“Beware Not to Return My Son There!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we learn that Abraham, who is well-on in years, is deeply concerned about his family’s future.

Abraham summons his senior servant, the Damascan Eliezer, and makes him promise that he will not take a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac, from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom he dwells. Abraham instructs Eliezer to travel to Abraham’s homeland, Aram Naharayim (Mesopotamia), to Abraham’s family, to take a wife for Isaac from there.

Once assigned with this vital mission, the Damascan Eliezer poses a most pertinent question to his master Abraham. The Torah, in Genesis 24:5, records Eliezer’s query: “ Va’yoh’mer ay’lahv ha’eh’vehd : Oo’lye loh toh’veh ha’ee’shah la’leh’chet ah’cha’rye el ha’ah’retz ha’zoht; Heh’ha’shayv ah’sheev et bin’chah el ha’ah’retz ah’sher yah’tzah’tah mee’shahm?” The servant said to him [Abraham]: “Perhaps the woman will not wish to follow me to this land; shall I take your son back to the land from which you departed?” Responding firmly, Abraham warns Eliezer that under no circumstances may he bring Isaac to the foreign land. Abraham assures the servant that the Al-mighty, the G-d of Heaven, Who has cared for Abraham since He took him from the land of his birth, will send an angel before Eliezer, and that Eliezer will surely succeed in his mission to take a wife for Abraham’s son from there.

Scripture, in Genesis 24:9, then records that the servant, Eliezer, placed his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master, and swore to him regarding this matter. Eliezer then set out with ten of Abraham’s camels, laden with great bounty, and begins to make his way to Aram Naharayim, to the city of Nachor, where Eliezer encounters Isaac’s future wife, Rebecca. The rest is history!

The rabbis of the Midrash are perplexed by Eliezer’s challenging question. What prompted Eliezer to even consider that the girl would not go with him? After all, as a servant, he is expected to fulfill his master’s bidding without questioning. The rabbis, therefore, suggest that Eliezer himself had a daughter, whom he cherished, and wanted desperately to marry her off to Isaac. The suggestion that a girl from a foreign land might refuse to come was Eliezer’s subtle way of hinting to Abraham about his own daughter, and to find out if there was any interest on Abraham’s part. Abraham, who was certain that G-d would find the appropriate match for Isaac, rejected Eliezer’s offer.

Although we find later, as the narrative develops, that Eliezer is quite adept at finding a proper mate for Isaac, we do see at one point where Eliezer, inappropriately, raises the concern again. In Genesis 24:39, when talking with Rebecca’s family, Eliezer recalls the conversation that he had with Abraham, about the woman not being willing to follow him to Canaan, planting in the family’s mind a possible reason to refuse to allow Rebecca to go with Eliezer. Fortunately, the strategy does not work, but only because Rebecca is determined to leave her family in the hope of finding a better living environment, and, of course, gaining a very special husband.

The Code of Jewish LawYorah Deah 240:25, raises a fascinating issue in the name of the Rama, who states that if parents object to their son’s choice for a wife, the son need not listen to them. The Code of Jewish Law also cites the case of a student who wishes to leave home, to go to a far off place where a special rabbi resides, and where the child feels certain that he will see success in his Torah studies. The father protests because he is fearful that in the far off city his child will be influenced by the presence of many idolaters. Again, the Code of Jewish Law declares that the child need not heed his parents’ objections. The Aruch HaShulchan explains that, in this circumstance, parents need not fear for the security of their child because one who is in engaged in the mitzvah of learning Torah will not be harmed. Indeed, the mitzvah itself serves as a protection.

A similar case, with an alternate outcome, is cited by Rabbi Nissen Telushkin, in his volume on the weekly Torah portion, entitled Sefer HaTorah V’ha’olam. Rabbi Telushkin considers the case of a strongly-committed observant Jew, who has, what appears to be, a promising business opportunity in a location where there is no observant Jewish community–no Shabbat, no Kashrut, no Mikveh, and no schools for the children. May the observant Jew move to this location in order to improve his livelihood, especially since he is so committed to his faith? Furthermore, not only does the businessman personally have confidence in himself, he even hopes to spiritually influence the local Jews who already reside there. Rabbi Telushkin cites a number of authorities who recommended against making such a move, underscoring their concern that the G-d-fearing, observant businessman will eventually be influenced by the negative environment, and abandon his observance, rather than positively influence the others.

It seems as if the difference between these varied examples is that, in the case of the student, the Torah is expected to serve as a shield and provide protection for him. However, in the case of the businessman, the fact that he is moving to improve his livelihood will provide no protection for his venture.

It is interesting that Rabbi Telushkin also cites a number of other cases of rabbis who asked the rabbinic authorities whether they may move to extremely assimilated cities in the hope of reestablishing observance there, returning the local people to their faith and to traditional practice. Rabbi Telushkin relates that he himself once asked the Chofetz Chaim whether he should leave the small observant town where he currently served as rabbi to move to a much larger, less observant city. The Chofetz Chaim strongly recommended against the move. The Chofetz Chaim explained that, while it is of great merit for a person to risk one’s life to help bring other Jews to observance, a person may not place himself and his own family in harm’s way by moving to such a spiritual wilderness. Obviously, if one already resides in such a location, one is obligated to reach out to the others. However, since rabbis also have a responsibility to their own families, they may not subject themselves or their families to such dangers.

This discussion raises a flag concerning the followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who seem not to adhere to this practice. After all, Chabad Shluchim (emissaries) go to the most remote places on earth, establishing footholds in Nepal, Taiwan, China, locales with little or no Jewish community, only many Jewish travelers. In some of these cities, the Shluchim manage heroically to establish synagogues, schools and mikvehs, for themselves and for travelers who become permanent residents of these far off countries.

The difference, however, between the Lubavitchers and the previously-cited cases is that when the Lubavitch emissaries settle in places where there are few Jews or a preponderance of totally non-observant Jews, the Lubavitchers establish footholds on their own terms, never seeking to become part of, or assimilate into, the general non-Jewish or non-observant Jewish community. While this might appear to be a fine distinction, their insularity serves to protect the Lubavitch emissaries and their families from many of the negative outside influences. To the contrary, the people who come into their domain and their Chabad houses are expected to act and behave in a manner that is appropriate for Chabad and observant Judaism.

Isaac, who was considered a “sacred offering,” was never permitted to leave the land of Canaan, but even if Isaac were to leave Canaan, Abraham understood well the grave spiritual risk that his son would face. He, therefore, forbade Eliezer to take Isaac from Canaan and to travel with him to a foreign land in search of an appropriate mate.

May you be blessed.