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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chayey Sarah - Overcoming Our Self-Interest

ויאמר אליו העבד: אולי לא תאבה האשה ללכת אחרי אל הארץ הזאת. ההשב אשיב את בנך אל הארץ הזאת אשר יצאת משם?

(בראשית כ"ד, ה')

Avraham's servant, Damasek Eliezer, is mostly described in rosy colours by our sages. They tell us that although he was Canaanite, his knowledge of the Torah was wide and deep. They tell us that he was not only a faithful servant that carried out his master's wishes, but he was also very smart and intelligent. The slight changes he makes in describing his duties to Rivka's parents and brother are brought as an example of his diplomatic (and selling) skills. So much so that the Midrash states: "the talk of servants is more beautiful than the Torah of the sons", alluding to the Torah's lengthy recounting of Eliezer's story.

It is therefore somewhat surprising to read, in the same Midrash, that Eliezer's intentions were not always entirely faithful to Avraham. In fact, he had a daughter and wished for her to be the chosen one for Yitzhak; he could not comprehend why Avraham would go to such lengths to find a wife for his beloved son when a most suitable woman was available right there in his household. The Midrash goes as far as to alter a word in the Torah to express the extent of Eliezer's wishes:

And the servant said to him: what if the woman will not be willing to follow me to this land? Should I bring your son back to the land you came from?

(Bereshit 24, 6)

"What if" in Hebrew reads "אולי", and the Midrash tells us to read this word as a similar sounding work: "הלוואי", meaning "hopefully", thus revealing Eliezer's true intentions. He was not asking a legitimate question about the possibility of the woman not wanting to follow him back to Canaan; he was expressing his innermost wishes that this would indeed happen, so that Avraham would have no choice but give Yitzhak to his daughter. The Midrash goes even further. When Eliezer recounts the story to Rivka's household, the word "what if" in Hebrew is written with the ommission of the letter Vav - "אלי" - implying that Eliezer was telling them that he wishes Rivka not to go back with him to Canaan.

Why does the Midrash go to such lengths to find wrongs in Eliezer's behaviour and to put blemish on his otherwise impeccable loyalty to Avraham?

The Midrash teaches us something here about human nature. Even sages, even the most holy of men, cannot escape the basic human trait of self-serving interest. No matter how much Eliezer was loyal to Avraham, deep inside him, perhaps even at a sub-conscious level, he had a different agenda. He wanted his own daughter to marry the son of his master. Nobody is exempt from the occasional slip, from the urge to overlook what's right and act out of pure self-interest.

And yet Eliezer accomplishes his task. He brings back Rivka to marry Yitzhak, thus giving up his hopes and those of his flesh and blood. Why? It is here that the Torah teaches us a great lesson. True: one cannot entirely escape one's yetzer ha'ra, one's evil inclination, and avoid harbouring secret desires. But we have a choice. We can choose between what is right and what is wrong. Either we let our yetzer ha'ra overcome us, or we do everything in our power to overcome it.

Eliezer proves he can overcome. He realises that deep inside he wishes his mission to fail, but does everything in his power to make it successful, because it is the right thing to do. He hurries to give Rivka the presents, even before she says yes; he refuses to eat at Betuel's house until he tell them his wishes; and the following morning he rejects the suggestion that Rivka stay home for another week or so before leaving and insists on leaving immediately. He makes sure he does not allow himself to make any mistakes by hurrying through his mission to assure it is ends successfully.

The idea for this week's Torah thought is from R. Ronen Neurwirth.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Eat What You Like, Pay What You Wish

I spent the last few days in Singapore. I've been here once before and it was a pleasure being back. Despite the rather annoying weather - always hot, often raining - it is a very pleasant place.

Last night I asked the concierge whether he knew of any vegetarian Indian restaurants. He sent me to the Annalakshmi restaurant at the Excelsior hotel. Quite an experience. The setting and the food were pretty standard for Indian restaurants, but what was not standard was the price. Or rather, the lack thereof.

It turns out the restaurant is operated by a cultural organization called The Temple of Fine Arts, a volunteer-based group that teaches music and dance for free. To finance themselves, these people set up a chain of restaurants where food is offered for a price determined by the diners. You order from a priceless menu and when you're done, you pay what you feel is appropriate. Certainly a different kind of experience.

How much did we pay? Well, as money is not the point here, I won't tell.