This week’s Parashah article will be told from the perspective of Ovadya ben Malka, whose journey of t’shuvah from Birkenau to Israel has been told elsewhere.
Ovadya once asked his teacher Rav Ish-Shalom if the two of them could learn Massechet Ta’anit together. “In Saloniki, before the war,” he said, “I studied with others my own age in a tiny back room of the Bet Knesset. We learned Masechet Ta’anit under the direction of a young scholar not much older than we were. It was like dipping into an ancient and deeply-buried river, whose waters were continually renewed by the study and wonder of people like us. We went over arguments about when one should pray for rain, what it means if there is no rain, and how that becomes a matter of more than just the vagaries of nature…. How many others had gone over these things throughout the ages, with each generation taking what it needed from that source and perhaps subtly altering the course of the river?
“But then the Germans came…. I never finished Massechet Ta’anit.”
And so, the journey began. Our story takes place on page 4a of Massechet Ta’anit.
א”ר שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן שלשה שאלו שלא כהוגן. לשנים השיבוהו כהוגן, לאחד השיבוהו שלא כהוגן. ואלו הן אליעזר עבד אברהם ושאול בן קיש ויפתח הגלעדי אליעזר עבד אברהם דכתיב (בראשית כד-יד) “והיה הנערה אשר אומר אליה הטי נא כדך וגו’.” יכול אפי’ חיגרת אפי’ סומא! השיבו כהוגן ונזדמנה לו רבקה.
Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: Three [men] prayed inappropriately. Two of them were answered appropriately [were fortunate in the reply they received] and one was not. They were Eliezer, the servant of Avraham; Shaul, the son of Kish; and Yiftah the Giladi.
Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, as it is written, “So let it come to pass, that the maiden to whom I shall say, ‘Let down your jar etc.’” She might have been lame or blind, but he was fortunate in the answer given to him in that Rivka chanced to meet him.
“There is something bothering me about this….”
Rav Ish-Shalom loves a challenge. He looked up with a mischievous smile dancing in his eyes. “Yes?”
I wasn’t sure what to answer him. “Three people prayed ‘lo k’hogen’—inappropriately…” I was reminded of a cold spring morning in 1943….
“When we first met, I told you that I had stopped praying….” I stopped, aware that I was skirting the edge of the abyss. I strove to keep the memory contained in the words, so that I would not be swept into it. “In the lager…. I prayed not to be selected…that they would take someone else. I will always live with the knowledge that I prayed for the death of a fellow Jew. I had prayed ‘inappropriately’ and was answered ‘appropriately’. Never again would I pray for such a thing.”
My teacher’s usual solution to my skirting the edges of memory is to draw me into the safety of the Talmud—under the wings of the Shechinah. He was quiet for a long moment and seemed to be weighing his response. “But was your prayer really ‘inappropriate’?” he asked. “Let’s read back over the examples given: Eliezer, Shaul, and Yiftah. The answer is that it isn’t what you pray for that makes the prayer appropriate, but how you pray!”
“But Eliezer….” I said. “He didn’t ask in an inappropriate way!”
“Sure he did! He was setting conditions for God. He was saying that he knew best. He was testing God!”
“Was he? Or was he just asking for communication? ‘Tell me which is the right girl for Yitzhak. I’ll make it easy for You!’ That isn’t testing God. It’s only asking for a sign—for certainty.”
Rav Ish-Shalom nodded. “Yes, we all want certainty. We want to be relieved of the pain of our doubts.”
“And of our responsibility….” I said. I suddenly realized that I had strengthened his argument, rather than my own.
“And of our responsibility….” echoed Rav Ish-Shalom. “But understand that uncertainty is a condition of our free will. To ask for certain knowledge of right and wrong is to ask for an end of all free choice.”
“But how can we not ask?” As usual, Rav Ish-Shalom had succeeded in getting under my skin. “Eliezer was doing the best he could. He knew Yitzhak. He knew that kindness was what was needed for Yitzhak, especially after what he had been through. So he set a test where kindness was the criterion to be measured.”
“Still,” said Rav Ish-Shalom, “he was expressing arrogance: ‘I know what is best for Yitzhak. I know better than God!’”
I started to interrupt, but my teacher was on a roll. “Look at the way he expressed all this! ‘Let it be that the girl who lets down her jar for me to drink and volunteers to water my camels too….’! This is a prayer?! He should have stopped after asking God to help him. But he went on to ask for proof that the one who passed his little test was the right one. ‘Then I’ll know that you’ve done kindness to your servant Avraham.’ What? God had never done any kindness to Avraham up to then?! What’s this need of proof all of a sudden?”
I was beginning to see what he was getting at. I leaned back in my chair and thought aloud at the ceiling for a moment. “You know…that ties into something you told me once—that the one who waits to see if his prayer is answered loses his place in Olam HaBa.”
Could it be that our Olam Haba depends on the link between our faith and our free will? R’ Chaim of Volozhin seemed to think so:
The actions themselves of the person constitute the reward in Olam Haba. After the soul departs from the body it rises to take pleasure and satisfaction with the light, energy, and worlds of Kedusha (Holiness) that have been added and multiplied by his good actions. This is what the Sages meant when they said that “All of Israel have a portion to the World-to-Come [We translate it as in the World-to-Come, but the literal translation is to the World-to-Come] and not in the World-to-Come. “In” implies that Olam Haba is ready and waiting from the time of Creation, as if it were something with a separate existence, and if man warrants he will receive a portion of it for his reward [like a piece of candy waiting in God’s pocket to be given to whoever deserves it]. In truth, Olam Haba is [made up of] the actions of the person, which he expanded and added and perfected into a place for himself [to dwell].
(Nefesh HaChaim 1:12)
I thought about this and Rav Ish-Shalom gave me some space to track my slow thoughts.
“But Eliezer was only human,” I finally said. “He prayed for what he wanted. Didn’t you once tell me that we should pray for what we need and let God work out the details? Why would you say that Eliezer’s prayer is inappropriate? Or more precisely, why did you hint that my prayer would not be considered as such. After all, I prayed for someone else to die in my stead.”
“No, you prayed to be saved. One can leave it up to God to work out the details.”
“But I did know what I was asking. In that situation, one knows who’s next in line. It’s easy enough to see who will go if I don’t….”
I stopped. Too close. I dove back into the safe waters of the page in front of me and read ahead a bit. “But what of this next example-—Avraham and the Akeda. Was that not equally a test of God?”
My teacher shook his head. “No, it was a test of Avraham, only Avraham misunderstood the command. Hence, the association with the phrase ‘lo ala b’daati’—it never entered my mind.”
“Maybe…” I conceded. “But maybe Avraham thought, ‘All right. You want to cut off the very future that You Yourself have promised—the nation that You have said will be a blessing to all mankind? Fine! Let’s see if You’ll go through with it!”
Was Avraham not also searching for certainty by turning the tables and testing God?
Our time was up and we parted with the question hanging there between us. On the way home, I thought of a passage by the naturalist Loren Eiseley…Something about the human need for certainty as a search for meaning. I knew how critical is our need to find meaning in our lives; sometimes it makes the difference between life and death.
When I got home, I looked up the passage:
Man’s quest for certainty is, in the last analysis, a quest for meaning. But the meaning lies buried within himself rather than in the void he has vainly searched for portents since antiquity. (Loren Eiseley, The Firmament of Time, p. 179.)
Certainty—or at least some level of security—is a prerequisite for all life. So why should it be “inappropriate” for us to ask God for certainty, for portents from the heavens?
Perhaps, as the great naturalist said, the lesson is not to look outside ourselves for portents of certainty, but instead to learn to trust the wisdom of our own hearts. Our surroundings can influence us in many ways: they can even turn us against ourselves. We possess a clear moral compass as to right and wrong, if only we can tune out the din of circumstance shouting that bad is good and good is bad. Our choices matter, because we—perhaps alone of all creatures on Earth—are self-determining. By our choices, we create our own future, and thus our quest for certainty must lead within ourselves.
So, what of Eliezer and his quest for certainty?
I guess he just got lucky.