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Chayei Sarah

In this parasha, Sarah dies at the age of 127 and Abraham proceeds to buy a piece of land in which to bury her. Abraham sends out a senior servant to find a wife for Isaac who finds Rebecca. At 175 Abraham dies and is buried alongside Sarah.

Another voice

Chayei Sarah by Avi Weiss :: 5768

Avi Weiss is founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah - the Modern and Open Orthodox Rabbinical school, and the Senior Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a Modern and Open Orthodox congregation of 850 families. He is also National President of AMCHA - the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, a grassroots organization that speaks out for Jewish causes and Israel.

Words have the power to express ideas. But as expressive as words can be, they can be limited. Often music can give soul and meaning to ideas that words cannot.

This concept is also true with respect to the melody (trop) used to read the Torah. The tune actually acts as a commentary on the text itself.

The highest and most prolonged trop is called the shalshelet. The word shalshelet is from the word shalosh - three. The sound of this note curves upward and then down three successive times. Commentators suggest that when a shalshelet appears, it indicates a feeling of hesitation by a character in the text.

For example, when Mrs. Potiphar attempts to seduce Joseph, Joseph refuses - va-yemaen. (Genesis 39:8) Although saying no, Joseph at first may have thought about giving into temptation. The word va-yemaen has the shalshelet as its trop.

In last week's portion, the angels instruct Lot and his family to leave Sedom. The Torah then tells us that Lot lingered (va-yitmamah) (Genesis 19:16). Lot and his family were leaving their home and this could not have been easy. Even as they left, they hesitated. In the end, Lot's wife looks back and is overtaken by the brimstone and fire, turning into a pillar of salt. Atop va-yitmamah is the shalshelet. In this week's Torah portion there is a less obvious shalshelet. Eliezer, Avraham's steward, is at the well, seeking a wife for his master's son, Yitzchak. The Torah states "And he said" (va-yomar) (Genesis 24:12) - the woman who will give camels to drink is kind and hence suitable for Yitzchak. Atop the word va-yomar is the shalshelet. One wonders why? What type of hesitation takes place in this moment?

Perhaps, deep down, Eliezer did hesitate. In his heart of hearts he may not have wanted to succeed. Failure would mean Yitzchak would not marry and Eliezer, being the closest aide to Avraham, would be the next in line to carry on the covenant. Alternatively, as the midrash suggests, perhaps if he did not find a wife on this journey, Yitzchak would end up marrying Eliezer's daughter. Either way, lack of success on this mission may have ended up personally benefitting Eliezer.

No wonder Eliezer's name never appears in the entire chapter. When he identifies himself to his future father-in-law Lavan, Eliezer declares "eved Avraham anochi" (I am Avraham's servant) (Genesis 24:34). It is extraordinary that Eliezer does not identify himself by name. but this omission makes sense as Eliezer works selflessly for Avraham, even at the risk of his own personal gain.

The Rambam notes that in many areas, one who hesitates but in the end does the principled thing is on a higher level than one who acts without hesitation. Therefore, Yosef's hesitation doesn't mean he's less righteous but rather, very human. And certainly the act of Eliezer falls into this same category. Most often when people become involved in an endeavor they ask "what's in it for me?" Eliezer may have asked this most human question, but the message of the shalshelet is clear. There are times when we are called upon to complete tasks that may not be in our best self interest, but we must do them nonetheless. In a world of selfishness this musical note teaches each one of us the importance of selflessness.

Interestingly, the shalshelet looks like a crooked line that begins on the ground and reaches upward. It is telling us that personal feelings are real and human. But it is also teaching us that sometimes we should abandon those natural human inclinations and reach beyond ourselves. Then we will be able to reach the heavens.


More by Avi Weiss

Another voice by Lucinda Caplan

The parsha says "and these were the years of Sarah, one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah's life" (Bereishit 23:1). There is a midrash that says that because Sarah lived her whole life sin free and to the fullest, her descendant, Queen Esther merited to rule over 127 provinces and saved the whole of the Jewish nation. We live in a world now where we don't always appreciate our time. We often hear people saying 'I wasted so much time today', 'let's kill five minutes' and so on. Our time in this world is precious and finite; the midrash reminds us to make the most of it.


More by Lucinda Caplan

Other Divrei Torah on Chayei Sarah

  • 5766 (Daniel Goldfarb)
  • 5766 (Daniel Vulkan)
  • 5767 (Deborah Silver)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Richard Freund)
  • 5769 (Gary Webber)
  • 5770 (Daniel Goldfarb)
  • 5770 (Lucinda Glasser)
  • 5771 (Lawrence Hoffman)
  • 5771 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5772 (Keith Kahn-Harris)
  • 5772 (Marcus J Freed)
  • 5773 (Danny Burkeman)
  • 5773 (Harris Lorrie)
  • 5774 (Shai Held)
  • 5775 (Michael Slater)
  • 5775 (Judy Maltz)