There is a video on YouTube called the Awareness Test. It begins with a group of people standing around, and a voiceover asking you to count how many times the ball will be passed from one person to another. And then they start passing the ball. They’re moving quickly and it’s a little difficult to keep track. But while this is going on, a person in a full-length gorilla outfit moonwalks across the screen. Most people, including myself, miss it entirely. We’re so focused on counting how many times the ball is getting passed that we completely miss something as glaring as a gorilla dancing across the screen.
I was thinking about this video as I read through this week’s parsha. The bulk of our Torah portion describes how Avraham’s servant, Eliezer, finds a suitable marriage partner for Yitzchak. It describes how Avraham gives instructions to Eliezer, how he travels to the land of Padan Aram leading donkeys filled with gold, silver, and jewelry, how he prays to G-d to assist him, how he finds a suitable match, Rivkah, how he has to persuade Rivkah’s family to have her come with him, and finally, how he returns to Yitzchak. 67 verses describing the very first matchmaking in Jewish history. Why? Why so much ink spilled over this tale?
The classic answer to this question is addressed by the Medrash. It suggests that the unique length of this episode is to encourage us to study the text carefully so we can learn lessons from Eliezer’s actions; his faith, his wisdom, his tenacity. The great detail is there because not only are our forefathers incredible models, but even their servants have what to teach us.
But something else occurred to me this year which I subsequently found a version of in the Sefas Emes, and that is – there is a gorilla walking across this screen. I have been so busy watching Eliezer that I didn’t notice the intense drama playing out right before my eyes.
You see, there is another Medrash that wonders why Avraham forces Eliezer to take an oath that he would find a wife for Yitzchak from Padan Aram. Eliezer is his employee – you don’t typically ask your employee to take an oath. “Swear to me that you will get me that report by the end of the week! Take an oath!” It’s strange. The Medrash suggests that there was some underlying tension in this interaction. Eliezer was committed to Avraham and Sarah. He dedicated his life to them and their cause. He fought with Avraham against the four kings, he traveled with Avraham to the Akeidah, he himself was circumcised. He was so dedicated that at one point, before Avraham had any children of his own, Avraham thought that Eliezer would be the next leader of the nation that he was forming. Of course, once Yitzchak was born it became clear that Eliezer would not be the successor.
But all was not lost. Eliezer had a daughter, a special, kind, thoughtful, spiritual daughter, who was well-versed in Avraham’s way of life. She, like her father, was dedicated to the cause. Eliezer had spent the last decades assuming his daughter would marry Yitzchak. He held off on marrying her to anyone else, knowing that she was destined for greatness.
And then, one day, Avraham calls Eliezer into his tent and says that he wants to speak about Yitzchak. This is it! Finally! I will take my rightful place in the development of this new and wonderful nation! But instead, Avraham instructs Eliezer to travel to another country, to find a woman they don’t even know, that his daughter has no chance of marrying Yitzchak. And all of his dreams come crashing down.
Avraham senses Eliezer’s disappointment. Avraham is concerned that Eliezer, independently wealthy, shrewd, and knowing that his master, Avraham, doesn’t have much longer to live, may manipulate the situation, and so he makes Eliezer take an oath that he’ll follow through with these instructions.
And now with that understanding, read the next 67 verses and tell me, do you now hear a thousand nails scratching on a chalkboard? Do you now sense the weight that Eliezer is carrying? Do you now appreciate how at every turn, Eliezer could have and maybe should have taken the donkeys filled with gold and silver and walked off into the sunset? Think about the disappointment, the frustration, the rejection that he must have felt.
And yet, he carried on. He put on a brave face. He fought against every feeling in his body. Despite the heartbreak he had to deal with at every step of that journey, he went forward, with poise, with faith, with joy, and ultimately, returned to Avraham.
That’s why the story goes on and on. The Torah wants us to feel the intense emotion that is bubbling up right beneath the surface. The Torah wants us to open our eyes not only to Eliezer’s invisible pain but to the invisible pain that so many carry and struggle with each day. And perhaps most importantly, the Torah wants to present a role model for the many people who will need Eliezer to look up to; for the people in our communities who feel rejected, dismayed, ignored, and through him will somehow find the strength to carry on.
I recently read a book called, Unmatched. It’s a well-written memoir by a Jewish Orthodox woman describing her attempt to get married. It’s raw, funny, insightful, and terribly sad. The author is smart, accomplished, funny, thoughtful, attractive, and yet, she is consistently set up with bozos. There was the guy who makes her travel across New York for a date, shows up 45 minutes late even though he lives a block away. There was the guy who kept on making passes on her, which she rejected because of her observance, only to be dropped by him because “she was not religious enough for him.” There was the guy who started the date by looking her up and down and saying you’re not very pretty. There was the guy who came to the first date with a list of 100 questions, which he drilled her on. There was the guy who kept on reaching out to her to talk and hang out but was consistently dating others at the same time. There was the guy who slammed the door in her face upon meeting her. And on and on and on.
And while she continues to date dud after dud, she gets bombarded by friends, rabbis, strangers – “You’re too old. You’re too ugly. Are you straight? Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?” She receives endless attention from her community – but it is only about her singlehood. Her interests, her successful career, her talents – all of them are unnoticed. She lives in the Jewish community, she attends shul, social functions, greets her neighbors every morning, but feels utterly rejected and ignored. The pain of rejection – rejection by friends, by rabbinic leaders, and most hurtful, by G-d, all of that explosive pain is not visible to anyone who interacts with her, but it’s hidden right beneath the surface.
Like Eliezer, she should run. But like Eliezer, she stays firmly put. And that’s what I was moved most by from this book. She never ran. She never let go. Sure, she slipped. She did things that were beneath her standards. She flirted with ideas that would take her well out of our faith. But ultimately, she held on.
Reading Unmatched and processing some of the disturbing news affecting our community this past week made me appreciate just how many such people we have in our midst. Whether it’s people who are single, divorcees, widows, people who have been through a tragedy and did not receive the support they needed from their community, people who have been abused and did not feel believed, people who due to their orientation or any other reason are meant to feel like outcasts, there are no shortage of gorillas moonwalking all around us. Only that they’re not gorillas, they’re human beings. And they’re not moonwalking, they’re falling apart.
And yet, like Eliezer, such people are here in our community, in this shul. They somehow hold on.
By describing the story of Eliezer with such detail, G-d is trying to wake us up to the Eliezers’ in our midst; to open our eyes and be more attuned to pain that we may not be able to appreciate. By utilizing 67 verses, G-d is conveying to us that He can see beneath the surface, that He sees that pain, that He cares. But most importantly, by taking so much space up in our precious Torah, G-d is conveying to us how heroic such an existence really is. To practice a way of life that seems to not fit with your life circumstances, to live in a community that is not always attuned to your needs, to engage with a G-d who seems, at times, out to get you, that is a story worthy of all the holy ink in the world.
The book concludes – spoiler alert – with this woman in her 50’s and still ‘unmatched.’ Allow me to read to you the final paragraphs:
“We are stronger than we think. We come from a chain of strong women starting with our own mothers and grandmothers, going all the way back to our Biblical foremothers and all the ordinary Jewish women throughout history who faced extraordinary challenges and met them with bravery and faith.
Perhaps wider society ridicules and casts us as pathetic. Perhaps those who are happily married would never choose to trade places with us. But we are ordinary women doing something very extraordinary. Each time we put our faith before ourselves, each time we hold on to G-d rather than turn away, we are erecting another spiritual skyscraper unequalled by any of the wonders of the world.
We are unmatched. We are strong. This is our challenge, and we will meet it.”