by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek
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Parashas Chayie Sarah(66)The sedra tells of burying and marrying. Abraham buries Sarah his wife. Then he asks his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant's name is never mentioned but we assume, with Rashi, that it was Eliezer, Abraham's most faithful servant.
Abraham made certain conditions for choosing a wife for Isaac.
Let us look at the relevant verses and a surprising, puzzling comment by Rashi with which the Ramban vehemently disagrees. We will learn a fascinating rule about the Torah's language and of Rashi's amazing sensitivity to it.
Genesis 24:3, 4
24:3 I will have you swear by Hashem, G-d of the heavens and G-d of the earth , that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell.
24:4. But, to my land and to my kindred shall you go and take a wife from my son, Isaac.
It is clear that Abraham gave Eliezer two conditions to follow: 1) Not to take a daughter of the Canaanites & 2) to take wife from his homeland and his family.
Eliezer asks his master what he is to do if the girl he chooses refuses to come back to Eretz Israel to be Isaac's wife.
Abraham says in 24: 8
"But if the woman will not wish to follow you shall then be absolved of my oath - just do not return my son there."
Then be absolved of my oath: Rashi: And take a wife for him from the daughters of Aner, Eshkol or Mamre.
An astounding comment.
What would you ask? Can you anticipate the Ramban's question on Rashi's comment?
THE RAMBAN QUESTIONS RASHI
The Ramban asks: How can Rashi say that he should take a wife from the daughters of Aner, Eshkol or Mamre, they were Canaanites!? "Challila" G-d forbid such an idea.
We can understand the Ramban's amazement at Rashi's idea. Had not Abraham said explicitly not to take a wife "from the Canaanites among whom I dwell."? And if we were to answer by saying that, as we quoted above on verse 24:8, Eliezer was absolved from the oath and its conditions and also the condition of "not marrying a Canaanite girl." This answer is inadequate, because Abraham adds and thus emphasizes the words "but my son do not return there" which seems to absolve Eliezer only of the oath of having to find a wife among his family, but not of the prohibition about Canaanite woman.
Why then does Rashi say the daughters of Aner, Eshkol or Mamre - all Canaanites - would be acceptable?
Can you defend Rashi?
Hint: See Rashi on 24:37 where Eliezer repeats to Lavan Abraham's conditions.
UNDERSTANDING RASHI AND SEEING THE TORAH'S PRECISE WORDING
An Answer: on 24:37 Rashi again says Abraham's oath only required Eliezer to first seek a wife from his family, but if he didn't succeed, he was then free to take Aner Eshkol or Mamre's daughter. In other words, not taking a Canaanite woman was only the preferred, but not the absolute, condition.
How does Rashi know this?
Look carefully at the verses that speak of Abraham's conditions (verses 24: 3 & 4).
An Amazing Subtle Biblical Style.
A little known rule in Biblical linguistic style is that whenever a verse has a "No (Hebrew: "lo")...but (Hebrew: "kie") formula, the first statement always means that the No is not absolute it is relative. It's meaning is not "No, not at all or No, not ever.." It's meaning is "No, not necessarily."
So when Abraham said "No wives from Canaan but take a wife from my family" he meant No - the preferred choice is my family, but if not, a Canaanite is permissible.
EVIDENCE FOR THIS INTERPRETATION
This unusual rule can be seen several times throughout the Tanach. In Berieshis alone we have two good examples.
Genesis 35:10 Hashem tells Yaakov that his name is now to be called Yisrael. "Your name shall not any more be called Jacob but Israel shall be your name." Yet we find the even G-d himself later calls Israel by his old name of Jacob! The answer is clear once we remember our rule. No...but.." means - not mainly Jacob, but mainly Israel. (Compare this to the change of name from Avrum to Avraham where he is never again called Avrum. See the precise wording there (Genesis 16:5) and you will understand the difference.
Another example of this rule can be found in Genesis 45: 8 where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers when they meet in Egypt. There Joseph says to them "And now, it was not you who sent me here but G-d..." Really! Was it not his brothers "who sent me here" ? Joseph himself, just a few verses previously, says that they did sell him "Do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here..."
Did they or did they not sell him? Of course they did. So what does Joseph mean: "And now, it was not you who sent me here but G-d..."
But with our rule we understand perfectly. Joseph means it was not mainly you - it was mainly because of G-d's plan.
The rule of "No...but..." clarifies many puzzles in the Torah. It helped us understand Rashi's surprising comment that the Canaanite daughters of Aner, Eshkol & Mamre could marry Isaac, in spite of the oath that Abraham had Eliezer take.
ONE LAST QUESTION
But we still are left with the question - how could Abraham allow his son, Isaac, to marry a Canaanite woman?
The answer to that has to be - there are exceptions to every rule. The Canaanites were idol worshippers and had perverse customs and for those reasons Jews were forbidden to intermarry with them. But Aner, Eshkol & Mamre were righteous individuals, so marrying into their families was not forbidden.
THE LESSON Rashi's sensitivity to linguistic nuances is truly amazing. When we take his words seriously we are forced to examine the Torah's words more closely.
"What's Bothering Rashi?" is produced by the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" is available at Judaica bookstores.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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