Embracing an Overlooked “Patriarch”
Parashat Hayyei Sarah
When we reflect on our lineage, who comes to mind? Often, lineage focuses on biological family ties. This is certainly true when we think of the patriarchal triad, Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov. But family has always been more complex, as we know from the Torah itself. We are blessed to live in a contemporary moment when we are striving to be more aware of—and honor—broader definitions of family.1 Some of the people who play the role of family, to ground us and shape us, may not be part of our immediate family at all. In this week’s parashah, we come to know the servant of Avraham (identified as Eliezer) who accepts the task of finding Yitzhak a wife. Rather than viewing him as a mere messenger who carries out Avraham’s bidding, a closer look reveals that this servant is a crucial part of our lineage, even as he is peripheral to the bloodline of the patriarchs.
Before having any biological children of his own, Avraham despaired of the possibility that his servant Eliezer may be his sole heir (Genesis 15:2). Yet, rabbinic traditions emphasize Eliezer as a true heir to Avraham’s broader legacy. A midrash relates that Eliezer actively chose to serve Avraham, as opposed to anyone else.2 He valued Avraham’s path and came to embody his ways. Avraham trusted him to make any decision because Eliezer had cultivated the same virtue as Avraham, “to be in control over his passions (שולט ביצרו).”3 Eliezer’s embodiment of Avraham’s legacy is so powerful that according to one tradition his face looked exactly like Avraham’s.4 The same is taught of Yitzhak, to counter any possible doubt about his biological paternity.5 Moulding Eliezer’s face like Avraham’s and like Avraham’s biological son, this teaching concretely embraces Eliezer as part of the family, based not on blood but on deed.
As someone who chose to carry on Avraham’s legacy, Eliezer may have actually done so more successfully than Yitzhak. Midrash turns to an unrelated verse about a servant, found in Proverbs, as a key to understanding the complex relationship between Eliezer and Yitzhak:
עֶֽבֶד־מַשְׂכִּ֗יל יִ֭מְשֹׁל בְּבֵ֣ן מֵבִ֑ישׁ וּבְת֥וֹךְ אַ֝חִ֗ים יַחֲלֹ֥ק נַחֲלָֽה׃
A capable servant will dominate an incompetent son, and share the inheritance with the brothers.
At first this seems to suggest that Eliezer was more competent than Yitzhak, but the midrash pushes back against this connotation. Rereading the word for “incompetent” as “to put to shame” (mevayesh rather than meivish), it teaches that Yitzhak’s willingness to sacrifice himself put everyone else to shame. Yet, a Hasidic interpretation of this midrash resurfaces Eliezer’s superiority. R. Yehudah Leib Alter (known by his commentary as the Sefat Emet) explains that Yitzhak veered from Avraham’s path of hesed (overflowing lovingkindness) and followed a different path of gevurah (restraint and discipline).6 Eliezer, on the other hand, remained steadfastly in Avraham’s path of hesed. He singled out kindness as the formative attribute for Yitzhak’s future wife (to give water to all the camels) to ensure the continuation of Avraham’s legacy.
וז"ש ימשול בבן מביש שבמעשיו המתיק מדת יצחק בעל כרחו.
That is why it says “he will dominate an incompetent son”—through his deeds, he tempered the attribute of Yitzhak against his will.
It is only thanks to Eliezer and how he influenced our ancestral line that Avraham’s legacy continued. We see here the important role of a figure on the periphery of the patriarchal lineage. Our lineage depends on Eliezer, by ethos if not by blood.
The Sefat Emet goes further in honoring the important role of this servant’s contribution to our own inheritance. He reads the last phrase in Proverbs as “he will distribute inheritance among the brothers” instead of “he will share the inheritance of the brothers,”7 focusing not on what he takes but what he gives:
ובתוך אחים יחלק כו' כי הי' במעשיו טובה לכלל ישראל כנ"ל:
“And distribute inheritance among the brothers”—because in his deeds there was goodness for all of the people of Israel.
The embrace of Eliezer as part of the fabric of the family isn’t just about inviting him in to benefit from chosen family—he also contributes to chosen family in a formative way. The Sefat Emet treats Eliezer as a kind of ancestor in his own right, who played an important role in bequeathing us our legacy.
Eliezer may be an even more accessible and relevant religious role model for us than Avraham. Avraham’s relationship with God was sui generis, discovering God on his own, while Eliezer learns about God from a teacher, like we do. Avraham speaks with God in conversation directly, while Eliezer prays indirectly to “the God of Avraham,” like we do (Genesis 24:12). Also, even as Eliezer has the instinct to pray to God, he is a skeptical realist. When Avraham reassures him that there will be a divine angel helping him on his mission to find a wife for Yitzhak, Eliezer assumes things might not go according to plan and asks what to do “if the maiden does not consent” to leave home (24:5). He doesn’t assume he can rely on divine intervention alone. While we think of Avraham as the pioneer of our religion, we would do well to acknowledge the ways Eliezer carved out the contours of a more indirect and down-to-earth religious path, perhaps more like our own.
These teachings about Avraham’s servant invite us into a more expansive understanding of what lineage looks like. Remarkably, each time we recite the opening blessing of the Amidah, where mentioning the names of our biblical forebears might reinforce a narrow sense of lineage, we should be aware that we are actually following in the footsteps of Eliezer, the first one who taught us to pray to the God of Avraham.8 Invoking words first spoken by Eliezer, we remind ourselves each day to appreciate the fullness of our lineage and bring honor to those who have contributed to all that we each inherit. It is our duty as individuals, as communities, and as a broader society to notice and honor those who might otherwise remain on the margins when we tell and retell the stories that shape us.
2 Bereishit Rabbah (Theodor-Albeck) 60:2: “אמר כבר קללתו שלאותו האיש בידו, שמא יבוא כושי אחד או ברברי אחד וישתעבד בי, מוטב לי להשתעבד בבית הזה ולא נשתעבד בבית אחר”—because his origins were in the line of Ham, he destined to slavery after the flood (see Genesis 9:25). This notion of “being destined to slavery” is difficult to encounter in our tradition and requires much fuller attention.
8 The phrase in the Amidah that includes the full triad of patriarchs first appears in the scene of Moshe at the burning bush. For a full discussion of this passage, see Elie Kaunfer’s teaching, e.g.: https://hadar.org/torah-resource/new-ways-understand-siddur.