words as the Torah testifies not only to his loyalty but to his initiative, as well. He has truly been transformed from a servant into a man.
The tale, however, does not end there. As soon as Rivka’s brother and father agree to her union with Yitzchak, the Torah states, “And the servant took out jewelry of silver and gold…”
Eliezer’s brief transformation into an ish has ended and from this point in the narrative onward he will be referred to once again as an eved. His diplomatic initiative behind him, he is again Avraham’s servant, fulfilling the specific instructions of his master as he brings his mission to a close.
Points to Ponder
Through the use of specific words the Torah transforms the simple story of a servant on a mission into the poignant tale of a man with his own conflicting dreams and responsibilities.
On the one hand, Eliezer emerges as the most faithful of servants, enshrined in our history as an example of fealty and devotion. Living at a time when servitude was commonplace, he had the good fortune not only to serve a benevolent master but to play an important role in the unfolding story of the Jewish nation.
At the same time, however, who knows what personal dreams may have remained unrealized? For a moment, as his story unfolds, Eliezer reveals initiative and talents until this point unexplored.
In a different situation, at a different time, given other opportunities, who knows what kind of “man” this “servant” would have been?
A final possibility is hinted at by a Midrashic tradition which suggests that Eliezer was actually the son of the powerful and corrupt hunter and ruler, Nimrod. One can only imagine the possibilities for personal advancement that must have confronted the heir to Nimrod’s throne; and yet, Eliezer becomes Avraham’s servant.
Is it possible that Eliezer’s servitude is a matter of personal choice? Does this biblical figure make the conscious decision to live by the rabbinic dictum verbalized centuries later, “Be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes?” Faced with the possibility of ruling over an immoral domain, does Eliezer instead put personal ambition aside and deliberately choose servitude to a great man?
If so, Eliezer sets a quiet example of private sacrifice, nobility of service and dedication to society, concepts so sorely missing in our “me first” world.