We read in Parashat Chayei-Sara of Avraham’s servant’s journey to Aram-Naharayim in fulfillment of Avraham’s command that he find a mate for Yitzchak from his homeland. The servant – commonly identified as Eliezer – met Rivka, the daughter of Yitzchak’s cousin, outside the city, and she invited him to her home, where he spoke to the family and requested permission to bring her to marry Yitzchak in Canaan. The Torah relates that when Eliezer arrived, he was invited to join the family for a meal, and he was served food. He insisted, however, that he would not eat before first explaining to them why he had come and presenting his request – “I will not eat until I have spoken my words” (24:33).
Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, as well as other Midrashic sources, relate that Rivka’s family resented and felt hostility towards Eliezer, and they sought to kill him by secretly poisoning his food. Eliezer sensed that his food might have been poisoned, and for this reason he did not wish to eat until after he spoke to the family.
Rav Shlomo of Radomosk, in his Tiferet Shelomo, offers an allegorical reading of this seemingly peculiar incident. The experience of eating, he writes, can be either lofty and sacred, or spiritually “toxic.” If done properly, in the right manner, in the right atmosphere, and with the right intentions, tending to our basic physical needs can be a holy act, but if not, then we essentially lower ourselves to the stature of animals. The Tiferet Shelomo thus suggests that when the Midrash speaks of Eliezer being nearly poisoned to death by the food served to him at Rivka’s home, this means that he faced the threat of spiritual decline by eating together with corrupt idol-worshippers. The evil characters with whom Eliezer dined that day threatened to “poison” him – somebody who was accustomed to eating together with his saintly master, Avraham. And for this reason, the Tiferet Shelomo writes, Eliezer insisted on first speaking to the family about his experiences upon arriving at the well outside their city, recalling his prayers to God and his expressions of gratitude when his prayers were fulfilled through his meeting Rivka. The way to protect oneself from the “toxic” effects of improper eating is by elevating it and infusing it with religious meaning.
While the Torah does not encourage asceticism or discourage enjoying worldly pleasure, excessive indulgence and inordinate focus on physical enjoyment can be spiritual “poison.” It diverts our attention from our unique, sacred soul, from the distinct being that we are capable of becoming, and from the singular mission that we are each brought into the world to achieve. Overindulgence is “poison” in the sense that it involves squandering our special spiritual potential, as we utilize our time in this world for physical enjoyment, rather than for meaningful accomplishments. The Tiferet Shelomo’s insight teaches us of the importance of moderation in our pursuit of physical gratification, to ensure that our spiritual pursuits are always given highest priority even as we enjoy the physical and material delights that the world offers us.