Our tradition considers that every letter and word in the Torah has something to teach us. For example, there are two short phrases in this week’s Sidra that the rabbis expanded into two laws relating to Jewish marriage: namely, that a gift of money can effect betrothal (Gen. 23:13] ) and that the woman must consent (Gen. 24:58). So, if a few words can offer us so much, what can we learn from an entire chapter?
Chapter 24 in Genesis continues for many pages and tells the story of how Eliezer achieved his mission for his master Abraham. Eliezer must find a suitable wife for Abraham’s traumatised son, Isaac, and then bring her back. To do that, Eliezer has to persuade the girl’s family to let their precious daughter go to an unknown husband. He also has to persuade the girl to agree to take this step into an uncertain future.
The story is told from two perspectives: first, from the narrator’s point of view, and then a version of the story as told by Eliezer. Nechama Leibowitz points out that many commentators, including Rashi and Ramban, have considered the significance of the difference between the two versions. For example, they notice the way Eliezer plays up Abraham’s wealth, yet plays down the differences in faith between the two families. It is reading between these two versions that Eliezer’s persuasive skill and gifted human understanding is revealed.
Rashi notices that in the narrator’s version of events, Eliezer first gives the gifts to Rebekah and only then asks her name. When Eliezer addresses Rebekah’s family, he tells them he asked her name first and then (knowing her family) gave her the gifts. Eliezer understands what the family would want to hear. They would want Rebekah to go to a wealthy family with a background similar to theirs. He also understands that what’s important to Rebekah’s family is not the same as what’s important to Rebekah. At the heart of Eliezer’s success is his ability to understand that people have different points of view and to craft the story accordingly.
Getting people to do things they may not be inclined to do is something I have spent my whole life exploring. As a parent and as an advertising professional, I know that to change hearts and minds, you need to present a story that connects to what people care about. It’s not just about rules. It’s not about statistics or Truth. Contrary to what most people believe about themselves, human beings are not rational actors. You have to bring people along, using language to persuade them. You have to start with respect for another’s perspective, and then look for common ground.
One thousand five hundred years ago, Rabbi Aha said in reference to the expansiveness of Eliezer in this chapter: ‘The conversation [or table-talk] of the servants of the Patriarchs is more beautiful than the Torah of the sons of the Patriarchs’ (Bereishit Rabbah 60:8). By this he meant the ability shown by the descendants of the Patriarchs to use the letters of the Torah to make rules. I’ve noticed that as well. You do have to go on and on, but there is more that can be done in conversations at the table by skilled persuaders, than by people laying down the law.
Janine Stein is a member of New North London Synagogue