Yom Sheini, 18 Av 5779
Monday, 19 August 2019
Parashat Chayei Sarah

Parashat Chayei Sarah

14th November 2014 - Cantor Gershon Silins

In our Sidra this week, Chaye Sarah, we continue the family story that is, like the best literature, at once a novelistic narrative, and a source of insights into how we might better understand our lives. A lot happens in this reading: Sarah dies and is mourned; Abraham purchases a burial site for her; Abraham sends his servant back to his home town to find a wife for his son; the servant accomplishes this task; Abraham takes another wife and has six more children who don’t inherit but are given gifts while Abraham is still living; Abraham dies and is buried by Isaac and Ishmael, Ishmael thrives, and finally dies at an advanced age.

With all this drama, it is quite surprising that what is clearly the central story here, told in great detail with a lot of repetition, is what could arguably be considered the least important part: the servant and his task of finding a wife for Isaac. It focuses on a minor character, the servant Eliezer, about whom we come to know a great deal, in particular his inner life and thoughts. It is a remarkable “star turn” for what we would have thought to be a small role. Our sages note that the Torah is generally extremely brief, and whenever it is prolix and repetitive, they take note, as this is a sign of great importance, not simply a narrative choice.

The story: after Sarah’s death, Abraham instructs his servant Eliezer to take an oath to seek a wife for Isaac, not from the local people among whom Abraham lives but back in the land of Abraham’s birth. Eliezer questions Abraham in some detail about this mission: if he can’t persuade the woman to follow him to Canaan, should he bring Isaac back there? Abraham says no, he has been given divine assurance in this matter, and if the woman doesn’t consent to go, Eliezer would be relieved of his oath to Abraham. Arriving at Abraham’s birthplace, the servant becomes concerned about how he might carry out his task. He prays, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have decreed for your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that you have dealt graciously with my master.”

Our sages were struck by one aspect of the story in particular: Eliezer seems to be praying for luck. As Abravanel says, if the servant relied on divine providence and for that reason prayed to God, how could he then invoke the workings of chance and ask God to engineer a coincidence? Divine will can’t be called chance.· From this traditional point of view, since God’s will causes everything, there can’t really be any such thing as luck, an uncaused outcome. Things don’t “just happen.”

Something similar arises in the later story of Joseph, when he says to his brothers, “So now it was not you who sent me here but God.” All the factors of time and chance in his life had conspired to prevent the fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams: his father’s favouritism, the hate of his brothers, the jealousy of Potiphar’s wife, and yet all these had combined to bring about the realization of Joseph’s dreams and the more significant redemption of his entire family. These things appear to be chance, but in the end we know that they didn’t “just happen,” they were part of a much greater story than could be seen in any individual event.

Nonetheless, from our point of view as we live our lives, things do appear to “just happen.” It may be that a chain of cause and effect can be traced securely back to causes and purposes of which we know nothing, but in our ignorance of such things, luck is as good an explanation as any, and praying for it seems quite rational; all other things being equal, why shouldn’t I get what I want instead of what I don’t?

There are two features of Eliezer’s story that make it more than just a romantic comedy with good luck leading to a happy outcome. The first is that the “good fortune” he is praying for is not for him, it is for his master Abraham, for whom he clearly has great loyalty as well as deep respect. The second is that this good fortune is the fulfillment of values that he understands and supports, and that he is willing to work for; he doesn’t stand passively by waiting for chance to bring him fortune. All he has been told by Abraham is to get a wife for Isaac from the land of his birth; Abraham has said nothing about what kind of person Eliezer should be looking for. But Eliezer sets forth in his mind a set of circumstances that, if they occur, will present him with someone who meets Abraham’s criterion, but also a higher one – she will be someone with a strong and generous nature.

So what appears on the surface merely to be Eliezer’s request for God to load the dice in favour of his desires, is really something else. Eliezer is not someone who seeks to bend the world to his will so that he can be rich and powerful; rather, he seeks to follow the arc of divine will as it bends towards the fulfillment of his loyalties and his values. His story suggests that we should focus our own desires not towards our own needs, but towards the needs of our larger community of obligations, whether they relate to our work, our family, or our community. It reminds us that we make our own luck by actively pursuing our desires, not just waiting for them to be given to us, and, most crucially, it requires us to locate our notion of “good fortune” within the framework of values that we learn from our tradition and the ethical commitments that are out most treasured possessions.