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The Anonymous Eliezer: A Tribute to Zev Wolfson, Z”L

Zev Wolfson, z"l

Zev Wolfson, z"l

“And the servant said to him…” (Genesis 24:5).

The biblical portion of Chayei Sarah comprises two chapters in the Book of Genesis. The first (chapter 23) deals with the death and burial of Sarah and the second (chapter 24) deals with the selection of a suitable wife for Isaac.

The connection between these two themes is indubitably clear: with the loss of his beloved life’s partner, a bereft Abraham understood both the tremendous significance of the role played by Sarah in his life as well as the awesome responsibility that lay before him to find such a suitable mate for his heir to the covenant, Isaac.

For this formidable and momentous task he chooses Eliezer, “his trusted servant, the wise elder of his household, who controlled all that was his” (Genesis 24:2).

The choice of Eliezer was indeed an excellent one. Eliezer demonstrated great skill in understanding what was primarily required for the wife of Isaac.

He understood she must be a member of the Abrahamic family and not be dwelling among the accursed Canaanites. He further understood the young woman had to be willing to live with Isaac in Abraham’s domain rather than removing Isaac to the home of her family – in other words, Rebecca had to come under the influence of Abraham.

Most of all, he understood the young woman had to have the character of Abrahamic hospitality, to the extent that she would not only draw water from the well for him (the messenger) but also for his camels.

And of course he needed to arrange for the young woman to take the journey to Isaac and live her life in the land of Israel under the tent of Abraham.

All of this Eliezer executed with wisdom, tact and sensitive understanding. He arranged a shidduch that would determine the destiny of God’s covenantal nation. Indeed, the Bible itself bears testimony that Eliezer set out for his mission “with all the bounty [goodness] of his master in his hand” (Ibid 24:10).

Rashi takes this to mean that Abraham gave Eliezer an open check; he would pay any price for the right wife for Isaac. Rav Moshe Besdin gives the verse a very different thrust: all the bounty and goodness that had been accumulated by Abraham was now placed in the hands of his most trusted servant since the future of Abraham was dependant upon Isaac, his heir apparent, and the future of Isaac was dependent upon the wife he would marry.

Strangely, throughout this lengthy biblical tale the name Eliezer is not mentioned. He is referred to as “the servant” (eved) ten times and as “the personage” (ish) seven times – but never once by his name, Eliezer. Would one not think that such an important individual entrusted with such a significant mission was deserving of having his name in lights for everyone to see and remember?

I believe this is exactly the point of the biblical record. Eliezer the individual has been completely overwhelmed by the enormity of this task: he is the servantof Abraham, committed to performing the one act which will determine the continuity of the Abrahamic vision; in this sense it is similar to the biblical description “and Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab….” (Deuteronomy 34: 5). In fact, the Midrash even suggests that Eliezer had a daughter of marriageable age whom he had always expected would marry Isaac, giving him grandchildren who would inherit the Abrahamic dream and wealth.

Eliezer forgets any of his personal ambitions or goals; he is the consummate servant of Abraham, using all of his innate wisdom and ingenuity in order to carry out the will of his master Abraham.

To be sure, Eliezer in his own right was a magnificent personage of rare ability. In this fashion the Bible declares, “And this is the blessing that Moses the personage (ish) of God bestowed upon the children of Israel before his death” (Deut. 33:1). But Moses utilized all of his spiritual and intellectual prowess in the service of his Master, the Lord God of Universe. And just as Moses was an eved and ish at the same time, with his individual personality having been totally given over to God’s will, so was Eliezer an ish and eved at the same time.

Zev Wolfson, who seamlessly passed from this world to the next on the 25th of Av, 5772, was truly a reincarnation of Eliezer. He immigrated to the United States as a refugee from a Siberian prison camp, having carried his dead father on his back until he could find a place for burial and taken responsibility for his beloved mother and brother in the new, alien world of America.

He was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. By dint of his amazing intellect he mastered the workings of the stock market and of real estate. He identified the up-and-coming political leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives, and he navigated the various halls of influence and power in the international arena.

All of these gifts were channeled in one direction: using money and political influence to do God’s will by creating learning institutions for Torah and strengthening the state of Israel with funds and with armaments.

It was he who understood that by contributing to and getting contributors for senators and congressmen who would become instrumental leaders in the Foreign Appropriations Committee, he would be able to help Torah institutions and chesed projects throughout the world. He was a crucial figure in decisions by Congress to reduce Israel’s loan obligations, and due to his connections he effectuated America’s sending Patriot missile batteries to Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.

Most important, he strove to identify those rabbis and educational leaders who would create new avenues in kiruv and would bring assimilating Jews back into the fold. He would relentlessly pursue new people and new ideas. Although he gave generously, he always gave challenge grants. He made certain each person he helped would be pushed almost to the breaking point in continuing to educate and influence greater and greater numbers of Jews.

It was my privilege to have spent entire days with Zev Wolfson – from davening in the morning till 10 or 11 at night. Whenever I was with him, I knew there would be no time for breakfast, lunch or dinner; we rarely got to drink water. His energy and his drive could only be understood as having come from a Divine spirit that gave him no rest when it came to doing God’s work.

He was probably the greatest builder of Torah institutions in history. He felt responsibility for the continuity of the Divine covenant in America and throughout the world after the destruction of the Holocaust. Despite this, not one building, classroom or project bears his name. He was an eved Hashem and ish haElokim who lived selflessly and modestly for the sake of his mission.

He is truly Eliezer.

About the Author: Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the author of the acclaimed “Torah Lights” series (Maggid Books), from which this essay is excerpted (Devarim edition). The chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs in Israel, Rabbi Riskin was the founding rabbi of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue.


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