As a high school rebbe, I often find comfort in the following midrash:
On one occasion, Rabbi Akiva looked up from his lesson to discover his students dozing. (If even Rabbi Akiva couldn’t always keep his students engaged, who I am to think I can?)
Rabbi Akiva employed a curious solution. “In what merit did Queen Esther rule over 127 provinces?” he asked. “Because her ancestor Sara lived for 127 years.” This seems to have roused his talmidim from their stupor and returned them to their study (Bereishis Rabbah 58:3).
I’ve tried Rabbi Akiva’s solution a few times. I’m sure it will surprise no one that his method produced far less success for me than it did for him. And although it may be easy to attribute my failure to yeridas haDoros, the decline of the generations, perhaps a more relevant lesson can be found elsewhere in the parsha.
So much of the parsha is devoted to Eliezer’s repetition of his instructions from Avrohom, concerning which the sages offer their famous comment that HaShem finds the conversation of the patriarchs’ servants more pleasing than the teachings of their children. For his sincere service to his master, Eliezer earned the appellation eved Avrohom (servant of Abraham), only one step removed from the highest possible praise, eved HaShem.
It seems inconsistent, therefore, that the Torah alludes to an ulterior motive at the very outset of Eliezer’s recapitulation. When he recounts the history of his search to Rivka’s family, Eliezer explains how Avrohom assured him of HaShem’s guidance when Eliezer expressed his fear that, “Perhaps the woman will not follow me.” Rashi observes that the word perhaps, ulai, is written so that it may also be read, eilai — to me, suggesting that Eliezer had hoped to wed his own daughter to Yitzchok. If so, how can we understand the sages’ praise of Eliezer as a selfless eved?
To make matters more difficult, why does the Torah allude to Eliezer’s self-interest here, now that he is repeating the story, rather than earlier in the parsha, when he actually stated his question to Avrohom?
In fact, the second question answers the first. The Kotzker Rebbe explains that when Eliezer originally expressed his question to Avrohom, he genuinely believed that he was asking in the best interests of Yitzchok. Eliezer had convinced himself that he truly sought Avrohom’s guidance should he fail in his mission to find Yitzchok a suitable wife.
It was only when he recounted the episode to Rivka’s family that Eliezer realized his real motives. Only from a vantage point of objective distance could Eliezer finally see that his well-intentioned request had truly been prompted by personal bias.
And so we find no inconsistency in the sages’ portrayal of Eliezer. He was indeed a true eved. But even a true eved is not immune to the seductive influence of self-interest, and even a true eved may be unable to recognize personal bias at the moment when it afflicts him. The same Eliezer for whom the way was miraculously shortened, for whom the waters rose to identify Rivka as Yitzchok’s match, for whom the curse of Ham transformed into a blessing, this same Eliezer who so loyally served Avrohom could not identify in himself the self-deception that sought to undermine Avrohom’s plans to find Yitzchok’s bashert.
So too, perhaps, the students of Rabbi Akiva. Rav Mendel Weinbach explains that Rabbi Akiva intended to impress upon his talmidim a sense of responsibility not only to themselves but also to future generations. What would have happened had Sara not devoted every moment of her 127 years to her service of HaShem? Without her merit, Esther would not have become queen. And had Esther not become queen, she would not have been positioned in the house of King Achashverosh to save the Jewish people.
Rabbi Akiva admonished his students by impressing upon them that, even if each might be willing to forgo his own portion in the World to Come, future generations might need the merit of their learning just as Esther had needed Sara’s merit so that she could save the Jewish people. You may be prepared to sacrifice a measure of your own reward, Rabbi Akiva suggested, but are you prepared to sacrifice your children and grandchildren as well?
Indeed, Rabbi Akiva’s rebuke to his talmidim reminds us how easily we make excuses for our own lack of mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) and how cheaply we are prepared to sell the priceless benefits of our portion in the World to Come. The momentary attraction of slackening in our divine service, of taking the line of least resistance even at the expense of our own heavenly reward, seems so reasonable that we our own rationalization for what it is – the most subtle tactic of the yeitzer hara.
Like Eliezer, however, the students of Rabbi Akiva could be shaken out of their lethargy, both literally and figuratively. The words of their rebbe penetrated their momentary carelessness and roused them to return to their study of the Divine Word. How inspiring that those students allowed themselves to be so easily inspired!
But we are not merely careless. We are committed to our carelessness, determined to sink into the drowsiness of indifference and ignore our rebbes’ reproof, whether that reproof comes from the rabbi or the rosh yeshiva, or even from the Torah itself. We offer a whole litany of excuses why we don’t need reexamine our ways, indulging the routine of habit just like, the Mesillas Yesharim tells us, a blind man walking in darkness.
We all have moments, however, when a window of opportunity opens, when our resistance to self-awareness drops, if only for a moment, and we can look back and take stock of ourselves. And, as those fleeting moments become fewer and fewer, they become ever more precious.
If we are honest with ourselves then, in the light of objectivity, we all know what’s at stake. No matter how difficult it is to be consistent models of kindness, of character, of diligence, of kiddush HaShem before our children’s eyes, we appreciate the potential cost and risk. If we make excuses for our laxity, if we exempt ourselves from our service, then we will have failed not some distant generation, as Rabbi Akiva warned his talmidim. Rather, we will be failing the next generation, our own children whom we brought into the world and with whose spiritual development HaShem has entrusted us.
The 127 years of Sara’s life, years equal in beauty and righteousness, did not end with Sara’s death. The blessings of Sara’s tent continued in the next generation through the merit of Rivka, and Sara’s own merit transcended a thousand years to the generation of Esther. The benefits of her effort and her service are beyond measure, and they teach us that ours can be, too, if we strive to live as she did.