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    Eliezer of Damascus

    The book of Genesis introduces us to Eliezer, the first shammas in Jewish history.

    Depiction of Eliezer of Damascus, by William Dyce

    Depiction of Eliezer of Damascus, by William Dyce

    Like others of his profession in later centuries, he is a man of great dignity, character and resourcefulness.

    I think of him when I recall the classical type of shammas in the major London synagogues a few decades ago; with his top hat and authoritative walk through his domains, the London shammas needed no reminding of the power that rested in his hands, and an unwary rabbi or president sometimes needed to be put in his place.

    But this was all small-time compared with the power wielded by Eliezer, for to his hands was entrusted the whole future of the Jewish people.

    Abraham was old and dying. Sarah was dead. Unless the right wife was found for Isaac, there would be no Jewish destiny, and God’s promises and assurances to Abraham would come to nothing.

    Eliezer was the trusted servant who, with instinct, diplomacy and unremitting effort had to choose the wife with whom Isaac would build tomorrow.

    Strangely, we know very little about his personal history. He is called Eliezer of Damascus, but the rabbis read “Damesek” homiletically as doleh umashkeh, he who drew from and conveyed his master’s traditions.

    They also believed he had a daughter and would have liked Isaac for her, but as a loyal servant he put his personal interest aside.

    Tradition is kind to Eliezer. Its view of him is unreservedly favourable, unlike the ambivalence we find with, for example, Noah and Lot. Indeed it was said that he was one of a very small band who were worthy of entering Paradise alive.

    He was a man of common sense. He made the practical suggestion that Isaac should come with him to be part of the wife-choosing procedure. Abraham, however, demurred.

    Perhaps he feared Isaac was too weak to make an objective decision. Perhaps he felt it was wrong for the heir to leave Israel, even for a purpose as important as this. Eliezer thereupon went off by himself.

    His skill as a psychologist was soon needed. He had to work out a test to determine who would be the right wife for his master’s son.

    He did not seek wealth, lineage or beauty, not that these were necessarily disqualifications. Instead, he looked for a maiden who would, in the dry desert, offer both him and his camels water.

    His criterion was human kindness, which is still the mark of a good marriage partner.

    When it comes to negotiating with Rebekah’s family, he shows himself to be a diplomat. He rephrases his Abraham’s instructions in order to achieve his end.

    He appeals to the greed of the family by describing his master’s wealth, and to their sense of self-importance by reporting – with poetic licence – that Abraham had told him, “Go to my father’s house”.

    Achieving an agreement by stressing it was in the other side’s own interest makes this probably history’s first record of diplomacy.

    His fine character is seen, too, in his scrupulous efficiency. He works quietly but does not stop until his task is done. He carries out his mission without self-advertisement.

    Like the London shammas who offered congregants aliyot in the name of the synagogue president, Eliezer knows he is his master’s agent and sublimates his own identity, ego and personal convenience.

    All in all, Eliezer is a character, and a man of character. He knows that Jewish history depends upon him; he faces his responsibility with great skill.

    If only every modem Jew realised that they too are like Eliezer, or indeed like Atlas, and what they do or fail to do as individual Jews can make or break the Jewish destiny!

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