As the Torah alludes to multiple times (see Rashi, Parashat Lech Lecha), Avraham and Sarah successfully attracted many students of their teachings and way of life. Although the Torah usually portrays Eliezer as a typical servant, according to the Talmud and Midrashim he was actually Avraham’s most outstanding student. In addition, he not only imbibed his great master’s teachings, but he also became a teacher of Avraham’s philosophy to others as well (as cited by Rashi). According to some contemporary commentaries, Eliezer was actually not formally Avraham’s servant at all, but rather a profoundly dedicated disciple that expressed his loyalty by acting as a servant (Sher, R. Isaac, Leket Sichot Mussar). Against this backdrop, a comment of Targum Yerushalmi (an Aggadic Torah commentary and translation of unknown authorship written in Aramaic and sometimes incorrectly referred to as Targum Yonatan, cited and explained by Ayelet Hashachar Al Hatorah) becomes very striking. Targum Yerushalmi nonchalantly refers to Eliezer as “Eliezer ben Nimrod,” Eliezer, son of Nimrod. In stark contrast to Avraham and his household, Nimrod is one of the archvillains of Avraham’s era and one of the first in world history to lead the masses away towards false gods. They were polar opposites: Avraham represented and embodied enlightened monotheistic faith, while Nimrod represented and embodied benighted idolatry and pagan heresy. Even without this added detail regarding Eliezer’s lineage, the fact that Avraham was able to inspire such a dedicated student is impressive and inspiring. But to think that Avraham was somehow able to pierce the presumably severely calcified and hardened heart of a very member of Nimrod’s own family, and that Eliezer was somehow able to pull himself out of the deepest depths of godlessness and rise to the top of positive spirituality is nothing less than amazing.
Although it appears at first glance that Eliezer’s background and ancestry were liabilities and obstacles that impeded his spiritual journey in the house of Avraham, it is possible that it was these same factors themselves that became the assets that actually enabled him to reach his outstanding achievement. The appreciation of the profundity of ethical and religious teachings runs much deeper when they are contrasted with their alternative than when they are examined in a relative vacuum. One that has lived through a darker night will appreciate the same light of day in a deeper way. It is true that immersion in an environment that is hostile, unfriendly, or even indifferent to true spirituality can make the first steps forward more difficult and challenging. But when some threshold of enlightenment and commitment is reached, that same negative exposure can powerfully propel one far ahead. In the words of the Talmud, “Rabbi Abahu said, ‘Where ba’alei teshuvah (penitents) stand, people who have never sinned cannot stand!'” (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 34b). Had Eliezer been the son of a typical father, he may have still been impressed with Avraham’s teachings and become a disciple. If that was the case, however, it is likely that he would not have become such an outstanding student that enjoyed such a close relationship with Avraham and that personally further promulgated his teachings. Instead, against the backdrop of a childhood of growing up in Nimrod’s house, Eliezer’s rejection of the old catapulted him further forward than his mere acceptance of the new ever could. Eliezer, son of Nimrod, and his great spiritual journey highlights the value of contrasting opposing worldviews and life-styles as a potent motivational tool for self-transformation.