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Agency Maketh the Man
Genesis 23:1-16: Parshat Chayei Sarah
Thanks to my friend Rabbi Chaim Koncepolski on whose droshe parts of this is based. I appreciate him reviewing an early draft of this. All mistakes are mine.
“Little do the people understand what is great [about Great Men:]… the creating agency”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
“[H]ere the spirit becomes a lion; he will seize his freedom and be master in his own wilderness. Here he seeks his last master: he wants to fight him and his last God; for victory he will struggle with the great dragon. Who is the great dragon which the spirit no longer wants to call Lord and God ?
"Thou-shalt," is the great dragon called. But the spirit of the lion says, "I will.""
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
I’ve written before about Sarah, the great Jewish matriarch and prophetess, and her fundamental unlikability. The sages and other commentators fall over themselves to compliment her, but I think they doth protest too much. Rambam and Rashi agree that Sarah asking Abraham to cast out his first born son Ishmael is one of the ten great tests he undergoes (they disagree on the others). Abraham does this because he must. He fulfils his role as father of the Jewish people. And once that mission is fulfilled, he returns to more mortal wants. I wrote:
As soon as [Sarah] dies, Abraham returns to his ill-treated, long-suffering, still-chaste Hagar.
…It pained Abraham to rise to that covenant. Yet just as he circumcised himself in old age, so did he acquiesce to leave his beloved Hagar and her son. He put the covenant (of marriage, of the Jews with God) first. And as soon as he could, in the moments before passing into history, he was granted the all-to-human, all-to-manly wish of returning to his lover. The covenant of marriage takes primacy, and we elevate ourselves when we elevate it.
In last week’s parshah (Parshat Chayei Sarah) we are met with another call of duty. Abraham sends his great servant Eliezer to find his son Isaac a wife in the Bible’s first shidduch:
2 And Abraham said to his servant, the elder of his house, who ruled over all that was his, "Please place your hand under my thigh.
3 And I will adjure you by the Lord, the God of the heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose midst I dwell.
4 But you shall go to my land and to my birthplace, and you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac."
Notice Eliezer is not named.1 In fact, he is not named once throughout this story. He is referred to only as ‘servant’, and then later as ‘man’.
The irony of Abraham sending Eliezer out to find a wife from beyond the Canaanites was that Eliezer himself was a Canaanite. Moreover, as Rashi explains, Eliezer had a daughter whom he hoped would marry Isaac. But Abraham told him “You are cursed, and a curse does not cleave to a blessing.” The Canaanites were descended of Ham, whom Noah cursed. Harsh, but we must read this literally and not to diminish Eliezer, who, as we shall see, is a paragon of virtue in this story, and held as an example to the Jewish people.
When Eliezer finds Isaac’s would-be wife Rebecca and pleads with her family for her hand in marriage to his master, Eliezer repeats his tale to them. Over 16 verses he repeats the preceding 33 verses. It’s a strange repetition. The sages do not take it lightly: why is the story of Eliezer repeated in his telling? Who is this Canaanite so beloved that his story would bear repeating by God? The Ten Commandments is told over 14 verses. The story of the creation of the world over 29 verses. Yet this story of the matchmaker is told twice over 66 verses.
Indeed Eliezer is beloved. But the repetition is imperfect. Eliezer embellishes his story. He is selling. Eliezer takes it upon himself to go beyond his express instruction to fulfil his master’s mission to his best judgement.
Despite Eliezer’s personal interest being for this mission to fail so that he can marry his daughter into his master’s family, Eliezer subsumes himself so entirely into this role that he adopts his mission perfectly: he loses even his name. He transcends his own agenda, himself entirely, to be only the role: the servant. Here is the perfect collapse of the principal-agent problem that plagues markets. Eliezer against his interest not only agrees to fulfil his mission, but he embellishes Abraham’s story and instruction in such a way as to maximise the effect and the mission’s success. And once he does this, he is called “man”, not just “servant”.
This is a crucial point. Eliezer’s transcendence is not in his servitude. It is not that he obeys. It is that he places his duty above his personal interests and that he has agency. He assesses the situation and adjusts his story to achieve his objective. On his way to and from the land of Rebecca, he is called a servant. But in between, when he operates with ingenuity and initiative with Rebecca and her family, he is called a man. These are the two pillars of manhood: duty and agency.2 (+10 points if you make an oath on another man’s “thigh”).
Isaac — no agency?
The importance of agency is woven through Genesis. Which forefather do we hear least of? Who are we least impressed by? Without a doubt it’s Isaac. His story is referred to by the sages as a “bridge” between Abraham’s and Jacob’s. We know him mainly as a grown man being taken meekly to be sacrificed by his father Abraham. Then Abraham sending Eliezer to find a wife for him. It is his wife Rebecca who prays to God about her barrenness and receives the prophesy, that she doesn’t even bother divulging to her husband. She rules the roost at home. She sees Esau’s degeneracy and Jacob’s righteousness while Isaac sits in his tent, half-blind, masticating on his mutton. He exhibits no chutzpah, no sparkling intellect, no conflict. He is merely a vessel of God’s will and that is enough to earn him a place amongst the fathers of a people. But he is diminished. I asked ChatGPT — he is mentioned 108 times versus Abraham’s 214 and Jacob’s 345. If Abraham is known by the sages for his chessed, his kindness, then Isaac is known for his strength. Not physical strength, but spiritual endurance — for enduring the would-be sacrifice and suffering his son Esau’s mischief. Perhaps stoicism is better than strength to describe him. He just sucks it up.
Perhaps we need not be too flippant. It’s apparently not so easy to just do the right thing. Most others in Genesis do not. I wrote at the start that part of Abraham’s duty was in suffering Sarah (definitely not an orthodox teaching!). That was a key way in which Esau —the wicked son and ancient father to the despised Romans — fell short, marrying local idolatrous Hittites. One of Isaac’s blessings to Jacob was that he should not marry a daughter of Canaan. Jacob listened to his father (Genesis 28:7). Esau saw this and in his degenerate can’t-do-anything-right way mimicked it: he married a daughter of Ishmael, but he did not divorce his Hittite wives.
Isaac is ultimately drawn to agency — to Jacob’s agency. Jacob bought Esau’s birthright for a pot of lentils and then, with the cunning of his iron-willed mother, deceived Isaac into bestowing his blessing unto him. How does he react?
34 When Esau heard his father's words, he cried out a great and bitter cry, and he said to his father, "Bless me too, O my father!"
35 And he said, "Your brother came with cunning and took your blessing."
36 And he said, "Is it for this reason that he was named Jacob? For he has deceived me twice; he took my birthright, and behold, now he has taken my blessing."
Isaac tells Esau that Jacob came and drank his milkshake and that was that. Isaac seems to accept that thereby Jacob earned it. The meek, scholarly son was not such a pushover. He had challenged his ruddy warrior brother, thrust his hairless arms into the twines of fate and twisted them to his will. And so Jacob would again, later even wrestling an angel. The line of the Jews would not be kept by some meek second-son. He need not be a man of the field or of the sword to summon greatness. In Jacob is found all of righteousness, cunning and strength.
“If you need a motor car, you pluck it from the trees. If you need pretty polly, you take it.”
Alex, A Clockwork Orange
One more thing, perhaps related to current events in Israel.
In another recent parshah, Parashat Lech-Lecha, Abraham defeats the four foreign kings in a dramatic rescue of his nephew Lot. After this rescue, God assures him of continued divine favor: “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be great” (Genesis 15:1).3
The Alter Rebbe Shneor Zalman asked: what is Abraham shielded from, after the battle and the rescue? Abraham is famous for his chessed, his kindness. He became the warrior against the kings to rescue Lot, but that is an aberration to his temperament. He is not one of the warrior figures of the Bible.
The Rebbe interpreted this that God would shield Abraham not from their slings and arrows but from his inherent nature — from the dangers of excessive kindness. He must not hesitate in doing what must be done, nor must he wallow in regret. He must be shielded from his own boundless generosity of spirit. For evil must be blotted out from this world, and that is the not the time for kindness.
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“Under my thigh” is a euphemism for clasping his manhood (also a euphemism, I suppose), upon which oaths are made. This, Rashi explains, is because circumcision was Abraham’s first mitzvah and so making an oath upon ‘it’ is appropriate.
The Rabbis recast that word “shield” into the phrase “Shield of Abraham,” referring to God, in order to make it the conclusion of the first blessing of every Amidah, the central prayer said standing during every service: “Praised are you Lord, Shield of Abraham”.