Hayye Sarah surprises us with the time it devotes to Eliezer’s search for and discovery of Rivkah. We are told the story as it happens, and then again, in almost the same detail, when he tells the story to her family, to convince them to allow the match. Rashi records Bereshit Rabbah’s reaction, the speech of the slaves of the Patriarchs is yafeh, nice or beautiful, given more space in the Torah than substantive issues of Torah law. The Torah gives the story two or three columns, and leaves a detail of the laws of the impurity of crawling insects) to be inferred or derived from a seemingly extra word of text.
Surprisingly, the Midrash and Rashi do not specify what was so good about Eliezer’s speech. Having drawn our attention to the Torah’s investment in his words, Rashi does little to show us the elements of the speech we might want to emulate. To me, it suggests the specifics are less important than the overall point: being the servant of a Patriarch ennobles.
While we no longer have Patriarchs, we do have Torah scholars, whose company Hazal urge us to keep. Avot 1;4 has Yose b. Yo’ezer, an early figure of the recorded Masorah, tells us to make our homes a meeting place for the wise, to try to build close bonds with them, and drink their words thirstily. Ketubbot 111b understands verses to draw a parallel between cleaving to Gd and marrying one’s daughter to a Torah scholar, finding business opportunities for a Torah scholar, and/or using one’s possessions to benefit a Torah scholar. Berakhot 64a has the statement of R. Avin Ha-Levi, being part of a meal where a Torah scholar is present is like being in the presence of Gd.
Rambam, De’ot 6;1, explains why, an explanation I worry many of us forget or deny. He says we are all influenced by the people with whom we interact—friends, relatives, fellow citizens or residents in our city/state/country. We can turn a flaw into a feature by choosing to associate with people who will improve us, who will show us the way to become better, and closer to Gd.
Eliezer is a good example, because Rashi thinks Avraham at the end of last week’s parsha compared him to a donkey—and two parashiyyot ago, feared Eliezer would be his heir. With all the disadvantages of birth and breeding, Eliezer managed to come to a point the Torah valued his words enough to give them more airtime than actual halakhot.
Eliezer may have lucked into his situation, being purchased by Avraham; we have to find our sources of influence ourselves, and it can be hard. Mo’ed Katan 17a tells the story of a rabbi who acted badly. R. Yehudah hesitated to declare nidui—a first stage of excommunication, where people are supposed to distance themselves four amot from the person, who is supposed to cover his mouth and moustache—because the people of the town needed him. He consulted with Rabbah bar bar Hanah, who reported R. Yohanan’s inference from Malakhi 2;7, if a teacher is similar to an angel of the Lord—proper in all his conduct—we should learn from him, if not, not. Rambam codifies the rule in Laws of Torah Study 4;1, as does Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 246;8: no matter how much Torah a teacher knows, his/her conduct must be also fully appropriate before we are allowed to rely on him/her as a teacher.
Eliezer’s prominence in this week’s parsha reminds us of a lesson too often forgotten, too many times ending up embarrassing the cause of Torah and service of Gd: our associates shape us, turn us into the people we become. If we associate with Patriarchs, we absorb a style of speech the Torah values enough to record at length; if we associate with Torah scholars—a matter of character and conduct in addition to knowledge—we become closer not only to them, to our Creator as well. If we associate with others…