Monday, November 18, 2013

MAIMONIDES on 'aboda zara, 11:4. Judging Eli'ezer

Last week we explained that the Tora forbids nihush -divination- the reading of divine signs in natural or trivial events or in certain arbitrary signals that we set for ourselves (See this). Maimonides brings the actions of Eli'ezer, Abraham's servant (Gen. Chapter 24)as an example of nihush.   Abraham sent Eli'ezer from Canaan to Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham did not give him any specific names or features to look for, but assured Eli'ezer that God will help him. When Eli'ezer approached the city of Aram Naharayim he set for himself (and for God!) a sign: "If I ask a girl water and she offers me and my camels to drink, that will be the girl that God has selected for Isaac". The Rabbis criticized the method of Eli'ezer. You can't play signs in the name of God!   
A great Talmudist, the Ran, defended Eli'ezer. He said that if Eli'ezer would have asked God for an arbitrary sign from heaven --e.g., the girl that will be wearing such and such color, or the girl that will have a bird flying over her head, she will be the chosen one-- then we could consider that as an idolatrous practice. But after all,  the Ran reasons, Eli'ezer asked for a sign which reflects character and virtue.  To offer unsolicited help or to do for others more than one was asked to do, was the earmark of Abraham Abinu, who went out of his way to provide his three guests unsolicited help (food and temporary shelter). Abraham also exceeded his guests expectations. He offered them a morsel bread and water, but ended up giving them  a full course meal!   

The Gemara criticized Eli'ezer tactics as inappropriate. The rabbis explained that Eli'ezer שאל שלא כהוגן, made an improper (and risky!) request. The story had a happy ending not because Eli'ezer's methodology worked out (=not because HaShem played by the rules established by Eli'ezer!) but because HaShem especially protected Abraham and Isaac, helping Eli'ezer to find Ribqa.

(Psalm 120:7) אני שלום וכי אדבר המה למלחמה