When Eliezer, the devoted servant of Avraham Avinu, set out on his mission to seek a shidduch for Yitzchak Avinu, he took “10 camels of his master’s camels.”
Rashi reveals to us what the Torah is teaching with the words “his master’s camels”: “They were distinguishable from other camels by the fact that they would go out muzzled to prevent robbery, [so] that they should not graze in strangers’ fields.”
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 60:10) wonders about this Chazal because of the story involving Rabi Pinchas Ben Yair’s donkey. One night, robbers stole this donkey and took it to the cave that served as their hideout.
For three days, the creature refused to eat the food its captors fed him. Fully expecting the donkey to die of starvation, the robbers feared that the stench of its rotting corpse would make their cave uninhabitable, so they chose to free it.
The donkey made its way home, stood outside the door of this great Tanna, and brayed. Rabi Pinchas ben Yair recognized the sound of his donkey.
“Open up for this poor [creature] and feed it,” he instructed. “It has been three days since it has eaten anything.”
The members of his household tried to feed it some barley, but the donkey refused to eat. When they reported this to the Tanna, he asked them if terumos and maasros had been taken from the barley.
“Yes,” they replied.
He then asked if the barley had been purchased from an am haaretz, rendering it demai. (Since it is uncertain whether the am haaretz tithed his produce, one is required to tithe it himself in case the am ha’aretz did not do so.)
The household members replied that they had heard from their master that the stringency of demai did not apply to animal feed (since most amei ha’aretz do separate tithes).
“What can we do if the donkey wants to be machmir on herself?” he responded.
How is it possible that Rabi Pinchas ben Yair’s donkey should have been on a greater spiritual level than the camels of Avraham Avinu? Therefore, the Midrash (as explained by the Ramban) disagrees, concluding that the camels weren’t muzzled.
The meforshim, however, provide various explanations to reconcile the Chazal quoted by Rashi and the story of Rabi Pinchas ben Yair’s donkey.
The Mizrachi cites the precept that one is not supposed to rely on a miracle, and therefore Eliezer had an obligation to take precautions and muzzle the camels.
Another approach is suggested by the Nachlas Yaakov, who says that there was no reason to be concerned that camels belonging to Avraham Avinu would graze in other fields. The reason they were muzzled was so that others would see — and learn from — this righteous approach and muzzle their own animals as well.
The Kiviashder Rebbe, Harav Moshe Halberstam, zy”a, offered an explanation that contains a very pertinent lesson.
There is a key difference between a donkey and other types of domesticated animals. Yeshayah Hanavi (1:3) teaches us: “An ox knows his owner and a donkey his master’s crib.” Rashi explains that Hashem is telling us through His navi, “An ox recognizes his owner, so that his fear is upon him. He did not deviate from what I decreed upon him by saying, ‘I will not plow today.’ Neither did a donkey say to his owner, ‘I will not bear burdens today.’”
The donkey isn’t the wisest of animals, nor is it the strongest or the fastest. But it has one wonderful attribute — it is totally subservient to its master. Willingly and without question, it accepts authority. It carries the burdens placed upon it and heeds whatever instructions it is given.
Rabi Pinchas ben Yair’s donkey was so subservient to its master’s wishes that it did everything it could to make certain it would not eat anything forbidden, even if that meant starving.
A camel doesn’t have this nature. It does not recognize and accept authority like a donkey, and therefore, camels — even those belonging to Avraham Avinu — had to be muzzled.
The Rebbe adds that the example of the donkey behooves all of us to strengthen ourselves and elevate our level of subservience to Hashem by thoroughly subjugating our minds and thoughts to His service and seeking to do only His will.