By Bill Dauster
This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18.
Does a story gain or lose from retelling? Either way, it probably changes.
The product of an oral storytelling culture, the Torah loves to tell and retell tales. And if we read closely, we often see the tale change.
This week’s Torah reading provides a case in point. The narrator — whom we presume to be objective and truthful — tells how Abraham sends his servant — whom tradition identifies as Eliezer — to the land of Abraham’s birth, Aram-naharaim, where Eliezer meets Rebekah and choses her to become the bride of Abraham’s son Isaac. Then Eliezer meets with Rebekah’s family and tells that story all over again.
What does Eliezer change in his retelling? Is Eliezer right to change the tale?
The narrator tells us that Abraham admonished Eliezer not to bring Isaac to Aram-naharaim. But when Eliezer went there, he did not mention Abraham’s admonition to the people of the land. Neither did Eliezer mention how God had earlier instructed Abraham to leave his family and his native land.
Scholars Nahum Sarna and Gunther Plaut both describe Eliezer’s omissions here as “tactful.” The scholar Terence Fretheim calls it “politic.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch calls it “politeness.” And the 15th century commentator Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel and Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni explain that Eliezer obviously did not want to reveal to the people of the land how little Abraham thought of them.
Sarna also noted how Eliezer made a point of emphasizing Abraham’s wealth and “subtly” noted that Isaac was Abraham’s sole heir. Sarna calls Eliezer’s retelling “an artful readjustment of language to meet the exigencies of the situation.”
These commentators paint Eliezer as a skillful advocate.
Fretheim argues that the biblical retelling gives modern interpreters permission to “play with the details of the story in view of the context in which the teller stands.” Fretheim thus reasons that Eliezer’s advocacy provides a model for how we can retell the Bible’s stories today to fit our times.
In a midrash, Rabbi Acha reads the Torah’s long recounting of Eliezer’s speech as proof that the conversations of the patriarch’s servants are more pleasing to God than the Torah of the patriarch’s descendants. But the Torah also spills much ink on the sayings and doings of bad men, so we might question Rabbi Acha’s conclusion that much biblical text necessarily equates to divine endorsement.
Rashi noted that Eliezer changed the sequence of events in his telling, saying that he asked whose daughter Rebekah was before he gave her jewelry, when according to the narrator, Eliezer gave her jewelry before he knew who she was. Rashi suggests that Eliezer did this so that Rebekah’s family would not question how Eliezer could give jewelry to someone whom he did not know. Did Eliezer lie to protect his reputation?
The 15th century Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Arama, known by the title of his commentary Akeidat Yitzchak, wrote that Eliezer misrepresented the conditions of his mission when he said that Abraham sent him to seek out Abraham’s family, when Abraham had in fact simply sent Eliezer to Aram-naharaim. Akeidat Yitzchak concluded that Eliezer’s misrepresentation was nonetheless permissible because it was done to promote God’s will. Is Akeidat Yitzchak saying that the ends justify the means?
Today, in a time when some rely on “alternative facts,” others might feel a need to hew more closely in our advocacy to what can be proven true. For a good cause, how much bending the truth is right?
Questions for Discussion
Is it appropriate to repackage the truth to fit the audience?
Is there a difference between omitting facts and stretching the facts?
Does it matter if one does so for a good
Bill Dauster, a Senate, White House and campaign staffer since 1986, has written Wikipedia articles on the 54 Torah portions.