By Reb Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaim
There’s much confusion about the role of the individual within Orthodox Judaism. This is especially true among spiritually sensitive newcomers. Well after accepting the theological and emotional rewards involved in performing the “big Mitzvahs” like holidays, kashrus and daily prayers, these often very intelligent, critically thinking neophytes find themselves questioning (if not panicking over) why so much legal minutae is taking over their lives. There is also a growing number of natives who are joining the fray. As the Jewish Observer periodical pointed out in their recent expose` on “Adults-at- Risk,” there are troubling numbers of fall-outs from established Orthodox families who feel their individualism is suffocating within a religion about which they otherwise deeply believe.
Another interesting article on this topic appeared earlier this week on the this blog. The writer sums up the perspective of Reform Rabbis from first hand experience: Doesn’t abdicating so many private choices to religious authorities foster a “moral crutch” attitude, stymieing us from personally taking responsibility to distinguish between right and wrong?
Unfortunately, the answer given in that article misses the point. He describes the absurdity of a medical patient insisting on having the last word on every move his doctor makes; so too must we realize that our Torah authorities are highly qualified, spiritual doctors, simply letting us know what the holy Torah wants from us. Very nice, but our suffering questioners are asking about the HEALTHY Jewish ideal!!
In fact we have an explicit verse on the matter (Deut.6): “And you should do what’s honest and good in the eyes of G-d,” which the Nesivos Sholom (vol. I, pp 137-141) explains, in the name of the Ramb”n, to mean that the PURPOSE of Torah is to bring each and every Jew to the point of making his own, non-prescribed choices.
I respectively offer some insights from recent Torah portions about a model process for achieving that ideal.
And Avram said:
“My L-rd, G-d,
what can You give me
being that I go childless;
the steward of my home
is Damascus Eliezer?”
~ Gen. 15: 2,3 ~
Now everyone asks: why complain about being childless when already promised that your seed will populate the earth (ibid 13:15, 16)? And if the first patriarch is simply being candid, confessing his lack of patience, why bring the servant into the fray? Isn’t the point simply to underscore the torment in being childless? Finally, why specify the servant’s name and title? G-d isn’t exactly some kind of beaurocratic clerk in need of a reminder!
According to the Me’or V’Shemesh (par. Lech-Lecha), a third generation Chassidic Rebbe after the Baal Shem Tov, the Midrash which Rash”y brings explaining the meaning of the title “Damascus Eliezer” is very problematic. It claims that the Hebrew Dameshek is a contracted phrase describing his servant’s strongest qualities: doleh u’mashkeh, “drawing up (like water from a well) and watering.” That is, Eliezer impeccably retained and espoused his master’s teachings. He was renowned for his ability to give over to the masses what Avram taught without losing a proverbial drop from the bucket. If so, the MvSh asks, why in the world would that be a basis for complaint?!
His answer is powerfully incisive. Whereas the context of this prayer is the Alm-ghty’s offer to reward Avram, the latter is confounded about how that could happen. For the only conceivable reward for him is a successor to his life’s mission of spreading the light of Torah, yet Eliezer is the only viable candidate and he dispenses his master’s Torah SO exactingly that he disqualifies himself, since the essence of Torah is for each individual to UNIQUELY live it!
To which G-d responds:
“Gaze, please, upon the heavens
and count the stars
if you can count them!”
And He said to him:
“So shall be your offspring!”
I.e., you’re more right than you know. While your descendants will not only possess the capacity to uniquely teach Torah, they will do so with a distinctive shine as bright as the stars are innumerable!
Fast forward two parshas. Avraham’s life is winding down and this selfsame rejected servant is being given the most sensitive mission of finding a wife for the “competition” – the up and coming star of the next generation, the patriarch’s beloved son from Sara, Yitzchak. Sure enough, we soon learn that Eliezer is trying to set up his own daughter as a marriage candidate (Rash”y on Gen.24:39, reflecting on 24:5). Yet the master refuses to bite, telling him that not only must he travel a great distance to find the right one, but if after finding her she refuses to come to the Promised Land, he’ll be “cleaned” from his oath, i.e. no longer restricted from choosing someone from among the Canaanites while STILL not being permitted to offer from his own (Rash”y on Gen. 24: 8, as clarified by Mizrachi).
This is really quite amazing. For Eliezer is from the same, cursed stock as the Canaanites!
Apparently the patriarch is insisting on driving into this extremely robotic frummie that while his external actions are highly valued, his spiritual motivation is the lowest of the low; that even under the most exceptional considerations, he just ain’t got what it takes to contribute to the soul of klal Yisroel.
On the other hand, such a put down flies in the face of a number of sources which underscore the grand heroics of Eliezer. Like when we learn that upon fulfilling this mission, he’s liberated from the Canaanite curse and becomes a free man (Br. Rabba. 59, 60; Zohar Chadash 3 ). Or how about the famously Talmudic remark about the outstanding amount of verses the holy Torah uses to describe that mission (Br. Rabba; Rash”y Gen. 24:42): “The conversations of the servants of the patriarchs are more beautiful than the Torah of their children!”
So what’s the story? Is Eliezer a model or a puppet?
The answer is both. His modeling was precisely in his ability to get beyond first being puppet like; a process so precious to G-d that He indeed invests an inordinate amount of holy ink to help us learn from it. That adage of the Sages should be accordingly understood. The word it uses for beauty – yafeh – is the most superficial of a number of Hebrew words for beauty (a subject I touched on within my last posting). It’s referring to a very transitory kind of religiosity, as in hevel ha’yofee (Prov. 30), the “mist” that initially impresses and then dissipates. Such was Eliezer’s style of devotion until learning the ideal of “the Torah of the children” – the Torah of uniquely shining individuals.
Aye, this exquisitely explains why the first patriarch allows for some Canaanites to become second choice in-laws but not others. For while those same people (which acc. to Rash”y were Aner, Eshkol and Mamreh, his loyal confederates) had already proven their deepest respect for Avram’s spiritual path, they had made no pretensions of worshipping the particular way he did. It was therefore conceivable that a daughter of theirs could enter the educational process leading up to “the Torah of the children.” But not for a child raised to be infatuated with only one style of Torah worship.
So we now have a principle for guiding each and every Jew to successfully liberate his G-d given individuality: choose a decidedly trans-yofee Torah path. In particular, aim to conclude your life like Eliezer’s, when after convincing everyone of the earthshaking synchronism behind how he found his master’s daughter-in-law, awoke in the morning to witness the family’s complete turn-around. To which his final response is, uncharacteristically curt:
Send me and I will go
to my master
Not up to AVRAHAM, but my master. THE Master.
A few verses later, after Rivka declares her willingness to go, no matter what, and they do the most unbelievable thing of blessing her (with a blessing we use to this day!), we hear the following:
And the slave took Rivka
and the slave told Yitzchak
all the things he had done
No more prostrating and praising. No more being called someone else’s slave. Just serving the one, true Master.
Now THAT’s a true individual.
Aye, it will quickly become the model for Jewish history, as we learn in the beginning of this parsha about Yitzchak’s successor, Yaacov, being “a wholesome man; a dwellor of tents” (Gen. 25:27). Why the plural? Rash”y: These were the study halls of Shem and Eiver, wherein he immersed him self in religious study for well over a decade, just like his father did. But why go to them? Weren’t there better teachers in the tents of Yitzchak and Avraham (who was alive until Yaacov’s Bar-Mitzvah)?!
It must have been that the patriarchs had learned their lesson. Never again should a Jewish leader allow a disciple to even entertain the thought of cloning his style of worship. As long as there’s another genuine scholar to be had, a true devotee of Torah should seek him out, or at least be exposed to him. That’s the model around which all Talmudic study revolves. And that’s the model within which all our “Adults at risk” should be lovingly guided to find their authentic self expression.