Chayei Sarah

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

"Now Abraham was old, well on in years, and HaShem had blessed Abraham with (bakol) everything" (Genesis 24:1)

The Ibn Ezra in defining bakol - in everything, states that "G‑d had given Abraham long life, wealth, honor, children..." Abraham had reached the zenith of his life able to reflect upon a meaningful existence filled with the joys of both the spiritual and the physical. The progenitor of monotheism, his years on earth represented a constant ascent.

The Or HaChayim, however, casts an ominous cloud upon this period in our first Patriarch's long life. Providing an insight into the mind set of Abraham he remarks that realizing his age and the fact that G‑d had blessed him bakol (in everything) Abraham was concerned that his man servant who ministered to all his possessions would, on account of Abraham's age, begin to consider the possibility of marrying off his own daughter to Isaac. Therefore Abraham demands that Eliezer "Place now your hand under my thigh. And I will have you swear by HaShem, G‑d of heaven and of earth, that you not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell. Rather to my land and to my kindred shall you go and take a wife for my son for Isaac." 24:2-4

Again focusing in on the word bakol (in everything) the Midrash makes a somewhat astonishing statement. "...and HaShem blessed Abraham bakol - this refers to Eliezer as it says he (Eliezer) who controlled bahol all that was his... From here our Rabbis state one should not remove himself from his fellow except for the performance of a matter of Jewish law." What are our Rabbis attempting to teach us?

Each morning in our preliminary service we read the following from the Tractate Shabbat 127a: "These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains intact for him in the World to Come ... acts of kindness, ... visiting the sick, ... and the study of the Torah is equivalent to them all." Surely we must ask in the case of one who toils in Torah learning what will happen to the other virtuous and important acts mentioned in the Talmud? As our Rabbis teach, one who takes upon himself the yoke of Torah study, has the yoke of community and day to day responsibility for his fellow man removed from him. It would seem that G‑d elects someone else to fulfill these important commandments in his stead lest they be devaluated in the eyes of the community as a whole. As according to our Sages we cannot place a greater value on the commandments between man and man than on those between man and G‑d - the study of G‑d's Will - the Torah being the quintessential element in the G‑dly relationship.

Our Rabbis observe, "Now Abraham was old," he involved himself in full time Torah study and as Abraham had taken upon himself the yoke of Torah learning, G‑d provided him with Eliezer who would be his stand in to fulfill the commandments between man and man. And this is why the Torah states "who controlled bahol all that was his."

And, as our Rabbis say, a man should not remove himself from his fellow in terms of the commandments between man and man except for the fulfillment of Jewish law as for example the acceptance of the yoke of study for "the study of Torah is equivalent to them all." Yet Abraham was old, he sat in the Yeshiva learning Torah and did not rely upon Eliezer but rather bothered himself in welcoming guests etc.

Might Abraham's motivation to continue involvement in the commandments between man and man have been motivated by his concerns regarding the character of Eliezer? Eliezer was a gift to Abraham from the Court of Nimrod after Abraham's miraculous deliverance from the fiery furnace. (Sefer Ha-Yashar). According to Genesis Rabba he even looked like Abraham. Even Laban mistook him for Abraham. In the Talmud Yoma 28b, his name, Eliezer of Damascus is interpreted, Dammessek = doleh u-mashkeh, he learned from and provided others with his master's teachings. The Tanahuma relates that it was Eliezer and Eliezer alone who accompanied Abraham on his journey to save Lot, relying on a gammatria (a numerical equivalent) which indicates that the value of Eliezer's name, 318, was the same number of the servants that accompanied Abraham.

In sum, it may be safely said in reviewing the above comments regarding Eliezer that he was a commendable individual. Yet even with the prospect of having such an individual assume his active role in society at a time when he was old and totally devoted to Torah study, even when according to the Midrash it would seem that G‑d had sent Eliezer to Abraham specifically to relieve him of these burdens, Abraham opted to maintain his active role in humanity. What accounted for this behavior?

One of the most fundamental aspects of human behavior is habit. Developing positive habits in life, working to imbue ones very soul with virtuous and G‑dly commitment, should be a conscious day to day activity. Understanding the purposefulness of life and the integral part each of us plays in the ever building and refining of G‑d's creation is elemental to our living valuable lives.

I vividly remember that, when I served a Congregation in McKeesport Pennsylvania, a problem plagued United States Steel. The Corporation found that its employees, once retired, generally had short life spans. In researching the causes U.S.S. found that most of their former employees died of boredom. Their entire lives controlled by the whistle of the steel mill, consisted of working, leaving work to stop at the local bar for a shot and a beer, going home to eat and turning in for the night. With the main task of their existence removed at retirement, that of going to work, all the retirees were delighted. Yet, those many hours hung heavy in their day to day lives. For some an attempt was made at fishing. But how long can one fish? Others jumped into house repair? But how many things are there to repair in one's house? In the end they would sit on the porch literally waiting to die. They simply died of boredom. In response, U.S.S. set up a course in how to retire. People were literally taught how to construct a purposeful existence.

Abraham presents a striking example of one who, throughout his life, dedicated himself to man and to G‑d. His day to day diligence in being a positive leader of humanity, in serving G‑d filled his every moment. And when, in old age, he could have easily removed himself from his worldly obligations, comfortably relying upon his tried and true servant Eliezer to admirably fulfill this role, he could not. Abraham's life to its very end was marked by profound commitment to G‑d and his fellow man a life habit he could not bring to an end even when G‑d provided him with a viable alternative.

Electing positive direction and commitment, working upon it until it becomes second nature in life ensures our worth to society and a valued challenging life for ourselves.