Questions and Suggested Answers
Based on the writings of Nehama Leibowitz
In actual fact he (Eliezer) reported the events as they had happened. But we cannot explain the reason for all the additions and omissions in his account: for they are legion. He told them all that had gone between himself and his master, his transactions with Rebecca and that God had providentially arranged matters just as Abraham 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 from God. The recapitulation involves merely a variation in wording but the sense is the same. This is unavoidable in reported speech - it preserves the sense but not the exact wording. (The latter sentence is a quotation from Ibn Ezra who repeats it insistently). Radak on 24, 39
In what way does the approach of Radak and Ibn Ezra differ from the commentators we have followed?
The point to consider is the approach of the commentators to what is known as “close reading of the text.” Are “extraneous” details to be subject to intensive scrutiny or are they to be treated merely as embellishments to the main focus of the narrative. All would agree that in the Parasha’s detail of events, the main objective is getting a wife for Yitzhak who would meet the criteria set down by Abraham. Eliezer fulfilled the essence of the mission; that is, the bottom line - a successful journey! To Radak and Ibn Ezra the extra details are incidental to the main theme of the story and therefore do not impact on the climax. Thus they would agree that one need not concentrate on nuances derived from comparing the retelling with Abraham’s original words because they are as consequential as a listing of which hotels Eliezer chose during his travels.
The commentators quoted in the studies approach the Torah text in a diametrically opposite manner. Each word, each letter, each “rendition”, is examined because they yield priceless insights. To them, the Torah narrative is not a mere chronicle of events. Rather, within Torah is concentrated layers upon layers of meaning. A comparison of the text version with Eliezer’s version provides invaluable insight into the drama which surrounded the choice of a wife for Isaac to become a link in perpetuating the Jewish people. In reference to these commentators, one should keep in mind the observation of the Netziv that all of Torah is to be studied as Shirah - poetry.
List the pros and cons of the two approaches.
Radak and Ibn Ezra view Torah’s narrative as importing an eternal message. “What is the bottom line?” seems to be their exclusive concern. In our narrative, they do not see any eternal message in the fact that Eliezer was faithful and resourceful in fulfilling his mission. While true, it has no compelling enduring message. The extraneous details are at best but footnotes to history, whereas in reference to Halachic teaching, it is the nature of legislative literature to lend itself to detailed study and keen interpretation. In narrative, on the other hand, the details surrounding the main focus are there for decoration only.
Those commentators who follow the opposite approach would respond that one can feel and experience the plot only by immersing oneself into the rhythm of the words and not in a dry reading of the text. A modern example would be watching a performance with or without background music. If there is no such music, it would be like looking at a dramatic event through a window. You see what is happening but your heart does not quicken to what transpires. You are just a distant, even aloof spectator. In our personal lives when we hear of an important event, our first reaction is usually “tell me every detail” because we could then identify with what happened. In addition, this approach provides a greater challenge to the reader who must “discover” all the facts for himself or herself and thus be part of the event itself.
Prepared by: Rabbi Mordechai Spiegelman veteran yeshiva educator (USA) now residing in Jerusalem