Direct (Quoted) Speech in the Torah

הֲתֵלְכִי עִם הָאִישׁ הַזֶּה:

Will you go with this man? (Bereishit 24:58)

Introduction: Dibur Yashir — Direct Speech

Over the course of the next few parshiyot, we will be discussing the subject of “direct” or quoted speech in the Torah, i.e., words that the Torah quotes someone as saying. A basic axiom for anyone who learns Torah al taharat hakodesh is that there is no happenstance (“mikriyut”) when it comes to the way the Torah is written. Based on this axiom, when we detect different ways in which the Torah presents things, we are entitled — and perhaps even required — to ask whether there are any differences between the various types of signon — styles or modes of expression. For example, is there a difference between something the Torah commands, as opposed to something that it narrates?[1] Similarly, is there a difference between something the Torah itself says, as opposed to something it quotes someone else as saying?

We know that in terms of kedushat haTorah there is no question that every word is of equal value, and a Sefer Torah that is missing even one letter from any section is completely pasul, regardless of signon. Nonetheless, we still ask, is there any difference — within the kedushah and shleimut of Torah — between these different types of signon, whether in terms of their parameters or the way we are meant to understand what they are trying to teach us? This question will be the subject of a number of the following chapters.

Eliezer — Eved or Ish?

The story of Eliezer’s quest to find a wife for Yitzchak is the longest narrative episode in the Torah, to the extent that Chazal commented (Bereishit Rabbah 60:11), “יפה שיחתן של עבדי אבות מתורתן של בנים — the conversation of the servants of the Avot is more beautiful than the Torah of the descendants.”

A central question discussed among the mefarshim regarding the Torah’s narrative of Eliezer’s journey to find a wife for Yitzchak relates to the constantly changing usage of the terms “eved” and “ish” in reference to Eliezer. The guiding principle among the mefarshim is that when Eliezer is acting purely as Avraham’s shaliach (emissary), as is befitting, without any “chiddushim” of his own, he is called an “eved,” since an eved has no wish other than that of his master. However, when he begins to add his own ideas (even in the interests of succeeding in his mission), then he is called “ish,” having departed from the category of an eved who acts strictly in accordance with his master’s instructions.

The mefarshim demonstrate how each of the changes Eliezer introduced was done solely for the purpose of ensuring the success of the mission. These changes can be divided into three categories:

A.  Adding things that Avraham never told him to say.

B.  Omitting things that Avraham did tell him to say.

C.  Changing Avraham’s words from the way they were originally said.

All of these changes, as mentioned, were employed by Eliezer to ensure the success of his mission. His entire approach is summed up in his opening three words to Rivkah’s family, of “עֶבֶד אַבְרָהָם אָנֹכִי — I am a servant of Avraham” (Bereishit 24:34). All this was despite the fact that he knew that if his mission should fail, it was he — Eliezer — who would stand to gain, for Chazal tell us (Bereishit Rabbah 59:12) Eliezer had a daughter who he hoped would be eligible to marry Yitzchak if no one suitable could be found from among Avraham’s family. In setting these considerations aside, Eliezer is the epitome of an  eved ne’eman — a faithful servant to Avraham.

With this in mind, let us discuss the shift in reference from “eved” to “ish” toward the end of the episode.

The Way to Phrase a Question

When the pasuk describes Rivkah going with Eliezer, Avraham’s shaliach, we would have expected him to be referred to as “eved,” for we are dealing with the successful completion of his shlichut. Thus, Rabbeinu Bachye is troubled by the words of Rivkah’s family when they ask her (Bereishit 24:58), “הֲתֵלְכִי עִם הָאִישׁ הַזֶּה — will you go with this man?” Why is Eliezer called an ish in this pasuk?

Rabbeinu Bachye answers:

For these are not the words of the Torah; rather, they are the words of her brother and mother, and it is inconceivable that they would ask “Will you go with this eved?” for that is not in keeping with the ways of mussar[2] and is disrespectful to Rivkah.[3]

Here we meet the fundamental principle of direct speech in the Torah, whose parameters and guidelines differ from when the Torah itself is talking.

An Alternative Suggestion — Casting Aspersions

Elsewhere we discussed that sometimes, what is phrased as a question is not so much an inquiry but more of a challenge or rhetorical question. [4] In light of this, perhaps we can suggest interpreting her brother and mother’s words, “Will you go with this ish?!” as being posed incredulously; how do you know that this man is indeed an eved of Avraham? Perhaps he is nothing of the sort! How are you prepared to go with this person, who is an ish that we have never met before? All this was part of their attempt to dissuade her from joining Avraham’s household, similar to their other request (pasuk 55), “תֵּשֵׁב הַנַּעֲרָה אִתָּנוּ יָמִים אוֹ עָשׂוֹר אַחַר תֵּלֵךְ — let the girl stay with us for a year or ten months.” At any rate, whether their intention was to display courtesy or to raise suspicion, the correct choice of word for them in that sentence was “ish,” and that is how the Torah presents it.

The Journey Back

In light of the above, it is interesting to consider an additional pasuk which we find toward the end of the perek, which also seems to depart from the rule, yet which cannot be explained using Rabbeinu Bachye’s principle. Pasuk 61 states:

וַתָּקָם רִבְקָה וְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ וַתִּרְכַּבְנָה עַל הַגְּמַלִּים וַתֵּלַכְנָה אַחֲרֵי הָאִישׁ וַיִּקַּח הָעֶבֶד אֶת רִבְקָה וַיֵּלַךְ:

And Rivkah and her girls arose and rode on the camels and followed the man. And the servant took Rivkah and went.

Here the problem of shifting between eved and ish presents itself quite drastically, for he is called both by the Torah itself and in the same pasuk!

We would like to suggest al derech hapshat that Eliezer’s mission was to take Rivkah, thereby removing her from the house of Lavan and Betuel. Therefore, when the other girls joined the caravan, they are referred to as “following the ish,” for his shlichut did not involve all of them. Thus, the pasuk emphasizes “They rode…and they followed the ish.” It was only when Eliezer separated Rivkah from her companions that he is truly an eved again, as it says, “and the eved took Rivkah and went,” that is, he took her away from the others who stayed behind.

[1] A topic we have discussed in Parshat Lech Lecha (Chapter 11); see also Parshat Behar, Chapter 72; and Parshat Eikev, Chapter 102.

[2] [That is, it is disrespectful to Eliezer to refer to him as an eved in his presence.]

[3] [To imply that they would be prepared to send her accompanied only by an eved.]

[4] Parshat Lech Lecha (Chapter 12).