Chayei Sarah: When the point of view makes the story real!
We finished last week’s Torah Portion, Vayera, talking about the place God and faith have in our lives and how they can and should affect our deeds. Chayei Sarah (“Sarah’s Life”) encompasses 4 stories: death of Sarah and buying the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, finding a wife for Isaac, Abraham’s new/last chapter in life, and the life of Ishmael.
This is a portion full of happenings, but a certain figure in it sheds a new light on Torah. This figure is the servant of Abraham, later referred to by our sages as Eliezer, who goes out on a search for a wife for Isaac. What is it that makes him so special?
Eliezer is like a character in a play. The descriptions of his dialogues – with Abraham, with God, with Rebecca, with her family and finally with Isaac – could have provided us with enough material for a full soap opera!
2. And Abraham said to his servant, the elder of his house, who ruled over all that was his, “Please place your hand under my thigh.
3. And I will adjure you by the Lord, the God of the heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose midst I dwell.
4. But you shall go to my land and to my birthplace, and you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac.”
The conversation continues and Abraham stresses that while he wants a bride for his son from his birthplace, Isaac must not move to that land. And so Eliezer leaves the conversation slightly worried that he might not manage, yet committed (sworn) to search for a wife to Isaac.
Eliezer arrives at his destination stressed out, wanting to find and to choose the right person, asking God to help him, to give him a sign.
And he arrives at the well of water and turns to God again – do me a favor, help my master Abraham… And he tells himself – all the girls of the city will come to draw water from the well, I will ask one of them to let me drink and if she gives water to me and offers more for the camels I shall know that this is the right girl. He has not finished speaking when Rebecca shows up, and just like he was hoping – she gives water to all! Eliezer stands silent for a moment, thanking God, who in his experience was full partner in this event. Excitedly he gives Rebecca several presents! Say… who are your parents?
Can we possibly stay at your place for the night?
And she answers – “I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.” and yes, you can stay with us!
Eliezer immediately bows and thanks God!! And here we see the start of the “twist” coming up in the story: “”Blessed is the Lord, the God of my master, Abraham, Who has not forsaken His loving kindness and His truth from my master. As for me, the Lord led me on the road to the house of my master’s kinsmen.””
Rebecca is of Abraham’s brother’s family, and on that moment her family association becomes an inseparable part of the mission.
Eliezer is received very nicely in Rebecca’s house and requests not to eat before they can talk.
I am servant of Abraham. Since my master left (Torah Portion Lech Lecha, remember?) he’s done very well. He and his wife now have a son to whom Abraham gave all that he possesses. And Eliezer continues and tells:
37. And my master adjured me, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I dwell.
38. Instead, you must go to my father’s house and to my family, and take a wife for my son.’
…40. And he said to me, ‘The Lord, before Whom I walked, will send His angel with you and make your way prosper, and you shall take a wife for my son from my family and from my father’s house.
41. You will then be absolved from my oath, when you come to my family, and if they do not give [her] to you, you will be absolved from my oath.’
Here the story is different! Abraham never mentioned to Eliezer his family and his father’s house. And it is this important conceptual difference which tells us about story-telling and about “truth”.
Eliezer continues to tell: I was standing by the well, asking God to help. I barely finished thinking (praying) and Rebecca showed up, I asked her for water and she gave both me and the camels!
48. … and I blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, Who led me on the true path, to take the daughter of my master’s brother for his son.
In Eliezer’s story, as well as in his own perception, the meeting with Rebecca has become God-led. And see the way this gets expressed in the family’s answer to Eliezer:
50. And Laban and Bethuel answered and said, “The matter has emanated from the Lord. We cannot speak to you either bad or good.
51. Behold Rebecca is before you, take [her] and go, and let her be a wife for your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.”
As the Lord has spoken? But God never said anything! At least not the way we’ve seen Him talk so far…
But the family adopted the story, and it was not a lie that they adopted, but they accepted a truth…
Eliezer takes Rebecca and they travel to Isaac.
64. And Rebecca lifted her eyes, and saw Isaac, and she let herself down from the camel.
65. And she said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field towards us?” And the servant said, “He is my master.” And she took the veil and covered herself.
66. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done.
67. And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for [the loss of] his mother.
Eliezer tells the story again! Except this time it is not explicitly written.
Our Sages talk a lot about the differences between the stories, nevertheless I won’t spare you from my own reading.
We can start by acknowledging the premise that the servant of Abraham does his work faithfully; he is completely devoted to helping his master as he was told. We witness his dialogues, and we see the development of an incredible thing we haven’t met in Torah before. Eliezer, the “insignificant” servant starts his own channel of communication with God, without intermediaries, without big words, it’s him and the God of Abraham who actually becomes his own God. Yet God doesn’t speak the way He spoke to Abraham…
You can misunderstand Eliezer and say that supposedly when he approaches Rebecca’s family he lies! But saying this would be so unjust and so wrong! Eliezer is deeply engaged with his mission, he expresses the spirit and distress of his master, understands with whom he is speaking, and speaks from his heart! There is nothing there besides honesty.
When we hold the book in our hands the differences in the text stand out, but life is not as clear.
Stories and conversations always contain many layers which can’t be diminished into the words we use to write the story down.
Eliezer doesn’t knowingly divert from the “truth”, he lives the story! He tells it in accordance with his own experience and the place he is at, not as a lie, this is just the way we tell stories. Ortega Y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher of the 19th-20th centuries, says a brilliant sentence: “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” – I am myself and my circumstances. I (human being) can’t be separate of my circumstances (the world).
It is a common question among different Jews – what is authentic? Which practice, which reading, which interpretation? I want to argue that what makes something “authentic” is our engagement and referring to it in “first person”. When we are capable to “apply” our own circumstances to the story, we get away from empty and meaningless repetition, we leave the “fake” (even if it looks familiar), and at the same time we feed the story with life, relevance and spirit.
We see how Eliezer in his story transmits his own faith and enthusiasm to Rebecca’s family. When Eliezer meets Isaac, the mourning man, who has a pretty complicated relationship with his father, we also see that probably thanks to the story he tells him Isaac accepts Rebecca with love.
No doubt, something in Eliezer’s ability to tell the story opens Sha’arei Ratzon – the gates of goodwill – he is authentic, he is real, because he allows himself to just be himself.
An additional aspect to this comes from the fact that Torah, unlike our sages, actually “lives in peace” with the different stories. Why? Contrary to us, who often tend to be quite “textual” and mono-dimensional, Torah is able to contain multiplicity. Interpreting and letting our own circumstances affect the story would be to take a risk. However, without taking this risk we would be putting Torah under risk of extinction. Torah in this portion implies that we should read the story with commitment and faith and that we should connect to it, but not by self-deprecation, as we learned in Parashat Vayera talking about the Binding of Isaac, but rather by creating a dialogue, conducting a search. Through the challenge to make the story our own we reveal the layers of Torah. Because the truth of the Torah, its authenticity, are not in the written lines; they are in what happens when we tell the story from our heart.