Torah Study

Eliezer – Escaping the Curse of Cham

Eliezer is a fascinating character. Descended from Cham’s accursed son Kenaan, he was destined to serve the nations of Shem and Yefes. Yet he elevated himself to serving the greatest man in his generation, Avraham Avinu. Chazal tell us that Eliezer extricated himself from the curse.[1] Two questions arise: Why were the descendants of Kenaan subject to such a harsh curse, i.e., servitude, and how did Eliezer free himself from it?

Chazal describe the sin that led to the curse.[2] The Torah tells us that Noach became highly intoxicated and uncovered himself in his tent, whereupon his son Cham castrated him.[3] Why did Cham perform such a heinous act? Lest Noach father more sons, thereby reducing Cham’s inheritance. As a result of Cham’s despicable behavior, Noach cursed his son Kenaan, making his descendants slaves to the descendants of his brothers, Shem and Yefes.[4] Perhaps Cham was punished measure for measure for his selfishness: He cared only about himself, not his father, so his descendants would now be slaves, thinking only about the needs of their master.

Eliezer was subject to this curse and doomed to a life of servitude. Given his connection to Cham, it would seem that Eliezer inherited selfishness from his ancestor, yet where do we see any remnants of this trait in such a great man? The answer is found in his response to Avraham’s request that he find a wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer innocently replies, “Perhaps the woman will not want to go with me.”[5] The Medrash tells us that Eliezer had an agenda: He had a daughter of his own and hoped Avraham would allow Yitzchak to marry her.[6] Thus, when he relates his discussion with Avraham to Lavan, the word “perhaps,” אולי, is spelled אלי, meaning “to me.” The Medrash tells us that Avraham recognized Eliezer’s ulterior motives and reprimanded him: “My son is blessed, but you are cursed. One who is cursed cannot cleave to one who is blessed.”[7] Avraham was alluding to the fact that Kenaan was cursed for his selfishness. Despite his greatness, Eliezer was also affected by this negative trait. Instead of concentrating on fulfilling his master’s will, he was thinking about how he could benefit by his daughter’s marrying Yitzchak. Accordingly, Avraham told him he remained cursed and could not marry the blessed Yitzchak.[8]

How did Eliezer eventually escape this curse? Through his quest for a wife for Yitzchak. As long as he harbored any hope that his mission would fail and his daughter would marry Yitzchak, he would remain cursed. Shem MiShmuel shows how Eliezer therefore made every effort to overcome his own desires. As soon as he reached Haran, he prayed that Yitzchak’s zivug appear immediately, before his own selfish motivations crept in. Eliezer’s wish was granted, and he proceeded with complete devotion to his master. Having purged himself of the selfishness he inherited from Cham, Eliezer graduated from cursed to blessed.[9]

We have seen how Eliezer rectified the flaw of his ancestor Cham; he subjugated his personal ambitions to his duty to fulfill his master’s instructions. Two important lessons can be learned from Eliezer’s achievement:

First, a person may inherit certain vices, such as selfishness, yet he can overcome them through intensive self-growth and great siyata diShmaya. Eliezer labored to avoid falling into the trap of selfishness and turned to HaShem for help.

The second lesson specifically concerns selfishness. The commentators note that Eliezer’s “perhaps” appears twice in the parashah: when he speaks to Avraham, and when he relates the dialogue to Lavan. The Medrash points out Eliezer’s selfish motives only the second time. Why not on the first occasion? The Kotzker Rebbe, ztz”l, explains that the first time Eliezer expressed his reservations, he was unaware of his underlying hope that Yitzchak would marry his daughter. Therefore there is no allusion to his selfish motives then. Only after finding a wife for Yitzchak could he recognize retroactively that his objection to Avraham had been rooted in that hope. This demonstrates how easily one can succumb to selfishness without even realizing. To avoid this trap, it is advisable to seek out a rebbe or friend who can objectively assess the situation and the purity of our motives.[10]


Notes and Sources

[1] Zohar, Chayei Sarah 3:115; Bereishis Rabbah 60:7.

[2] See Bereishis 9:20–29.

[3] Rashi, Bereishis 9:22, 25.

[4] There is much discussion among the commentaries as to why specifically Kenaan was cursed. See Rashi and Kli Yakar, Bereishis 9:25.

[5] Bereishis 24:5.

[6] Bereishis Rabbah 59:9, quoted by Rashi, Bereishis, 24:39.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Heard from Rav Yissocher Frand, shlita.

[9] Shem MiShmuel, Chayei Sarah 5678, pp. 248–49.

[10] This indeed is one reason Pirkei Avos tells us to acquire a friend.

From the book “Beacons of Light”



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