Parshas Chayei Sarah
Avraham, The Locomotive
Was Eliezer correct in establishing a pre-ordained sign of behavior to
determine which woman would be the proper mate for Yitzchak? This is a long
running debate among the commentators and scholars until our very day.
Maimonides criticizes him for so doing while Rabbi Avraham ben David
(Raavad) severely criticizes Maimonides for criticizing Eliezer.
The Talmud in the Tosefta to the eighth chapter of tractate Shabat discusses
all sorts of superstitions, signs, indications of good fortune or danger,
etc. that are forbidden to Jews to indulge in. The clear indication of the
Tosefta is that anything that has been empirically proven to be of practical
value is permitted, whereas good luck charms and other empirically unproven
signs and omens are forbidden, as being akin to pagan belief and practices.
Due to many historical and social pressures over the centuries, many such
omens and signs have seeped into Jewish society eventually acquiring the
status of accepted custom. And we are all very aware of the power and hold
that customs have upon individuals.
I am always reminded of the rueful comment of Rabbi Yaakov Emden who
famously said that “it is regrettable that ‘not to steal’ was a commandment
and not a custom for had it been a custom more people would attempt to
observe it.” Part of the problem in today’s society is the prioritization of
omens and signs and questionable customs over the values and observances of
Judaism itself as proscribed by the Torah and rabbinic writings. The spooks
apparently always win out.
Of interest, at least to me, is the fact that Eliezer disappears completely
from the narrative of the Torah after the mission of bringing Rivkah to
Yitzchak is accomplished. If one adopts the opinion of Maimonides regarding
Eliezer’s use of signs and omens as being incorrect and unjustified, perhaps
that would inform his later disappearance from the Torah’s text. However,
those who laud his behavior and view him as a greatly righteous person, must
confront the issue of his absence in the narrative of the Torah after
fulfilling the mission that Avraham placed upon him.
A parable is related in the name of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (Chafetz
Chaim): A person who never saw a railroad train before stands at a crossing
and sees the train whiz by his eyes. He notices that all of the cars of the
train are moving at the speed as is the locomotive. He does not therefore
realize that the cars have no power of their own independent of the
locomotive. When the locomotive can pull no longer then all of the cars will
come to a halt.
Our father Avraham was the locomotive that pulled Eliezer and many others
along in their search for God. When he passes from the world, as recorded
in this week’s parsha, then Eliezer remains frozen and unable to grow
spiritually. Thus the Torah has really nothing more to say to us about him.
Jews are supposed to be locomotives, not just train cars being pulled along.
Rabbi Berel Wein