We read in Parashat Chayei-Sara the well-known story of Avraham’s servant – identified by Chazal as Eliezer – whom Avraham charged with the task of finding a mate for Yitzchak from his relatives in Aram Naharayim. The servant asked Avraham what would happen if the girl’s family refused to allow her to relocate in Canaan to marry Yitzchak, and Avraham replied that if this happens, the servant would be allowed to find a girl from the local Canaanite population. The Midrash proceeds to tell that Avraham told Eliezer that his daughter could not marry Yitzchak because of his status of servitude.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 59:9) famously comments that Eliezer’s intention in posing this question was for Avraham to approve of Yitzchak’s marriage to Eliezer’s daughter. Eliezer very much wanted his daughter to marry into Avraham’s family, and was disappointed to hear that Avraham wanted his son to marry a girl from Aram Naharayim. Eliezer therefore pinned his hopes on the possibility that the suitable girl would not be permitted to come to marry Yitzchak, and this was his intention when he asked Avraham what he should do in such a situation. The Midrash sharply criticizes Eliezer for this sly – albeit unsuccessful – strategy, applying to him the verse in Hoshea (12:5), “Kena’an be-yado mozenei mirma la-ashok aheiv” – “The merchant has deceptive weights in his possession; he loves to cheat.”
This Midrash passage is often understood as noting the dangers of “negiut” – vested interests that motivate our decisions and conduct, which outwardly appear sincere and altruistic. Like Eliezer, we often say and do things which appear perfectly innocent, or even virtuous, but our true intentions are self-serving and far from innocent. The Midrash thus reminds us of the need to carefully examine the true motives behind everything we do, including our outwardly altruistic activities.
However, a look at the verse cited here by the Midrash seems to suggest a slightly different reading. In this verse, the prophet condemns the unscrupulous merchants who deceive their customers by using dishonest weights and measures, claiming to be giving more than they actually are. It would appear, then, that the message being conveyed is not the general phenomenon of “negiut,” but rather the particular issue of deception. Eliezer “deceived” Avraham by asking a question which seemed to express genuine concern for Yitzchak and a sincere desire to complete his mission satisfactorily, but was in truth asked for the purpose of furthering his personal ambitions. The Midrash compares Eliezer’s maneuver to a merchant’s use of dishonest weights and measures, because Eliezer, too, appeared to “give” more than he actually did. He gave the impression of being loyal and faithful to his master, when in truth he was looking out for his own vested interests. This is a very common type of deception, which many people do not regard as evil – appearing genuinely concerned about somebody else in the process of furthering one’s own interests. When we appear sincerely concerned about somebody, we earn that person’s trust. And if we are insincere, then we are acquiring the other person’s trust deceitfully, like a storekeeper receiving money for a higher quantity than that which he is charging for. It is dishonest, and even cruel, to give somebody the impression that we are looking out for his best interests when our true intention is to pursue our own best interests. If we want somebody’s trust, then we should earn it, through complete honesty and sincerity.