Chayei Sara: Talk of Patriarchs’ Servants

Chayei Sara: Talk of Patriarchs’ Servants

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

Our previous study of this sidra was devoted to the significance of the character test to which Rebecca was submitted by Abraham’s servant. We noted the qualities of compassion and goodness to all human creatures, reflected in her act of offering to water the camels. This time we shall confine our attention to the activities and words of the servant, and note how admirably he fulfilled the mission with which he was charged.

The Torah relates, with a surprising wealth of detail, every action of the servant in chapter 24 till verse 26. His experiences are recapitulated (the conversation with Abraham, his prayer at the well, his meeting with Rebecca, her reaction, and the presentation of the bracelets) in the form of his report to Rebeca’s family in verse 35 to 48 of the same chapter. This lengthy and seemingly superfluous recapitulation has excited the comment of many of our expositors. In view of the Torah’s sparing use of words and avoidance of every unnecessary repetition, even the addition or subtraction of a letter, it is surprising, that we do not meet here with the brief note that the servant related to them all that had occirred, as is, indeed, the case when he returns home

And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. (24, 26)

The Torah must have obviously had a very special reason for recording the servant’s recapitulation of his experiences. Our sages commented on his unusual repetitiveness in the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 60,11) as follows;

Said R. Aha: The table-talk of the servants of the patriarchs’ households is more notable (literally: beautiful) than the scripture (Torah) of their descendants. Eliezer’s story is recorded and recapitulated, taking up to three pages, whereas one of the fundamental rulings of the Torah, to the effect that the blood of a creeping thing defiles in the same way as its flesh, is only known to us through the superfluity of one letter in the Scriptures (i.e., we deduce the principle that the blood of a creeping thing defiles from th superfluous word the in the verse literally translated as: these also shall be into you the unclean among the creeping things (Leviticus 11,29).

 

The Story The Recapitulation

  1. And the Lord had blessed Abraham 35. And the Lord hath blessed …
    in all things. greatly; and he is become great: and He hath given him flocks, and herds, and silver, and gold, and men -servants, and maidservants, and camels, and asses.
  2. And I will make thee swear 37. And my master made me by the Lord, the God of heaven, swear, saying. and the God of the earth.
  3. That thou shall not take a wife Thou shall not take a wife unto my son of the daughters to my son of the daughters
    of the Canaanites, among whom of the Canaanites, in whose land I dwell;
  4. But thou shall go unto my counry, But thou shall go unto my and to my birthplace. father’s house. And take a wife onto my son Isaac. And take a wife unto my son.
  5. Peradventure the woman will not be 39. Peradventure the woman willing to follow me. unto this land:
    Must I needs bring thy son again unto the land from whence thou comest?
  6. The Lord of heaven, which took 40. The Lord before whom me from my father’s house, and I walk, from the land of my birth, and which spake unto me…
  7. He shall send His angels with thee, And thou shalt take a wife unto a wife for my son from thence. kindred, and of my father’s house:
  8. Only bring not my son thither again.
  9. O Lord God of my master Abraham, send me good speed Abraham, if now thou do this day, and shew kindness prosper my way which I unto my master Abraham. And she shall say, Both drink thou, and I will give thy camels drink also: will also draw for thy let the same be she that Thou camels; let the same be the hast appointed for thy servant Lord hath appointed out for Isaac: and thereby shall I know my master’s son.that thou hast showed kindness unto my master.

    15. And it came to pass before he 45. And before I had done
    had done speaking. Speaking in mine heart,

    17. And said, Let me, I pray thee, 45. And I said unto her, Let me drink a little water of thy pitcher, I pray thee.

    18. And she said, Drink, my Lord. And she hastened and let down down her pitcher from her hand, and shoulder, and said, Drink, and gave him drink.

    19. And when she had done And I will give thy camels
    him drink, she said, I will draw drink also:

    for thy camels also, until they

    have done drinking.

    And she hasted, and emptied her So I drank, and she made

    pitcher into the trough, and ran the camels drink also.

    again …to draw water, and drew

    for all his camels.

    22. And it came to pass. And I asked her, and said:
    camels had done drinking, that Whose daughter art thou?

    the man took a golden ring… And she said the daughter

    and two bracelets fro her hands of Bethuel…

    of ten shekels weight of gold.

    23. And said, Whose daughter art And I put the ring upon her
    thou? tell me, I pray thee: is nose and the bracelets upon there room in thy father’s house her hands. for us to lodge in?

    26. And the man bowed down his 48. And I bowed down my head,
    head, and worshipped the Lord. and worshipped the Lord,

    And he said, Blessed be the Lord and blessed the Lord God

    God of my master Abraham, by my master Abraham.

    who hath not left destitute my which had led me in the

    master of his mercy and his truth: right way to take my

    I being in the way, the Lord led master’s brother’s daughter

    me to the house of my master’s unto his son.

    brethren.

    Our classic commentators from Talmudic times onwards, incliding such great medieval exegetes as Rashi and Ramban, right down to Malbim and the Netziv in Haamek Davar in the last century made a point of explaining the significance of the variations, both great and small between these two accounts. We have the servant’s longer elaboration at the beginning of his report to Rebecca’s family in order to emphasise Abraham’s wealth , the glossing over of the differences in faith between Abraham and his family in Haran reflected in the omission of phrase the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the God of the earth which would not be appreciated in Laban’s circles (verse 3 and verse 37). We may note the emphasis given to Abraham’s command to find a wife for his son from among his father’s house, a sentiment which was not at all uttered by Abraham, (cf. Verses 39 and 5), and finally the change in order on regard to the asking of the girl’s name and the giving of the presents. This latter change is noted in Rashi on verse 47:

    And I asked and I put he changed the order, for in reality, he first gave the presents and afterwards asked, but he did so, so that they should not catch him out and say: How did you give her before you knew who she was?

    Isaac Arama in his Akedat Yitzhak goes into more detail:

    Previously the servant had emphasised that he came on a special mission to Abraham’s family, preferring them above all other people for his son. If he would have said that presented the ring to Rebecca before he even knew to which family she belonged, this would have contradicted his previous assertion, since a man will not just give his valuables away to no purpose. Presumably, since he gave them to just any woman, they must have been given as marriage gifts. This is what Rashi referred to when he stated that Eliezer was afraid they would catch him out.

    The variations referrde to above and many others reveal the wonderful judgement, discretion and devotion of Abraham’s servant in carrying out his mission, until he brought it to a successful conclusion. No better evidence of his success can be cited than the very words of his listeners after hearing his persuasive eloquence:

     

    The matter stems from the Lord:
    we cannot speak unto thee bad or good

     

    Behold Rebecca is before thee,
    take her, and go,
    and let her be thy master’s son’s wife,
    as the Lord hath spoken. (24, 50, 51)

     

    had the Torah rested content with a brief phrase to the effect that the servant related to Rebecca’s family all that had befallen him, we would not have been apprised of the measure of his devotion and abilities in carrying out his master’s commands. To this our sages referrde when they stated the table-talk of the servants of the Patriarch’s households is more notable…