Said Rabbi Acha: The talk of the servants of the Fathers is more desirable than the Torah of the children. For Eliezer's story is twice recounted by the Torah, while many principles of Torah law are communicated only through allusion... (The Midrash)
Human beings love to talk. At times, it seems that we hardly trust a thought or feeling to be our own until we have communicated it to others. To this end, we have invented hundreds of languages and dozens of media--all to say what we feel needs saying.
Indeed, our capacity for self-expression lies at the very heart of our humanity. In the second chapter of Genesis, the Torah describes the creation of man: "And the L-rd G‑d formed man [from] the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life. And man became a living soul." Onkelos, in his Aramaic translation/commentary on the Torah, translates the words "And man became a living soul," as "And man became a speaking spirit." In the philosophical and Kabbalistic works of our sages, man is called the speaker. (The entirety of creation is divided into four realms or kingdoms: domem, the silent or inanimate creations; tzomeach, growing things; chai, the animal world; and medaber, the speaker--man).
Would it not have been more fitting to define man by his intelligence or spirituality? Of course, the ability to communicate is a mark of intelligence. It is also an indication of spirituality--of the ability to transcend the self and relate to something other, different and even opposite than it. But there are other human faculties that exhibit these traits. The fact that man is named the speaker implies that the faculty of speech is the essential component of our purpose and mission in life.
The centrality of speech to man's purpose in creation is also expressed in the following Talmudic passage:
Said Rabbi Elazar: Every man was created in order to toil, as it is written (Job 5:7), "For man is born to toil." I still do not know, however, if he was created for the toil of the mouth or for the toil of work; when the verse says (Proverbs 16:26), The toiling soul... his mouth compels him, this tells me that he was created for the toil of the mouth. I still do not know, however, if he was created for the toil of Torah or for the toil of speech; when the verse (Joshua 1:8) says, This book of Torah should not depart from your mouth," this tells me that he was created for the toil of Torah. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 99b)
An important rule in Torah learning is that when a supposition is introduced by the sages, it remains a valid hypothesis even after it has been rejected in favor of another. For the very fact that it has been presented as a possibility implies that it is true, on some level. Ideas to which there is no truth on any level are not entertained in the first place (thus, Rabbi Elazar does not begin by saying, I do not know if man was created for toil or for relaxation; when the verse says, For man is born to toil, I know that he was created for toil--as he does with the other rejected suppositions). If we apply this to the above passage, it means that all three toils--the toil of work, the toil of speech, and the toil of Torah--are part of man's purpose; it is only that the toil of the mouth expresses a higher aspect of this purpose than the toil of work, and that within the toil of the mouth, the toil of Torah is loftier than the toil of speech.
What, exactly, are these three toils? What, in particular, is the toil of speech, and why is it greater than the toil of work, yet not as lofty as the toil of Torah?
"From my flesh I perceive G‑d," proclaims the verse. Since G‑d created us in His image, we can contemplate His personality (i.e., the manner in which He relates to creation) by examining the workings of our own souls. The reverse is also true: by examining what the Torah tells us about how G‑d relates to our existence, we can understand much about the human personality and man's place in creation.
In describing the divine act of creation, the Torah does not say that G‑d made a world, but that He spoke it. G‑d said, "Let there be light, and there was light;" G‑d said, "Let the earth sprout forth vegetation..." and it was so; and so with all other creations, each of which is contained, explicitly or implicitly, in the Ten Utterances with which G‑d created the world.
For in creating the world, G‑d was doing what we do when we speak: He was communicating. He was projecting of Himself to an audience--to a reality which (at least in its own perception) is outside of Him. As we do when we speak, G‑d wished to see His own thoughts and feelings take form in a consciousness and perception other than His own.
When we speak, we emulate G‑d's speaking the world into being. We, too, create. We, too, extend ourselves beyond the reality of our own existence to recreate ourselves and our vision of reality in the minds, hearts and deeds of others.
If we understand speech, both in G‑d and in ourselves, as synonymous with creativity, we begin to understand why the toil of speech is central to our uniqueness as human beings. But first, let us examine the statement, Man is born to toil.
This, of course, is a fact of life, as well as of human nature--we experience as meaningful and satisfying only that which we have gained by effort and struggle. If a person is not compelled to work for a living, he will embark on endeavors in which he must exert himself to achieve some goal. Retirement invariably withers both body and mind unless one starts a second career or challenges oneself in some other way. An effortless life is ultimately a life not worth living. In the words of our sages, unearned gifts are bread of shame which bring no satisfaction to their recipient.
Why, indeed, was man made this way? Certainly G‑d, who is the essence of good, who is benevolent and merciful, could just as easily have created a world that is free of hardship, and have formed the nature of man so that life in such a world is meaningful and fulfilling. Why did He create man to toil and endow him with a nature that thrives only on struggle and challenge?
But in an effortless world, man would be nothing more than a passive beneficiary of G‑d's gifts. He might derive satisfaction and pleasure from these gifts (were his nature so inclined), but his role in creation would be limited to that of recipient. Unless he were driven to toil--driven to acquire and achieve beyond what comes to him without difficulty--he could not be the partner with G‑d in creation that G‑d desires him to be.
We experience effort and toil when our deeds are met with resistance, when they are at variance with the status quo. An effortless deed is a deed that is fully consistent with the present constellation of forces in the universes; a deed that isn't challenged by anything because it changes nothing. A deed that, even if it is conducted with great fanfare, does not, in truth, do anything.
Toil defines the point at which we cease to be mere recipients, accepting the world as it is, and begin to be givers and contributors to G‑d's world. The point at which we contest the present reality and begin acting as G‑d's partners in the endeavor to build the world He desires.
Development, Creativity and Transcendence
On the most basic level, we achieve partnership with G‑d through the toil of work--through our ongoing efforts to develop the resources of creation. Each time we plow and seed the earth to coax nourishment from it; each time we forge wood, stone and other materials into a home; each time we distill energy from matter; we are working. This is toilsome work, for we are combatting the inert state of these raw materials. It is G‑dly work, for we are furthering His enterprise of forming an ordered and civilized world out of an initial state of chaos and formlessness. We are fulfilling the divine will expressed in the verse (Isaiah 45:18): "He did not create [the world] for chaos; He created it that it be settled."
This, however, is the most rudimentary level of partnership with G‑d: we contribute to G‑d's work but are only involved at a lower, secondary plane. The innovative and creative aspects of the endeavor are solely the domain of the senior partner, while our role is limited to furthering what He has initiated. G‑d, after all, created the world, while we only develop what He has created.
A higher level of partnership is achieved when we introduce our speech--our capacity for creativity--into our involvement with G‑d's world. When we redefine reality by communicating our experience of it to others. When we speak worlds into being, as G‑d spoke the world into existence. On this level, we are partners with Him not only in that we are both contributors, but also in that we are both creators.
This level of partnership, which the Talmud calls toil of the mouth, consists of two elements: the toil of speech and the toil of Torah.
Mirroring the Ten Utterances of creation are the Ten Commandments spoken by G‑d at Sinai. If the Ten Utterances are the source code of the natural world, the Ten Commandments are the essence of a higher reality--the reality of Torah. The Torah embodies a divine vision of reality which supersedes the natural reality: a reality of unadulterated goodness and perfection; a reality that is a consummate actualization of the divine will.
The Ten Utterances derive from the Ten Commandments, for the natural world, which was designed as the environment within which the Torah is to be realized, draws its essence and raison d'être from the Torah; yet they are a lowlier and coarser expression of the divine self-expression. The Zohar goes so far as to refer to the Ten Utterances as mundane words in relation to the sublime words of the Ten Commandments, saying that it is beneath G‑d, so to speak, to utter the world into being, as it is not the way of the King to engage in mundane talk.
Thus the Talmud distinguishes between two areas of human creativity: the toil of speech, which are our creative efforts within the context of the natural world (speech being a reference to the Ten Utterances), and the toil of Torah--the effort to impose a higher, supra-natural reality upon the world by implementing the divine will, as expressed in the commandments of the Torah, in our daily lives.
(The toil of speech assumes its highest form in the endeavor of prayer, in which our material needs become the substance of our communication with G‑d (see Talmud, Berachot 26b; Ohr HaTorah, Vayeishev 911a). But even this spiritualization of material life is within the context of the created reality, and is thus mundane words in relation to the speech of Torah.)
And yet, the Midrash also states that "The speech of the servants of the fathers is more desirable than the Torah of the children."
In the 24th chapter of Genesis, the Torah relates the story of the journey of Abraham's servant, Eliezer, to Mesopotamia to find a bride for Abraham's son, Isaac. We read how Abraham summons Eliezer and sends him on his mission, instructing him to choose a bride from the family of Abraham's brother, Nachor. Eliezer arrives in Mesopotamia and prays to G‑d, asking for His guidance in finding a worthy bride for his master's son. He then devises a sign: the maiden who, when asked for a drink of water, will offer to draw water for his camels as well, is the one destined to marry Isaac. Rebecca appears and fulfills all the requirements of the sign; when Eliezer asks after her family, he learns that she is a granddaughter of Nachor. The servant thanks G‑d "for leading me on the path to the home of my master's brother."
Eliezer is invited to the home of Rebecca's family. At this point, we read all the details of the events of that day for a second time--this time in Eliezer's words, as he relates them to Rebecca's family. The point of the story, once again, is the show of Divine Providence in the affairs of man. The matter has been ordained by G‑d, agree Bethuel and Laban, Rebecca's father and brother. We can say nothing, good or evil.
This long (67-verse) chapter evokes much discussion by the sages. Not only is the Torah uncharacteristically detailed in its description, but it twice recounts the entire story almost verbatim. This, in a book so concise that many complex laws are derived from an extra word or letter! Hence the conclusion that the Torah prefers the conversations of our forefathers' servants to the intricacies of Torah law addressed to and studied by their descendants.
Eliezer's story is a classic example of the toil of speech--of the manner in which we apply our creative and communicative skills to create a world in partnership with G‑d. A series of events takes place at the city well of a Mesopotamian town and results in the marriage of a certain woman to a certain man. These are wholly natural events, strung together by what is commonly described as coincidence. But Eliezer transforms these events into speech--into a cohesive and meaningful narrative. Eliezer tells how he prayed to G‑d for success, expressing his belief that what is about to unfold is G‑d's doing rather than the blind workings of fate; he asks for a sign, and presides over its fulfillment; he then tells the story to Bethuel and Laban, communicating to them what he has experienced and convincing them that "The matter has been ordained by G‑d. In Eliezer's experience and telling, a piece of the natural world is defined as the handiwork of G‑d", as an expression of the Creator's involvement with His creation.
Ultimately, the study and implementation of Torah law ranks higher in the hierarchy of toils than the seeking of G‑d within the workings of creation. Through the toil of speech, one relates to the Creator only on the level of the Ten Utterances, whereas through Torah, one supersedes the natural reality, realizing a partnership with G‑d that transcends the mundane talk of creation. Nevertheless, there is a specialty to the toil of speech that makes Eliezer's story more desirable than the Torah of the children. G‑d derives a special pleasure from His partnership with us as we go about our daily affairs, integrating Him into the most commonplace details of the narrative of our lives.