“Rabbi Acha said: The conversation of the servants of the patriarchs is greater than the Torah of their descendants – the parasha of Eliezer runs for two or three pages, and he repeats it over again. Yet, [the law of a] sheretz [insect that generates tum’a] constitutes a basic halacha of the Torah, and the fact that its blood renders tum’a like its flesh [is extracted] only from an additional word in a verse.” (Midrash Rabba)
This Midrash addresses an interesting phenomenon we find concerning the story told in our parasha of Eliezer’s search for a wife for Yitzchak. In effect, the Torah narrates this story twice. First, the Torah describes the story as it occurred; then, the story is repeated almost in its entirety, when Eliezer tells Rivka’s family the events surrounding his encounter with her. The second narrative adds no new details, and the repetition seems unnecessary. By contrast, central halachot of the Torah, such as the laws of tum’a generated by certain creatures, are presented in the Torah merely by subtle implication, such as through an extra word. Many of these laws do not appear explicitly in the Torah.
The Midrash thus gives us an interesting perspective on the relationship between the narratives of a story, even if it is told by Avraham’s servant, and the mitzvot constituting central halachic concepts. The Torah devotes a sizeable amount of text, in effect, all of Sefer Bereishit, to tell us about the actions of our patriarchs. It describes in great detail their tribulations and relationships with people within and outside their families. Off this background, Avraham and his servant, as well as Rivka, stand out in terms of the attribute of kindness that characterized them. The lengthy story of Eliezer emphasizes the level of kindness achieved by Rivka, who is destined to marry Yitzchak. In this specific quality, she was tested, and this is her outstanding feature.
According to Chazal and Kabbala, Avraham represents the attribute of kindness. Avraham, who constantly invited guests into his home, who showed concern for all people on earth, who fought on behalf of Sedom and Amora, reaches old age and asks his servant to find a bride for his son. As he embarks on this mission to find the bride, Eliezer, who learned from Avraham’s example, knows on which basis he is to choose her. Beyond family background, the yardstick must be the girl’s middot, her character, to what extent she is capable of constantly excelling in the attribute of chesed, in her ability to give the very most. Therefore, the test he conducted surrounded the issue of the girl’s middot and placed strong emphasis on her attribute of chesed.
[The Midrash lists Eliezer as among those who “asked inappropriately.” He made a condition with the Almighty that the girl who would give water to his camels would be the right girl, without taking into account the possibility that she would not be from Avraham’s extended family. But Hashem assisted him and saw to it that the girl would, indeed, be from Avraham’s family. This Midrash emphasizes that middot are more important than family background, and it is in this regard that one should examine a prospective spouse, above and beyond every other consideration. Although one should also check the family background, the primary consideration must be the person’s middot.]
Chazal refer to Sefer Bereishit as “Sefer Hayashar” – literally, the “Book of the Upright.” Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin, the “Netziv,” in the introduction to his commentary on Bereishit, distinguishes between the image of the “tzadik,” the righteous person, and that of the “yashar,” the “upright” person. The “tzadik” adheres to the mitzvot of his Creator and meticulously observes them all – from the less stringent to the most stringent. Here the emphasis is on obedience, compliance with the commandments. The “yashar,” by contrast, excels in the realm of middot, with regard to “derech eretz” – the good manners and upright character that must precede Torah. Not every “tzadik” is necessarily a “yashar,” and vice-versa. The patriarchs are called “yesharim.” They lived before the mitzvot were commanded, but through their personalities and conduct, they represent the very basis of the entire Torah. The Torah was given to Am Yisrael, the nation that emerges from these patriarchs, who serve as shining examples of what it means to be “yashar.” We have an entire book, Sefer Bereishit, which, through the narratives about the avot, charts for us the path on which the Torah is built and thrives.
Therefore, the conversation of the servants of the avot – the entire story describing Rivka’s overflowing kindness in her treatment of Avraham’s servant, in the merit of which she earned the privilege of joining the nation of “gomlei chasadim” (doers of kindness), a story emphasizing the basis of the entire Torah – is greater than the Torah of their descendants, from all the details of the mitzvot conveyed in the Torah through subtle implication rather than being written in clear, expanded form. These details constitute central principles of Torah, but not its foundation.
Thus the Midrash establishes a pyramid of sorts, the firm foundation of which is middot – upright behaviour and chesed, the pillars of the world. In the spirit of “ma’aseh avot siman la’banim” (the actions of the patriarchs serve as examples for their offspring), our observance of mitzvot must likewise be firmly grounded upon a basis of upright behaviour and chesed, and on the perfection of all our personality traits and middot.