Hayei Sarah: On getting self-interest out of the way

Hayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1-25:18

I Kings 1:1-31

When Abraham instructs his trusted servant to find a wife for Isaac, the servant asks about the consequences if "perhaps the woman will not wish to follow me back to this land" (Gen. 24:5, 39). Some careful readers assert that this Hebrew word for "perhaps" usually refers to a welcome, rather than a disappointing, outcome. It sounds as if the servant has a reason for wanting his mission not to succeed.

Indeed he may. It seems that, as long as Isaac has no heir, the servant stands to inherit his wealth. Years earlier, when Abraham had not yet become a father, he identified his trusted servant Eliezer of Damascus as his heir (Gen. 15:2-4). Until Isaac's birth, Eliezer apparently stood to inherit Abraham's wealth. Even now, until Isaac fathers a child, the servant stands to inherit from him.

One midrashic source understands Eliezer's role conflict as far worse. According to the Midrash Rabbah, Eliezer has a daughter, whom he hopes Isaac will marry (Beresheet Rabbah 59:9). When Eliezer carries out his mission as a servant, he destroys his opportunity as a father.

Given the conflict of roles, we can understand why Abraham insists that his servant swear to carry out the mission (Gen. 24:2-3). And the servant does carry out the mission, traveling to a distant land, praying for God's help, devising a test to identify the best qualified bride, negotiating first with the young woman, then with her family and finally bringing her to Isaac. The servant heroically carries out his responsibilities at whatever cost to himself.

Among the faults listed in the confession of Yom Kippur, we recite, "We have given bad advice." The rabbis understand this as a transgression of "before the blind you shall not put a stumbling block" (Lev. 19:14). As they explain: "If someone asks you for advice, do not give him advice improper for him…do not tell him to sell his field and buy a donkey, if you intend to arrange to take the field" (Sifra 35).

A deceitful adviser, by concealing his desire for the field, misleads the trusting property owner into offering it for sale. In this example, as in our own experience, the adviser's self interest motivates unreliable advice.

We should not think of this as a rare occurrence. On the contrary, almost every profession has its secrets; almost every role we play tempts us to shade or conceal what we know in ways that benefit us. The parent who says, "You need to go to bed now," may or may not mean, "I need you to go to bed now." The teacher may face the temptation to employ a mode of instruction, not because it works best for the student, but because it works more easily for the teacher. A difference in the salesman's rate of commission on diverse products may result in unreliable advice to the purchaser. And we know small gestures that convince people they have acted wisely in asking our advice.

We do not deceive only others: Even as we maneuver, our ability to convince ourselves that we operate as honest advisers seems almost limitless.

Once a visitor felt disappointed by his encounter with Rabbi Mendel Morgenstern of Kutsk. The visitor bitterly complained, "I do not know what sort of angel you consulted when you went into that mystical trance, but it gave you useless advice."

The rabbi replied, "If you think I consult with angels when I hear someone's problems, you do not know me. When I listen to a person's problems, I struggle to identify my own interests. That takes a lot of concentration. When I have identified the ways I stand to benefit, I try to kick them out. If I can get my `me' out of the way, I can usually see what to do."

Abraham's faithful servant got his "me" out of the way when he sought a wife for Isaac. Perhaps as a tribute to that loyalty, in this whole story the Bible never mentions his name.