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Friday, November 24, 2000 | return to: torah


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Can the actions of one person make a significant difference?

by Haye Sarah

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Genesis 23:1-25:18

I Kings 1:1-31

I Samuel 20:18, 42

by RabbiStephen Pearce

A man overheard a friend's wife complain about their indebtedness. Anxious to help people that he loved, he scraped together sufficient funds to ease their financial crisis. In response to this benevolence, the friend asked God's blessing upon the man, saying: "May God grant you abundant wealth for your kindness on my behalf."

Then, he worried about whom God would have to impoverish in order to reward the man. Thus, to his fervent prayer he added, "Should God ask me whether He should take away such a large sum from another to enrich you and thereby subject Himself to a complaint against His justice by the one who would lose his fortune, I would give God this advice: 'O Lord, take the money from a wealthy atheist. Surely one who does not believe in Your existence cannot complain against You.'"

This anecdote brings to mind one of the most important but underrated characters in the entire Bible, someone whose selfless service was of great value to Jewish survival. Often the Bible takes only brief notice of individuals like Eliezer, Abraham's right-hand man who, in spite of the significance of his deeds, has only two passing references in the Torah, including one in Haye Sarah, this week's Torah portion.

Eliezer first appears in Genesis 15:2-4, when Abraham named him heir of his property and guardian of his spiritual legacy:

But Abraham said, "O Lord, God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Eliezer of Damascus!" Abraham said further, "Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward [Eliezer] will be my heir." The word of the Lord came to him in reply, "That one shall not be your heir; none but your very own issue shall be your heir."

In Haye Sarah, Eliezer, is entrusted with the job of finding a suitable wife for Isaac. Abraham admonished him: "...you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac" (Genesis 24:3-4).

This comment is followed by Abraham's cryptic statement:

"The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father's house and from my native land, who promised me an oath, saying, 'I will give this land to your offspring' -- He will send His angel before you, and you will get a wife for my son from there" (Genesis 24: 7-8).

Eliezer worried about doing his job well and was to be on the lookout for an angel who might show him the way to Isaac's bride. He was concerned that the woman he selected would find his story believable and be willing to accompany him from Abraham's homeland in Haran back to Canaan:

"O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham" (Genesis 24:12).

When Eliezer, keen observer of human nature, saw Rebecca standing at a well, he noted that she was not only welcoming to this stranger by providing him with refreshment, but she was also kind to his camels by offering to water them as well. Eliezer knew all the right things to say to Rebecca and her family to convince them that she would be the right choice as a wife for Isaac. When Rebecca's mother and brother suggested that they needed 10 days before they would release Rebecca, he reasoned with them, "Do not delay me, now that the Lord has made my errand successful" (Genesis 24:56).

The desire to leave a legacy that is larger than ourselves is a universal concern. Certainly, any life, exalted or humble, can be eclipsed if all that was important is not extended into the next generation. Because of Eliezer's unfailing, faithful service, Abraham no longer had to worry that his hopes and dreams might die with him.

From the sidelines of the patriarchal saga, Eliezer, hero of Jewish history, empowered the continued unfolding of Jewish history. He is testimony that one person's action, however insignificant it might seem, can uphold cherished causes. Eliezer is proof that everyone charged with responsibility can, indeed, make a significant difference.

The writer is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.


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