CHAYEY SARAH 5775
Let me ask you a couple of questions. 1st, what do you think is the newest and most often used commentary for rabbis in their sermon preparations today? It’s Rabbi Google! 2nd, what do you think is the oldest commentary on the Torah? It’s not Rashi, nor Ibn Ezra nor Abravanel—nor even the comments on passages of the Torah that are found in the Talmud and Midrash. I have a hunch that the oldest commentaries on the Torah are the trop, the musical notes used to chant the Torah. Often music can give soul and meaning to ideas that words cannot.
The highest and most prolonged trop is called the shalshelet. The word shalshelet is from the word shalosh, “3.” The sound of this note curves up and down 3 successive times. Commentators suggest that when a shalshelet appears over a word, it indicates a feeling of hesitation by the character in the text associated with this word.
A great example is the Joseph story we’ll read in a few weeks. Picture the scene. Joseph is a handsome, virile, but a lonely young man—far away from home. And Mrs. Potifar—his master’s wife—tries to seduce him. Was it easy for him to resist her advances? The sages tell us that she was one of the 4 most beautiful women to ever live. She tried to seduce him every day with perfumes and provocative clothing.
The shalshelet musical note appears over the word, va-y’ma-eyn, “and he hesitated” (Gen. 39:8), hinting that Joseph was really tempted by her. Listen to the shalshelet, forward-backward, forward-backward, forward-backward note, and you’ll hear how tempted he was. Va-y’ma-eyn… … …
Can you identify with Joseph? How often have you been tempted by something you knew was wrong, but that appeared to be very alluring? Whether it was a seductive woman, or a drug that we knew we should turn down, or a shady way to make a profit of which no one would ever know, or just a non-kosher hot dog that smells so good at the ballpark. Whatever the particular temptation, if we are human, it’s hard, terribly hard, to turn it down. And so we can identify with Joseph as a real human being, who has to struggle hard with the evil impulse within him, until he is finally able to say, “No.” And by the way, Joseph is only one of a couple of personalities that our sages call a tzadik, a righteous man because of this struggle.
In last week’s parsha, mysterious strangers—angels in disguise—come to Lot and tell him that Sodom is about to be destroyed and he must gather his family and leave while there’s still time. He tells his sons-in-law and they laugh at him and his married daughters refuse to leave. Lot is caught between the angels and his children. Should he go and leave them behind along with all of his possessions—leaving only he, his wife and their 2 unmarried daughters? Or should he stay and perish along with them? What would you do? The text (Gen. 19:16) says, Vayitmameya, “he hesitated,” sung with the shalshelet. All the ambivalence in his soul, all the tension that made it so hard for him to decide, all the tension between his love of his family and possessions and his fear for his life—all these feelings come to expression in that shalshelet.
We can identify with Lot and with his hesitation, can’t we? Think of the German Jews who could have left before the Nazis took them but hesitated because who could not believe that such a sane and civilized society could become so cruel? Think of those German Jews who left—but left behind all their family and possessions. Think of those who stayed because they were convinced that Nazism would soon blow over and that Germany would return to its senses soon enough. And we understand Lot’s hesitation and his shalshelet.
In this week’s Torah portion there’s a less obvious shalshelet. Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is sent by his master to find a wife for his son Isaac back home in Mesopotamia. He must have been fearful of this awesome responsibility. What if he chose the wrong woman? He knew that Isaac wanted to keep the covenant, but he also knew that Isaac was not as strong or decisive as his father. The whole fate of the covenant depended on the kind of woman Isaac would marry. Eliezer stands at the well and prays to Gd for guidance in finding the right woman. And on the word used for, “he prayed”—vayomar (Gen. 24:12)—there’s a shalshelet. It expresses how apprehensive, how worried, how desperate he must have felt.
Alternatively, the Midrash suggests that perhaps in his heart of hearts Eliezer may not have wanted to succeed. Failure would mean either Isaac would not marry and Eliezer, being the closest aide to Abraham, would be the next in line to carry on the covenant or, perhaps Isaac would end up marrying Eliezer’s daughter. Either way, lack of success on this mission, may have ended up personally benefiting Eliezer, so he hesitated.
And so it is for many of us, when we come to crossroads in lives—when we have to make decisions that will affect our whole future or the future of others without knowing in advance what the consequences of our decisions will be. It has been said that you only know whom you have married on the way up the wedding aisle. No one can ever begin to know in advance what the partner they have chosen to marry will be like. There are no guarantees. Every marriage is a trust walk—even a marriage between 2 shules! And so we all enter such a moment of decision with fervent prayers in our hearts, with hope that Gd will be with us to guide us and help us make the right choices. But we must summon up the courage to decide.
Let me illustrate with a story about a Mafia godfather who learns that his bookkeeper has embezzled $10 million. The bookkeeper was deaf and that was the reason he got the job in the 1st place. It was assumed that a deaf bookkeeper would not be able to hear anything that he’d ever have to testify about in court. So, when the godfather interrogates the bookkeeper about the missing $10 million, he brings along an attorney who knows sign language.
The godfather asks the bookkeeper, “Where’s the $10 million you embezzled from me?”
The attorney, using sign language, asks the bookkeeper who signs back, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
The attorney tells the godfather, “He says he doesn't know what you’re talking about.”
The godfather pulls out a 9mm pistol, puts it to the bookkeeper’s temple, cocks it and says, “Ask him again!”
The attorney signs to the bookkeeper, “He’ll kill you for sure if you don’t tell him!”
The bookkeeper signs back, “Okay! You win! The money is in a brown suitcase, buried behind the shed in my cousin Enzo’s backyard in Queens!”
The godfather asks the attorney, “Well, what’d he say?”
The attorney replies, “He says you don’t have the guts to pull the trigger!”
Maimonides notes that one who hesitates but in the end has the guts to do the principled thing is on a higher level than one who acts without hesitation. Therefore, Eliezer’s hesitation doesn’t mean he’s less righteous, but rather, very human.
Most often, when people become involved in something they ask, “What’s in it for me?” Eliezer may have asked this most human question, but the message of the shalshelet is: There are times when we are called upon to complete tasks that may not be in our personal self-interest, but we must do them nonetheless. In a world of selfishness this musical note teaches us the importance of selflessness.
There’s one other incident of selflessness in the parsha that often goes unnoticed but is so sweet. As Eliezer returns from Mesopotamia with Isaac’s wife-to-be Rebecca, they encounter Isaac who also had just returned from a journey. Where was he coming from? The Torah mentions us it was B’eyr Lachai Ro-i (Gen. 24:62). What was he doing there? Rashi tells us that he went there to fetch Hagar, his father Abraham’s estranged wife. Even though she was his mother’s rival—Sarah had Abraham throw her out—Isaac knew that Abraham loved her and needed her now, more than ever.
It’s such a tender moment if you think about it. Abraham was so worried about his son—especially after his mother Sarah’s death—that he sent Eliezer all the way to Mesopotamia to find an appropriate wife for him. While at the same time Isaac was so concerned about his father’s loneliness that he goes to find and bring him a familiar companion to comfort him.
The shalshelet looks like a crooked line that begins on the ground and reaches upward. It tells us that personal feelings are real and human. But it is also teaches us that sometimes we should abandon those natural human inclinations and have the courage to reach beyond ourselves. Then we’ll be able to reach the heavens.
The shalshelet is only a musical note—a rare one that is found, to the best of my knowledge, just 4 times in the Torah—each with a powerful lesson. When next we are tempted—either by the desire to hold on to possessions or by the desire for honor and prestige—when we are paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong decision or whenever we are lured to do what we know is wrong…let us hear the sound of the shalshelet, reminding us that doing the right thing is hard, terribly hard—it was hard even for our ancestors—but they somehow, some way, from some place, found the strength and courage to do it, and, with Gd’s help, so can we. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis