Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Chayei Sarah
“Better the Servant Than the Student”
“You can’t find decent help these days!” This is a common complaint heard in middle-class homes, particularly in Jewish kitchens during the season of preparations for Passover. Happily, my wife and I have been blessed, over the years, with some excellent domestic help. Usually, they were African-American women who were not only honest, efficient, and reliable, but also surprisingly knowledgeable about traditional Jewish practices.
I fondly recall a woman named Mildred. She had spent many years working as a maid for an older rabbi in the community. We’ll call him Rabbi Rosencrantz. Although I was but a young rabbi when she began working for us, I had already amassed a considerable library of sacred Jewish books, including some precious antique volumes that I had inherited from my grandfather. Needless to say, I was extremely careful about how those books were handled.
How astonished I was when I returned home late one spring afternoon to find all of my bookshelves empty. In a panic, I began to search the premises and, much to my chagrin, discovered that the books were lying in disarray on a long table in the backyard. Mildred was systemically turning them all upside down and shaking them vigorously. I couldn’t contain my disapproval and yelled, “Mildred, what on earth are you doing?”
Mildred gently replied that she was making certain that there was no chametz inside any of the books. You see, it was just before Passover, and many people carefully inspect their books for breadcrumbs or cookie bits that may have found their way into the holy volumes during the course of the year. I am generally quite careful to avoid bringing any food into close contact with the books I use, but apparently Rabbi Rosencrantz was much more meticulous about inspecting his books for chametz than I was.
When I told Mildred that she really didn’t have to do that, she responded, “Rabbi! I am not going to allow a young upstart like you to tell me how to prepare for Passover. I learned about chametz from Rabbi Rosencrantz, and he was old enough to have been your grandfather!”
No question about it. Sometimes a gentile maid can take Jewish customs more seriously than an ordained rabbi. This lesson is not a new one. It can be learned from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18). Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is the hero of the entire Chapter 24. The story of his mission to find a wife for his master’s son, Isaac, is narrated at length and in great detail. We learn of how Eliezer identified Rebecca as a proper wife for Isaac. Eliezer then reviews the story, again at length and in detail, to Rebecca’s father Bethuel and brother Laban. Finally, in verse 66, we read that Eliezer retold the story yet again, this time to Isaac himself.
The Rabbis see in all this repetitive detail an indication of the Almighty’s attitude towards Eliezer’s words: “The idle conversation of the Patriarchs’ servants is more precious than the Torah of their descendants.”
A much lesser known but even more impressive illustration of the superiority of a servant’s wisdom is to be found in a passage in Talmud Tractate Moed Katan, 17a. There, the story is told of the maidservant of Rabbi Judah the Prince, usually referred to simply as “Rabbi,” or “Rebbe.”
She once observed a father disciplining his adult son by striking him. She censured the father, convinced that the son might not be able to resist reacting to the provocation by striking his father back. In her judgment, the father was thus guilty of “placing an obstacle before a blind man.” So critical was she of the father’s behavior that she placed him under a nidui, or ban, effectively excommunicating him. The rabbinical courts of that time let three years pass before they lifted that ban.
The great medieval halachic authority, Rabbenu Asher, known as “the Rosh,” questions the courts’ failure to nullify the ban sooner, which was their usual practice in response to bans imposed by non-credentialed individuals. In response, he quotes the words of an earlier authority, Rabbi Avraham ben David, or “the Ra’avad,” who writes: “The rabbis were reluctant to overturn a ban imposed by this woman because of her superior wisdom and piety. They did not consider themselves her equal until they found an outstanding sage who was demonstrably qualified to nullify her ban!”
We can learn quite a few powerful lessons from the story of Rebbe’s maidservant; from Eliezer the servant of Abraham; and yes, even from my family’s beloved housekeeper, Mildred. First of all, we can learn the timeless lesson that we must be ready to gain knowledge from every conceivable source. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” One can learn a great deal even from unexpected sources and must revere every potential source of knowledge, even in matters of religion.
But there is another lesson to be derived from these anecdotes. There are many ways to learn. Some learn by studying books; others learn by listening to lectures. These are important tools to gain knowledge with, and they cannot be minimized.
But one also learns through experience. If one is fortunate to grow up in a home rich in spirituality, he or she will become very knowledgeable about spirituality, even if no explicit lessons were taught. A process of osmosis occurs, by which anyone who spends time in an environment in which high ideals are exemplified will absorb those ideals.
The Talmud used the example of Eliezer, and the medieval rabbis used the example of Rebbe’s maidservant, to teach us that sometimes what the “mere” servant absorbs from his experience in Abraham’s company, or her years of service in the palace of Rabbi Judah the Prince, is of greater value than the erudition of great scholars. Precious indeed is the idle conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs!
What I learned that pre-Passover day so long ago was that the capacity to learn from unexpected sources was not limited to times gone by, or to lofty souls such as the biblical Eliezer and the unique personage who was Rebbe’s maidservant.
Even Mildred, who passed away long ago, had a lot to teach me.
She taught me about the importance of the scrupulous observance of Jewish customs, particularly those that have to do with Passover.
She taught me that, even with regard to matters of religious observance, one can learn a great deal from unexpected sources.
Above all, she taught me a lesson about humility. That’s a lesson that requires lifelong review.
Thank you, Mildred.