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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. We must test and investigate our conduct to determine whether there are any wrongdoings or hidden motives. The honest and righteous person scrutinizes every action he takes and every word he utters. In order to overcome his tempting challenges, Abraham decided to take an oath.

Eliezer's oath

In this week's parasha, 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 Canaanites (see Bereishis 24:1-9). It seems strange that Abraham felt the need to make Eliezer take an oath. After all, he was not just a simple servant. The Talmud (Yuma 28b) says that Eliezer mastered all the lessons taught by Abraham. He even repeated these lessons to others. The Midrash Rabba (Bereishis 59:8) further tells us that Eliezer emulated Abraham and was in control of his evil inclination. Besides all this, Eliezer managed Abraham's estate. 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

Even more strange, not only did Abraham make his trusted servant swear an oath, we find in several instances where 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 Ephron, at the beginning of this week's parasha (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, our sages discourage swearing and making 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 when one is battling his evil inclination, it is commendable to make an oath to overcome one's temptation.

Test and investigate

We often find ourselves in situations where we are inclined to take a certain action, or to refrain from taking action. It takes a lot of scrutiny and soul-searching 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 his actions and investigate his 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 they are right or wrong. Furthermore, we must constantly investigate our good deeds to determine whether they are pure or there are hidden motives.

Fooling oneself

It is very easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking that our deeds are well intended. Only after honest scrutiny will we realize that not everything is as it appears to be. For instance, sometimes people may give advice to their 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 may not give advice to someone, if the advice is not totally in the recipient's best interest. The Torah concludes, "And you shall fear your G'd." Says Rashi, other people cannot verify the true intention of the advisor. 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 parasha, Rashi (18:4) points out the difference between Abraham and Lot. Before Abraham invited his visitors into his tent, he told them to wash their feet. Lot, on the other hand, told them to stay overnight 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 their idols into his house. Lot, however, was not worried and told them to rest up first. Later Rashi (19:2) explains that Lot actually had a valid reason for conducting himself the way he did. Lot lived in Sodom where it was illegal to host strangers without reporting them to the authorities. He reasoned that if the Sodomites would find out that the visitors had washed their feet, the authorities would assume that his visitors had been with him for a number of days. This would incriminate both him and his visitors, as he had not reported their stay. To avoid exposure, he decided it was better that the visitors waited to wash their feet till the next morning, when they would leave in any case. This seems strange. If this was Lot's rationale, why did Rashi say earlier that it was because he did not care about bringing idols into his house? The truth is that if Lot had scrutinized his actions carefully, he would have realized that the prohibition of bringing idols into his house should override his concern for his visitors' welfare. Even if the visitors did not wash their feet, the Sodomite authorities could still verify when they had arrived. It was only Lot's lack of concern for bringing idols into his house that 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, including 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? In order to be truly righteous in the eyes of the Torah, we must scrutinize every action we take and every word we utter

Overcome temptation

Our sages explain (Midrash Rabba Bereishis 59:9) that Eliezer was truly Abraham's most trusted servant in all his affairs and teachings. However, when Abraham sent him on this mission, to find a suitable match for Isaac, Eliezer was faced with a dilemma. For Eliezer had a daughter of his own that he felt would be a perfect match for Isaac. Our sages point out that it was this that 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 Ephron, Abraham felt he needed to make an oath. Although he was entitled to receive the spoils from the war, and it was permissible for him to accept a present from Ephron, Abraham had good reasons to decline these offers. However, in order to overcome his temptations, Abraham decided to take an oath.

Worthy descendants

We all have our personal temptations and challenges in life. Although we in general refrain from making oaths, the lesson we learn from Abraham and Eliezer still apply. It is our obligation to internalize these lessons and test our actions and scrutinize the motives and rationale behind 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 notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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