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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chayei Sarah: I swear

Summary

Abraham felt the need to make Eliezer take an oath. In several instances Abraham himself made an oath. Righteous people make an oath to control their evil inclination. One must test and investigate one's conduct to determine whether there are any wrongdoings or hidden motives. The honest and righteous person must scrutinize every action taken and every word uttered. In order to overcome his tempting challenges Abraham decided to take an oath.

Eliezer's oath

In this week's Torah portion, Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, on a mission to find a suitable match for Abraham's son, Isaac. Prior to sending him, Abraham makes Eliezer swear not to take a wife from the daughters of the Cananites (see Bereishis 24:1-9). It seems strange that Abraham felt the need to make Eliezer take an oath. After all, he was no simple servant. The Talmud (Yuma 28b) says that Eliezer mastered all the lessons taught by Abraham. He even taught these lessons to others. The Midrash Rabba (Bereishis 59:8) further tells us that Eliezer was in control of his evil inclination, similar to Abraham himself. This was in addition to being the manager of Abraham's household. Such a trusted person, who Abraham relied on in so many areas, could he not be trusted on this mission without an oath?

Abraham's oaths

It seems even stranger that not only did Abraham make his servant swear an oath, in several instances he himself made an oath. When the King of Sodom offered Abraham the spoils that he had captured in the war, Abraham raised his hands in an oath and said: (Bereishis 14:22) "If as much as a thread to a shoe-strap and if I take anything of yours [I am violating this oath]." Similarly, Rashi (ibid) explains that when Efron, at the beginning of this week's portion (Bereishis 23:13), offered Abraham the Cave of Machphelah at no charge to bury Sarah, Abraham responded with an oath and said: "I have already given you the price of the field. Accept it from me that I may bury my dead there."

Evil inclination

The Ramban (Bereishis 14:22) quotes from the Sifri (Devarim 10:6) that righteous people make an oath to control their evil inclination. In general, it is not commendable to swear and make oaths as it is a very serious offence and transgression to violate what one promised in an oath. As it says, (Bamidbar 30:3) "He may not profane his words." However, our sages here teach us that in an instance where a person is battling his evil inclination, an oath could be a useful weapon to overcome a temptation.

Test and investigate

Often we find ourselves in a situation where we are inclined to take a certain action, or to refrain from taking action. It takes a lot of scrutiny to determine whether our motives are totally pure or whether we have some personal gain or interest in mind. The Talmud (Eruvin 43a) says that a person should always test one's actions and investigate one's conduct. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto (Path of the Just, Chapter 3) explains that our sages here teach us two separate lessons. First of all, we should test our actions in general to see whether there are any wrongdoings. Furthermore, we should constantly investigate even our own good deeds to determine whether there are any hidden motives.

Fooling oneself

A person can even fool oneself to think that one's deeds are well intended. Only after honest scrutiny one will realize that not everything is as it appears to be. For instance, a person may give some advice to an acquaintance based on what is good for the advisor or a third party. The Torah (Vayikra 19:14) warns us: "Do not put a stumbling block in front of a blind person and you shall fear your G'd." Rashi quotes from our sages that this means that we should not give advice to someone who is not aware of a certain situation when the advice is not totally in the recipient's best interest. The Torah concludes, "And you shall fear your G'd." Says Rashi, since this is an issue that other people cannot verify and one can always claim that one had the other person's best interests in mind, therefore we are reminded that there is a G'd above who knows a person's innermost thoughts, even better than the person himself.

Lot's calculations

Sometimes it might not even be a personal gain or interest that brings about a certain action, but rather a lack of sensitivity or awareness. In last week's portion Rashi (18:4) points out the difference in conduct between Abraham and Lot. Prior to letting his visitors in, Abraham told them to wash their feet. Lot, on the other hand, told them to stay over night and only then to wash their feet. Rashi explains that Abraham was concerned that maybe his visitors were Arabs who worshipped the dust and he therefore made sure that they did not bring any idols into his house. Lot, however, was not worried and told them to rest up first. Later Rashi himself (19:2) explains that Lot had a good reason for conducting himself in that manner. Lot lived in Sodom where it was illegal to host strangers without reporting them to the authorities. He reasoned that if the Sodomites would see that they had washed their feet, they would assume that his visitors had been with him for a number of days. This would incriminate both him and his visitors for not reporting their stay. To avoid exposure, he decided it was better that the visitors wait washing their feet till the next morning when they would leave in any case. So we see that Lot had a valid reason for his actions. So why did Rashi say earlier that it was because he did not care to bring idols into his house? The truth is however that if Lot had scrutinized his actions carefully he would have realized that the prohibitions of bringing idols into his house should override his concern for his visitors. The washing of their feet was not the only way the Sodomite authorities could verify when the strangers had arrived, and only his lack of concern for bringing idols into his house brought him to make his calculation.

Every action and word

The Talmud (Ketuboth 105b) relates how the sages invalidated themselves from being judges in a case where they might have the slightest personal interest to benefit one party over the other (see Torah Attitude, Parashas Shoftim, Here comes the bribe). This applies in every aspect of life, in our personal life with family and friends, in our business dealings, as well as in community affairs. Who do we befriend and who do we promote? When do we speak up and when do we remain silent? The honest and righteous person must scrutinize every action taken and every word uttered to be considered a truly righteous person in the eyes of the Torah.

Overcome temptation

Our sages explain (Midrash Rabba Bereishis 59:9) that although Eliezer was the most trusted servant of Abraham in all his affairs and teachings, when he was sent on this mission to find a suitable match for Isaac he was faced with a dilemma. Eliezer had a daughter of his own that he felt would be a perfect match for Abraham's son. Our sages point out that this brought about Eliezer's comment to Abraham when he said: (Bereishis 24:5) "Maybe the woman will not wish to follow me to this land " Abraham was aware of Eliezer's personal interest and knew that this could taint his judgment and jeopardize the mission. Therefore, Abraham made Eliezer take an oath to overcome his personal temptation. In the same way, when Abraham was dealing with the King of Sodom and with Efron, Abraham himself felt the need to make an oath of his own. Although he was entitled to receive the spoils from the war, and it was permissible for him to accept a present from Efron, Abraham had good reasons to decline these offers. However, in order to overcome these tempting challenges Abraham decided to take an oath.

Worthy descendants

We all have our personal temptations in life. Although nowadays we in general refrain from making oaths, the lesson we learn from the situations of Abraham and Eliezer still apply for every individual. It is our obligation to internalize the lessons of the Talmud quoted above to always test our actions and scrutinize the motives and rationale of our conduct. In this way, we are worthy descendants of our Patriarchs who were known as straight and righteous people.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.


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