Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Rashi, the mindreader

Mark Salem can look deep into the heart of a random audience member and tell us what he (the "random" audience member) had for breakfast. That's a good trick. (I know how it's done. But it's a good trick.) In this week's sedra, however, Rashi tops it.

The scene is Abraham's study, and his servant* is on his knees, with his hand under the great man's thigh. (Fun fact to know and tell: The Rabbis tell us the servant, in fact, had his hand on Abraham's testicles. With no Gedion Bible handy, upon which to swear, Abraham had the servant say his oath over the holiest thing he had handy: the organ which had been recently circumscised) The servant is promising to fetch a non-Canaanite woman to be Issac's bride, but he has one worry (Genesis 24:5):

The servant asked him, "What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?"

On this verse Rashi is silent. But later, when the servant retells the story, (24:39) Rashi says the servant was secretly hoping that his own daughter would become Issac's wife. The nuetral sounding "What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land?" was not an idle question, but an instance of Eliezer searching for holes in Avraham's plan.


The question: How did Rashi look back through the fog of almost 3000 years into the heart of the servant and see what the man was thinking? (Yes, Rashi's bases himself on a Midrash. How did the Midrash know (and why did Rashi choose to cite this particular Midrash. His commentary is not an anthology of midrashim.)

Rashi's own answer is that the word for "perhaps" (oo-lie) is misspelled. Without a "vav" as the second letter, "oo-lie" can be read as "ay-lie," meaning "to" or "for me," i.e. the servant wanted Yitzchok for himself.

I've always hated this answer, and for two reasons. First, shouldn't the misspelling have appeared the first time the servant says the words, back when he is speaking to Abraham? If it's important for the reader to be advised of the man's private thoughts, why wait? If he secretly coveted Issac for his own daughter wouldn't this thought have been on his mind when he was first in the study, speaking to Abraham? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to point out the servant's real intention when he actually says it, rather than when he repeats it to Avraham's relatives?

Second, Rashi frequently takes a midrash which the Sages had attached to one verse and applies it to another verse. That's what he's done here. The midrash comments on what the servant said to Abraham, -where the word is spelled correctly - yet Rashi uses it to gloss what the servant said to the relatives - where the word is spelled wrong.

Answers? (I'll have some in the next post)

* I am not using the name Eliezer to describe the servant, because in this passage the man is referenced like three dozens times, and not once is he called anything but "the servant" or "the man."