Repetitive Words, Original Lessons in the Servant's Speech
In the central chapter in our parasha, chapter 24, the Torah relates in tremendous detail how Avraham’s servant fulfilled his master’s request to bring back from Aram-naharaim an appropriate match for Yitzchak. The text recounts the original conversation between Avraham and his servant, his prayer at the well, Rivka’s enthusiastic fulfillment of the condition that he had laid out before Hashem, the giving of gifts, and the meeting with the family. At that point, how simple it would have been had the Torah chosen to simply state “and the servant related all that had occurred to him”. Instead, the Torah allows the servant to describe all of his experiences for his hosts. This led the Midrash to exclaim in wonderment – “More beloved is the chatter of the forefathers’ servants’ than the minutiae of the children laws” (Bereishit Rabbah 60:11). Granted, Betuel and family are hearing these details for the first time. We readers have followed the servant from the beginning. For us, the apparently superfluous recapitulation begs explanation.
Rabi David Kimche, one of the leading medieval French commentators on the Tanach (FIND YEARS), flatly rejects any value in investigating any differences between the accounts. He cautions:
In fact, he (Eliezer) reported the events as they occurred. But we cannot explain the reason for all the addition and omissions in his account; for they are legion. He told them all that transpired between himself and his master, his transactions with Rivkah, and that Hashem had providentially arranged matters just as Avraham had promised. His emphasis on this point was to impress on them that they had no alternative. They could not stop the girl from accepting the marriage offer since the matter was clearly from Hashem. The recapitulation involves merely a variation in reported speech, but the sense is the same. This is unavoidable in reported speech – it preserves the sense but not the exact wording. (commentary on 24:39)
Most other Rishonim, however, made an effort to uncover the meaning of the variances. between the two. Rashi, for example, points our that Eliezer changed the order of events, for though he gave her the jewelry before and only afterwards asked who she was, he reversed the order on retelling, so that “they should not question him ‘How could you give her jewels before you should know who she was?’” (commentary to v. 47). Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, in his work Akeidat Yitzchak, elaborates:
Previously, the servant had emphasized that he came on a mission especially to Avraham’s family, how they were preferred above our other peoples for his son. If he had stated that he presented the ring to Rivkah before he even knew to which family she belonged, this would have contradicted his previous assertion. A man does not give away his valuables for no purpose! Presumably, they must have been given as marriage gifts. This is what Rashi referred t when he stated that Eliezer was afraid that they would catch him [in an inconsistency].
This approach runs throughout all the traditional commentaries. If the servant made a change, it was for successfully convincing Betuel and Lavan to allow Rivkah to travel with them. They noted the elaboration of Avraham’s great wealth and prosperity, the glossing over of the religious differences between the two families, and the changing of the direction given to the servant from taking any girl from the area to specifying only one from Avraham’s family. Rav Hirsch notes the servant deemphasizes what for us is the central reason Rivkah was chosen – the test of kindness. To Lavan and Betuel, the entire test would have been seen as sentimental and comical – not becoming for such a serious matter. For us, however, only the chessed she performed justified her becoming a mother of the Jewish people.
Following the commentators’ example, we shall also briefly examine the servant’s speech to Betuel and Lavan, concentrating on the rhetorical and persuasive elements he utilizes to convince them to release Rivkah into his care. For ease of explanation, the speech is divided into smaller components.
The speech actually begins with the bridging episode, where Rivkah runs to her family to inform them of the strange man and encounter she just experienced:
30 And it came to pass, when he saw the ring, and the bracelets upon his sister's hands, and when he heard the words of Rivkah his sister, saying: 'Thus spoke the man unto me,' that he came unto the man; and, behold, he stood by the camels at the fountain.
The first point we note is that our characterization of Rivkah is completed with her return to her house. She runs, not walks. The same energy that characterized her kindness in filling the water embodies all her actions. Apparently, for a brief moment, we are willing entertain the possibility that her brother Lavan is cut from the same cloth as her. He also runs to greet the man. However, the text has set up a red herring. He runs – but because he saw the gold and jewelry on his sister’s wrists. If she is kindness personified, he is avarice in human form. The reversal in our appraisal of him only serves to increase our earlier favorable impression of Rivkah. If we had thought that all of Avraham’s family, even the extended members, behaved in a giving and unselfish manner, then we now comprehend that only a select few carry within them the temperament and kindheartedness that make them worthy of becoming the heads of the nascent people. Character, not genes, will be the building blocks of the Jewish people.
In his first words, the servant clearly demonstrates that he has quickly discovered what we as readers already knew – the way to impress Betuel and Lavan is through their pocketbook. As such, he begins immediately, eschewing even the offer of a home cooked meal, by identifying himself as Avraham’s servant. As such, he transfers immediately the benefits of the impression that he made with his caravan of riches to Avraham. The servant is not “blessed of Hashem”, as Lavan described him earlier, but rather Avraham is the blessed one. What they have seen is only a small fraction of the vast riches that Avraham enjoys – and it will all go to Avraham’s only legal son and heir – Yitzchak (in fact, Eliezer suggests that this transfer of wealth has already take place – new information for the reader if true, effective hyperbole if not). Even the detail of his birth is added, that his mother was old – a fact that both legitimizes him as heir (his birth clearly miraculous, destines him for greatness) and of his relative youth (an additional attraction). Clearly, any parents would want this son for their own – a point the servant emphasizes before outlining the condition that stands as an obstacle between them.
Shifting from the material blandishments in marrying off Rivkah to Yitzchak to the conditions attached therein, the servant must carefully navigate a minefield of potential dangers. The first change that he makes is from Avraham’s original requirement to go to ‘my country, and to my kindred (v. 4) to ‘go unto my father's house, and to my kindred’ (v. 38). Instead of a religious divide, we have an appeal to family ties and kinship. The issue is not between Canaanites and non-Canaanites, a question of nationality, but the natural ties that exist between family members, despite the geographical distances between them. Avraham’s leaving Aram-Naharim is ignored, along with the Divine urging that he do so. Similarly, the servant makes no mention of the possibility that Yitzchak might leave the land (‘'Per adventure the woman will not be willing to follow me unto this land; must I needs bring thy son back unto the land from whence you came?’), even though Avraham ruled it out immediately. The omission apparently serves to pre-emptively exclude any suggestion by the family that Yitzchak join them.
Finally, the servant makes a subtle change in the contingency that he suggested to Avraham (‘the woman will not be willing to follow me unto this land’) to ‘the woman will not follow me’. The shift is from the subjective, her feelings, to the objective result (does she follow or not). The responsibility is no longer hers; what girl would pass up such a opportunity. Implied but left unsaid, the responsibility for the failure to procure the young maiden lies solely on the shoulders of the family who stand in her way.
45 And before I had done speaking to my heart, behold, Rivkah came forth with her pitcher on her shoulder; and she went down unto the fountain, and drew. And I said unto her: Let me drink, I pray you.
Though the servant could have concluded at the end of the previous section, the servant unveils here his final, most effective argument. If previously he had concentrated on Avraham’s tremendous wealth and the importance of family bonds, now the Divine approval of the suggested match, implied previously (‘Hashem hath blessed my master greatly’, ‘Hashem, before whom I walk, will send His angel’) takes center stage to seal the argument. For the reader, the four-fold repetition of Hashem’s name, twice I the prayer before Rivka’s appearance, and twice when the servant recognizes that his efforts have been blessed with success, serve to verbally enclose both his speech, and thematically to demonstrate that Hashem has been in control from the beginning until the end of the journey. He does not mention that the episode occurred as “the daughters of the men of the city came out to draw water”; otherwise, the family could have questioned him that if he was indeed directed to find Avraham’s family, why did he rely on prayer when he could have simply asked for directions. Instead, through the ellipsis, he portrays himself as totally dependant on Divine favor to find the right maiden. The aspect of kindness contained within the test is subordinated; instead, it became a means of identifying the proper girl. Instead of being a test of character, the servant reframes it as a manifestation of Hashem’s choice. Therefore, in his account, until the girl demonstrates that she comes from the proper lineage, he refrains from showering her with gifts. Hashem led him not only to Avraham’s kin, but also directly to “my master's brother's daughter for his son”. It is not coincidental that the four mentions of the Divine name are supplemented and completed by three more utterances when Lavan and Betuel express their acceptance of the events as having occurred as reflecting the Divine will:
51 Behold, Rivkah is before thee, take her, and go, and let her be your master's son's wife, as Hashem has spoken.'