Future that transcends individual lives
Hayei Sara | Genesis 23:1-25:18
I have a fondness for Eliezer, Abraham’s faithful servant, whose single task of finding Rebekah secures the Jewish future. As Sforno remarks, “When one generation dies, another has already been set in place to succeed it.” To “succeed” means both “to achieve or to accomplish” and “to take the place of those who came before us.” The proper measure of both, succession and success, is transgenerational, and Eliezer stands for continuity.
The midrash couples Eliezer with Sarah too, not just Abraham, because Rebekah is Sarah’s successor as much as she is Isaac’s wife. Sarah introduced the ideal of opening her tent doors to strangers, for instance; when she died, says the midrash, the doors swung shut, until Rebekah opened them again, making hospitality a lasting family tradition. The point is, even the greatest life can be eclipsed overnight, if all that was great about it is not lavishly extended in the next generation. Success dies without succession.
Eliezer is described as ne’eman, “faithful,” a quality the rabbis link with God, ha’el hane’eman, as we say in the blessing over the haftara, “the faithful God,” or “El melech ne’eman” (“God, faithful ruler”), in the phrase that introduces the private recitation of the Sh’ma. Ne’emanut, “faithfulness” is God’s quality of remaining true to a promise or task through time. Eliezer too knows that his service transcends just this single charge from his master Abraham; it reverberates over the long haul, serving the larger Jewish project that Abraham has begun.
God too works across the generations, directing human destiny along a road that no single generation can traverse all by itself. Sarah is gone, but history provides Rebekah; and Eliezer, a hero of no particular proportion, is charged with the small but vital mission of helping history happen.
Ne’emanut (“faithfulness” over time) describes the implicit Jewish insistence that we count in the long run, because we are part of a long run in which to count. Despair is the fear that we are random cogs in a purposeless machine of eternity, rather than incognito Eliezers whose tiny acts of faithfulness are the hand of God in history.
We need, then, to overcome the self-centered pretense that it is a single person’s life span alone that counts. We are all links in a divine chain of being, without even knowing the identity of all the other links. They may be our parents or children, but they may equally be people we have never met or heard of but who occupy our tent the way Rebekah occupied Sarah’s.
Every year about now, the names of Nobel Prize recipients are announced: for chemistry, literature, and so forth. And I wonder:
What if we could add a Jewish Nobel Prize? What would it be? Prizes for peace or medicine are obvious candidates, but they already exist. How about prizes for justice and compassion? Yes, those would be proper Jewish categories: one for each of God’s primary attributes, celebrating the achievements of men and women who best emulate God.
But the story of Eliezer suggests a prize for ne’emanut, for faithfulness in the larger scheme we call history. My Jewish prize for ne’emanut would go to people who best epitomize God’s faithful commitment to a future that transcends individual lives.
I might even call it the Eliezer Prize, and award it to us all. For we may not all be Abrahams, Sarahs, Rebekahs, and Isaacs. But we are all Eliezers, charged with tiny chores that matter in a longer run than we will ever know. We can be faithful as God is faithful, day in and day out, but precisely on that account, we can guarantee succession for all that matters and success in the end for the causes we hold dearest.