Conflict of Interest
“Conflict of Interest”
25 Cheshvan 5777 • Chayei Sara • November 26, 2016
Rabbi Alexander Davis
Make me a match,
Find me a find,
catch me a catch
Look through your book,
And make me a perfect match
I’ll bring the veil,
You bring the groom,
Slender and pale.
Bring me a ring for I’m longing to be,
The envy of all I see.
No, I didn’t spend Thanksgiving watching reruns of Fiddler on the Roof. I’ll save that for Christmas Eve. Actually, I binged on Star Wars movies with my boys. But I’ve been thinking about the idea of choosing. I’ve been considering what we look for and how we choose the perfect match. Do we look for someone erudite, someone knowledgeable and wise? Or do we look for someone wealthy, who understands business, who will be a support? Or perhaps we choose based on looks, someone who looks the part.
Make him a scholar.
Make him rich as a king.
For me, well,
I wouldn’t holler
If he were as handsome as anything.
Whatever our criteria for choosing, we have to accept that once we choose, he is the one. Therefore we are told, “consider wisely, make a good choice.”
You know that I’m
Still very young.
Please, take your time.
Up to this minute,
That I could get stuck for good.
Now we could continue with a Fiddler sing-a-long but I want to turn to the Yenta in this week’s parasha not so much to explore match-making but rather to explore a fundamental principle that will indeed make us as a community, a people and a nation, “the envy of all to see.”
Eliezer was Abraham’s trusted servant. He was “in charge of Abraham’s entire household” (Gen. 24:2). Eliezer appointed all the household help and assigned them their duties. When he spoke, it is as if Abraham was speaking. You could call him Abraham’s chief of staff. Understandably, Abraham depended on Eliezer and assigned him the most important, sensitive mission- finding a wife for his son Isaac.
Eliezer was Abraham’s right hand man, his loyal servant who made serving his master his top priority. But even Eliezer’s service was at times suspect. When we look closely, questions arise about the nature of Eliezer intentions- not selfless but selfish. The specific issue is one that has been much in the news: conflict of interest. Here is the scene.
Abraham calls forth Eliezer saying, “I want you to go find a wife for my son Isaac. Go back to my country to find him a suitable match.” As Abraham’s trusted servant, you might expect Eliezer would respond, “Yes sir. Right away sir.” Instead, he says, “perhaps the woman will not want to follow me. Should I really go all the way back to your country?” (24:5). It’s almost as if Eliezer is trying to talk Abraham out of his request. It is not hard to appreciate Eliezer’s hesitation. He doesn’t feel like shelping hundreds of miles through the desert to set up a blind date for Isaac. But Eliezer is not objecting to the hassle of travel on a holiday weekend. There is an ulterior motive to his objection. The midrash explains: Eliezer himself had a beautiful daughter. He wanted her to marry Isaac. “Why do I have to go all the way back to Ur,” we can imagine him plotting. “All I have to do is convince Abraham that Isaac’s bashert is right here in his back yard.”
If this sounds like conjecture, we can see a hint of the truth behind the legend by reading the Torah very closely.
When Eliezer travels back to Ur and meets Rebecca and recalls and repeats his conversation with Abraham saying, “Abraham told me to go back to his native land to find a wife for his son. And I said to him, ‘perhaps she won’t want to follow with me.’”
It sounds like an accurate account of the conversation with Abraham. But when we look in a Torah scroll, we find a small discrepancy. The word “perhaps” in Hebrew is “ulai” (aleph-vav-lamed-yod). But in this scene with Rebecca it is spelled aleph-lamed-yod which can be read “eilay, unto me” (24:39). Rashi explains, “unto me there is a beautiful daughter whom Abraham should choose.”
Now you see the problem. In the words of the Kotzker rebbe, Eliezer was “nogeia b’davar.” He had a conflict of interest. How could he be objective in finding a match when he really wanted his daughter to be “the one?” Really, he should have recused himself from the assignment on the chance that his bias would interfere in his mission. In the end, of course, once Eliezer met Rebecca, he realized that God had made the perfect shidduch.
At first, Eliezer was not honest about this conflict. He said, “perhaps” she will not want to go with me. But in his heart he was thinking, “unto me there is a daughter.” When speaking with Abraham, Eliezer was not forthcoming about the conflict because he didn’t want to lose his role as chief of staff. Though generally a trusted servant, in this case, his selfishness almost disrupted his duty. He was serving his own needs, not those of Abraham. In the words of the Kotzker Rebbe, “he was biased and really sought what was good for himself.”
This story about Eliezer stands in stark contrast to our patriarch Avraham. Earlier in the Torah we read that Abraham fought in the battle with four kings and was victorious. As a reward, they offered him gold, silver and precious stones. But Abraham refused to take the booty saying, “people will think I did it for the money. No, I participated because it was the just and right thing to do to try to bring peace to this region” (based on Tanya D’bei Eliyahu 25). In other words, Abraham avoided even the appearance of impropriety. He did not want to appear self-serving.
To be fair, it is only natural for Eliezer to want to marry off his daughter. And we can imagine that there are certain perks to being chief of staff. But there are times when you have to know when to recuse yourself. There are times when you have to act with great transparency. For, God calls upon us to live up to the highest ethical and moral standards doing “what is good and right in God’s eyes” (Deut. 6:18). Eliezer learned that lesson. What about us?
Last Sunday, a girl in my b’nai mitzvah tefillin class asked a great question. She said, “if the Torah is a book of laws, why does it start with stories and not laws.” I told her that even though there are almost no mitzvot in Bereshit, this first book of the Torah, the stories themselves teach essential lessons. That is why Genesis is referred to as “sefer hay’shar” the book of the upright.” It is a book calling us to follow ‘mesilat yesharim, the path of the upright.’ It is calling on us to live righteous, honest, holy lives by following the ways of Abraham and Sarah. And I have to say, that among many things, this is one that concerns me today. I worry that our leaders are not role models of righteousness, leaders who act selflessly, who strive for justice, compassion, fairness. I worry for our children and for us on two accounts; first, that we are going to follow in their ways and second, that we are going to be settle for less. We are going to lower our expectations what we look for in a spouse, a teacher, a community leader, a public servant.
If you share that concern, there is but one response: as parents, a community, as leaders we must strive for righteousness, to live lives that will gain respect and admiration, to live a life worthy of emulation.
In this vein, I’d like to share a teaching by the Netivot Shalom, the 20th century Chasidic rebbe, Noach Chayim Berezovsky on this week’s parasha.
“The essence of the Book of Genesis, he said, is to tell the stories of Abraham and Sara such that each and every Jew is required to ask, ‘when will my deed reach those of our patriarchs and matriarchs.’” Even if we can’t fully attain that high level, well perhaps we can be “nogeia b’davar.” Maybe we can at least touch it. And if nothing else, the teaching of the Torah should inspire us to set our sights high to walk the path of upright.
The worst thing, the Netivot Shalom goes on to say, is to accept that this behavior is good enough, to think, “I don’t have to strive for more. I don’t have to admit mistakes; I don’t have to repair mistakes.” The worst thing is for injustice to become commonplace, for wrongdoing to become acceptable. No, a Jew must aspire to the level of Abraham and Sarah. A Jew must believe that she can he can follow the path of righteousness.
Understand, the Netivot Shalom concludes, each of us has a unique mission to fill in this world to repair this world. This shlichut, this mission is something we have each been personally assigned. No one else can fulfill it for us. Maybe our shlichut our special mission is bringing joy to another, or comfort, or healing or help or wisdom. Each of us has a role. Each of us is a servant. Each of us is a servant of God assigned something in this world to repair.
To fulfill this role, we must understand that service begins with selflessness. And so from the outset we must ask, “Am I serving myself. Or am I serving the need of others? Am I fulfilling the expectation of The Other, the Holy One of Blessing?”
I understand that this sets the bar high. But even when we don’t reach that level, let us learn from Eliezer to recognize our bias, take responsibility, put aside personal interests and desires, and to fix what needed fixing. Eliezer saw that by doing so, he discovered a role model of compassion in the next mother of the Jewish people. He thus ensured a healthy and holy future for the nation. So may it be for our people and our country. Keyn yehi ratzon. Amen.