Better the servant than the student

Better the servant than the student

Hayei Sara | Genesis 23:1-25:18

My wife and I have been blessed, over the years, with some excellent domestic helpers in our home, usually African-American women who were not only honest and efficient but also surprisingly knowledgeable about traditional Jewish practices.

I fondly recall a woman named Mildred. She had worked for many years for Rabbi Rosencrantz, an older rabbi in the community. By then, I had a considerable library of sacred Jewish books; needless to say, I was extremely careful about how those books were handled.

When I returned home one spring afternoon I was astonished to find all my bookshelves empty. In a panic, I began to search the premises and discovered the books lying in disarray on a long table in the backyard. Mildred was systemically turning them upside down and shaking them vigorously. I yelled, “Mildred, what are you doing?”

Mildred gently replied that she was making certain there was no hametz inside any of the books. You see, it was just before Passover, and some people inspect their holy books for breadcrumbs or cookie bits that may have found their way into the volumes. Apparently Rabbi Rosencrantz was much more meticulous about inspecting his books for hametz than I was.

When I told Mildred she didn’t have to do that, she responded, “Rabbi! I am not going to allow a young upstart like you to tell me how to prepare for Passover. I learned about hametz from Rabbi Rosencrantz, and he was old enough to have been your grandfather!”

No question about it. Sometimes a gentile can take Jewish customs more seriously than a rabbi. This lesson can be learned from this week’s Torah portion. The story of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, and his mission to find a wife for his master’s son, Isaac, is narrated in great detail. We learn how Eliezer identified Rebecca as a proper wife. Eliezer then reviews the story, at length and in detail, to Rebecca’s father and brother. Finally, we read that Eliezer retold the story yet again to Isaac.

The rabbis see in all this repetition an indication of the Almighty’s attitude toward Eliezer: “The idle conversation of the patriarchs’ servants is more precious than the Torah of their descendants.”

An even more impressive illustration of the superiority of a servant’s wisdom is to be found in a passage in Talmud tractate Moed Katan, 17a. There, the story is told of the maidservant of Rabbi Judah the Prince. She once observed a father disciplining his adult son by striking him. Convinced that the son might not be able to resist reacting by striking his father back, she censured the father. In her judgment, the father was guilty of “placing an obstacle before a blind man.” She even placed him under a nidui, or ban, effectively excommunicating him, which the rabbinical courts let stand for three years pass before lifting it.

When the medieval halachic authority Rabbenu Asher questions the courts’ failure to nullify the ban sooner — a usual practice concerning bans imposed by non-credentialed individuals — he quotes the words of an earlier authority, Rabbi Avraham ben David, who writes: “The rabbis were reluctant to overturn a ban imposed by this woman because of her superior wisdom and piety. They did not consider themselves her equal until they found an outstanding sage who was demonstrably qualified to nullify her ban.”

From these passages, we can learn the timeless lesson that we must be ready to gain knowledge from every conceivable source. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” 

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