Who Was Eliezer?
Question #1: Who
Who was the greatest talmid chacham in history to have been born in Syria?
Question #2: Was
Was Eliezer a tzadik or a rosha? What difference does it make to us?
Question #3: Eliezer?
What halachos do we derive from Eliezer’s actions?
The Jewish community of Syria has been home to some of the greatest gedolei Yisroel the world has ever known, such as Rav Chayim Vital, the primary disciple of the Arizal and the source of virtually all our knowledge of the Arizal’s kabbalistic teachings. Rav Chayim’s son, Rav Shmuel Vital, the major conduit of kabbalistic teaching in his day, lived most of his life in Damascus. And yet, for most of its Jewish history, Damascus has played less prominence than its northwestern neighbor, Aleppo, famed as Aram Tzovah, home of generations of gedolei Yisroel. And these two Jewish communities, which share a massive diaspora spreading from Argentina, through Panama, Mexico, New Jersey, New York, and Jerusalem, are only two of the major Torah communities that once thrived in the northern part of the Levant. At one time in history, there were literally hundreds of proud Jewish communities scattered throughout what are today Syria, Lebanon, Kurdistan, and southern Turkey; each was justifiably proud of its own minhagim, Jewish traditions and Torah scholars; each had its own Jewish language or dialect.
But this discussion is taking us afield from today’s topic. One of the greatest individuals who hailed from Syria to have walked the face of the earth may have been Eliezer, Avraham’s servant. In its only reference to any personal data about him, the Torah calls him Eliezer the Damascene. (By the way, the chief rabbinate position there, once a highly coveted post, is unfilled at the moment, should you happen to know someone looking for a rabbinical post with a prestigious history.)
The Midrash Rabbah explains that Eliezer was in total control of himself, meaning that he was a highly spiritual individual, a big tzadik, who had mastered his yeitzer hora, his personal inclination to do evil. To quote the midrash, “Eliezer ruled over himself on the same level that Avraham ruled over himself” (Bereishis Rabbah 59:8; see also Yerushalmi Berachos 9:5; Shir Hashirim Rabbah 3:5). The Gemara’s description of Eliezer certainly sustains this impression of his personal greatness. In Yoma (28b), the Gemara describes him as an elder who spent his unoccupied time studying in the yeshivah.
This statement is even more unusual, in that we have a general rule that a gentile is forbidden to study Torah, and, if he does so, he is chayov misah, understood to mean that he will incur the punishment of misah bidei shamayim, a premature death (see Tosafos, Yevamos 2a s.v. Va’achos). Presumably, because Eliezer lived before the Torah was given to the Jewish people, his achieving massive Torah scholarship is viewed favorably by Chazal.
The same passage of Gemara creates a drosha on the reference to him as a Damascene, Damasek. The Gemara explains the word to mean that Eliezer “ladled” liberally from the Torah of Avraham and taught others. In other words, not only was he a regular participant in the yeshivah’s Torah discussions, he was a lecturer and a meishiv in the yeshivah, what we would call a ra’m (rosh mesivta) in the greatest yeshivah of his era, that was established by Avraham Avinu and attended by his disciples. Without question, this Gemara bills him as the greatest Torah scholar in history to have hailed from Syria. Prior to the birth of his sons, who does Avraham consider his worthy heir, as he tells Hashem in parshas Lech Lecha (Bereishis 15:2)? According to Chazal, who accompanies Avraham and Yitzchak on their way to the Akeidah? This is the individual whom Avraham employed to find a shidduch for his cherished son Yitzchak, and for virtually all his endeavors. And whom does Avraham use as his lieutenant commander, when he fields his army to save his nephew Lot?
Germane to this war, the posuk says that Avraham had 318 men in his army when he went to fight the victorious, powerful and world-conquering four armies of Kedorla’omer (Bereishis 14:14). The Gemara (Nedarim 32a) notes that the gematriya of the word Eliezer is 318. Based on this hermeneutical source, the Gemara interprets that Avraham Avinu’s winning battalions contained only two soldiers – Avraham and Eliezer. In other words, Avraham and Eliezer vanquished the Kedorla’omer dragon with the archetypical, traditional Jewish army of only generals and no soldiers. I will continue to explain this midrash later, but, for our purposes now, suffice it to say that this demonstrates Eliezer’s tzidkus and his level of faith and confidence in the Almighty. Who else would attack an army with only one associate, particularly if that associate’s commanding officer is so well-trained and experienced in military tactics as Avraham?
Eliezer is referred to as the “elder of Avraham’s household, who rules over all that he owns.” He was a fully trusted, senior manager of all of Avraham’s property, including all his employees, his servants and slaves. Eliezer was what we would call the CEO or COO of Avraham’s extensive business and personal holdings.
How wealthy was Avraham? Chazal tell us that he owned the entire world (Bereishis Rabbah, 43, 5 and Shemos Rabbah 15, 8). That Avraham entrusts all his worldly possessions to Eliezer reflects one of two things: either that Avraham has little concern for his physical property – he realizes that “you can’t take it with you” — or, alternatively, Avraham has such confidence in Eliezer’s total commitment to fulfill what Avraham asks that he trusts Eliezer completely and has no need to verify what is done. (The likelihood is that both of these factors are true.) History is replete with individuals who were given this amount of trust, and employers and rulers who learned to regret this decision. But not Avraham…
This incredible tzadik, Eliezer, was then given virtually complete control over the most important matter in Avraham’s life. Avraham has a son, born when his parents are quite aged and, therefore, almost certainly destined for early-orphaned status. Avraham defies all odds and is still alive and alert to direct Yitzchak’s shidduch search.
Yitzchak will clearly continue Avraham’s legacy, that to which he has devoted his entire life. Yitzchak follows in his father’s footsteps perfectly, and even looks exactly like his father, notwithstanding that Avraham is his senior by one hundred years [until Avraham requests that his appearance reflect his age] (Bava Metzia 87a).
For Yitzchak to fulfill his legacy, he needs a wife capable of being his life’s partner, one who can proudly and boldly challenge the entire world. To quote Chazal, Avraham is called “ha’ivri,” not because he descended from the great Torah scholar and Rosh Yeshivah, Eiver, and also not because he was the original “Hebrew,” but because he stood alone opposed to the values of the entire world at his time. As Chazal express it, the entire world stood on one side and Avraham on the other. This mission can be continued only by Yitzchak, who must have descendants devoted to the family business, and for this he needs a wife appropriate to her role.
Who gets entrusted with making sure that this legacy will be perpetuated? Eliezer. Yet, it seems that Eliezer should be the least likely candidate for the position. As Rashi notes, he himself has a daughter for whom he is desperately trying to find an appropriate shidduch – and, to Eliezer, Yitzchak appears as the perfect shidduch! This sounds like the classic case of appointing a fox to guard the chicken coop!
Why is Avraham sending someone to carry out a difficult assignment, when this agent has a vested interest in its collapse? Furthermore, Avraham provides Eliezer with an excuse for failure of the mission – a claim, verified or not, that he located an appropriate girl, but she refused to travel with a group of unknown men, preferring that her suitor come for her. Is this not the accepted approach in all societies until modern times, and, certainly, the seemingly most appropriate and tzeniyus-dik way to do things?!
Tzadik or rosha?
At this point, let us discuss the second of our opening questions: “Was Eliezer a tzadik or a rosha?”
How can we even ask such a question? Did we not already demonstrate that he was one of the greatest tzadikim of all time!
This brings to mind a criticism leveled at Rabbi Akiva, who identified the mekosheish (the person who violated the laws of Shabbos – Bamidbar 15:32) as Tzelofchad, even though the Torah does not mention his name.: “Akiva, either way, you will be punished in the future. If you are correct, the Torah hid this information and you are revealing it. If you are wrong, you are libeling that tzadik” (Shabbos 96b).
Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer
This criticism can be leveled equally at Rabbi Akiva’s great rebbe, the tanna,Rabbi Eliezer ben Harkinus (no relation to Eliezer of Damascus, our protagonist). Although several passages of Gemara and numerous midrashim indicate that Eliezer was an incredible tzadik, we find other midrashim that provide a very different perspective about Eliezer, painting him in a very nasty way. The primary midrash source for this latter approach is Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (Chapter 15 ff.), which states that Eliezer was quite evil and was rewarded with much respect and access to wealth as Avraham’s right-hand man in order to receive recompense for his good deeds in this world, leaving his nefariousness deeds to be punished in the next!
Is this not strange? Where else do we find such a major dispute regarding whether a Tanach personality was righteous or evil? Even regarding Noach, about whom we find two disputing approaches in Chazal, all agree that he was a “great tzadik in his generations.” Since Noach performed some questionable acts, Chazal dispute whether to interpret the term, “in his generations” as a compliment, or as a limiting factor: considering the generations in which he lived, he was, indeed, relatively speaking, a great tzadik, but would not have been considered anything unusual had he lived during Avraham Avinu’s(and Eliezer’s) era, when there were such great tzadikim.
Regarding Eliezer, the fact is that no posuk describes him as a tzadik. He is clearly a very devoted servant, and the level of trust placed in him by Avraham implies that Eliezer is a very righteous individual. However, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer implies that, although trusted by Avraham, Eliezer had major personal faults. We might want to compare him to Do’eig, Achitofel or Elisha ben Avuyah, all of whom were great Torah scholars, but whose shortcomings led them to become major sinners.
Let me complete the second of our opening questions. What difference does it make to us whether Eliezer was a tzadik or a rosha? In other words, is there a practical difference whether one or the other of Chazal’s interpretations of Eliezer’s character is accepted?
The answer to this question is halachic. If Eliezer was a great tzadik and talmid chacham, as understood by the Gemara and Rashi, we can derive halacha from his actions. After all, studying the behavior and conversation of great people teaches the proper way to act and speak. To quote Chazal, “the conversation of the servants of our forefathers is more valued than the Torah of their descendants” (Bereishis Rabbah 24, 34).
On the other hand, when we study the behavior of Do’eig, Achitofel and Elisha ben Avuyah, we must proceed with caution. Although Chazal are replete with instances in which we derive insights into proper conduct from resha’im¸ we must be hesitant when we do so. Should we be analyzing Eliezer’s deeds to understand the proper way to act? Thus, whether we can learn from Eliezer’s actions depends on this dispute between the Gemara and Rabbi Eliezer ben Harkinus.
Eliezer’s approach to shidduchim
Upon arriving in the city of Nachor, the Torah describes Eliezer’s prayer to Hashem to send the chosen woman, in the following way: The lass should appear at the well. Eliezer will ask her to provide him with a small amount of water, and she will respond, “I will also provide water for your camels.” This is absolute proof that this girl is to be Yitzchak’s bride, without any other questions or research (Bereishis 24:14). The contemporary equivalent would be that, when looking for a shidduch for your son, obviously the best available bochur in his yeshiva, you appear at the local watering hole and ask one of the available young ladies for a drink. Should she offer refreshment to your thirsty, humped entourage, she is certainly the future mate to make your son happy and build a Torah house together. It is time to arrange the vort and coordinate schedules, so that his rosh yeshivah can be mesadar kiddushin.
This system certainly simplifies arrangements, saves a lot of time and spares discovering sordid details about others. So, perhaps it has much merit. However, halachically this is not the correct approach. It is our responsibility to research potential shidduchin very carefully.
What about nichush?
Furthermore, Chazal question whether Eliezer’s method is indeed permitted, as this might violate the Torah’s prohibition against nichush, sorcery! The Gemara (Chullin 95b), quoting the great amora, Rav, states that what was performed by Eliezer, the slave of Avraham, constituted nichush!
Let me explain:
In parshas Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:26) and parshas Shoftim (Devorim 18:10-11), the Torah forbids any form of nichush, practicing the use of omens. It is prohibited to employ methods that are outside Torah to determine whether to pursue or avoid a particular course of action. According to the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:37), these practices are forbidden because they are similar to idol worship. Our relationship with Hashem may not be diluted by placing confidence or decision-making in the hands of superstitions, or worse.
Despite the issue of nichush, many commentators discuss Eliezer’s actions, thereby implying that they consider Eliezer a knowledgeable tzadik worthy of emulation, whose actions serve as a basis to learn how one should act. How can this be?
One technical answer is that, perhaps, Eliezer did not feel that the prohibition against nichush applied before the Torah was given, or that it does not apply to non-Jews (see Sanhedrin 56b).
Aside from the problem of nichush, there is another concern about Eliezer’s actions. He had been instructed to choose a wife from Avraham’s kin, but not every resident of Nachor was related to Avraham. So, how could Eliezer make the decision contingent on whether the anticipated young lady happened to be in the right place, at the right time, and generously offered to provide water?
Tosafos suggests that Eliezer did not rely exclusively on Rivkah’s offering the water to propose the marriage, but first verified that she, indeed, held the correct pedigree (Chullin 95b s.v. Ke’eliezer).
Dispute regarding nichush
According to many rishonim (see Ra’avad Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 11:4, 5; Radak (Shmuel I 14:9), only practices founded on superstition, sorcery, idol worship or similar nefarious bases are prohibited because of nichush. Thus, according to the Ra’avad and the Radak, Eliezer’s condition did not violate the prohibition of nichush.
However, the Rambam does not accept this distinction, prohibiting using anything without a logical or halachic basis to make a decision or follow a plan of action (Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 11:5). The Rema (Yoreh Deah 179:4) cites both opinions, without reaching a clear conclusion, and then closes by saying that one who lives his life sincerely and is confident in Hashem’s ways will be surrounded by kindness, implying that it is better not to follow such signs.
Nevertheless, we can justify Eliezer’s actions, even according to the Rambam, based on a beraisa, quoted by the Gemara (Sanhedrin 65b-66a), that allows deciding what to do based on a logical reason for the planned course of action (see Ran ad loc.). In other words, to cancel travel plans today because it appears that it will rain is not a violation of nichush. All opinions agree that nichush does not prohibit undergoing a medical procedure that appears beneficial (Moreh Nevuchim; Meiri, Shabbos 67a), even if no one understands why it helps. Similarly, demonstrating chesed the way Eliezer asked is a good indication that the young lady has the qualities to be Yitzchak’s wife.
I quoted above a passage of Gemara that stated that the entire army that vanquished the four powerful kings led by Kedorla’omer consisted of two soldiers, Avraham and Eliezer. Although this passage is certainly intended to be a midrash and not to be taken literally, the concept the midrash is conveying is that, to Hashem, He Who wages all wars, there is no difference between an army of two (or one, for that matter) and an army of two million. If they have absolute trust in Hashem, He can have them win, even if they are two unequipped and untrained octogenarians, and if He is not interested in their success, two million highly trained Navy SEALS will suffer defeat.