This week’s Torah Portion, Hayei Sarah, the fifth sidrah in the first Torah Book, Bereshit/Genesis, begins with the death of the first matriarch of the Jewish people, Sarah our Mother. Even though the portion is entitled “Sarah’s Life,” chapter 23 begins with the mournful announcement of her death after 127 eventful years as the wife of Avraham our Father and the mother of Isaac and Ishmael. We read about Avraham’s skillful negotiation to purchase the Machpelah Cave as the sacred burial place for his wife and subsequent patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people. Only Rachel is not buried in the Machpelah Cave. Rachel is buried in a small tomb located on the road to Bethlehem. The Machpelah Cave is located in Hebron, an Arab town on the West Bank. Both the Machpelah Cave and Rachel’s Tomb can be visited on your next trip to Israel!
The highlight of the Parashah is described in chapter 24. The elderly widowed Avraham tasks his senior servant, later identified as Damesek Eliezer, to return to Avraham’s birthplace to find a suitable and appropriate wife for his son Isaac. Isaac, we remember, was nearly sacrificed by his father in last week’s portion as a test of Avraham’s absolute faith in Almighty G-d. Avraham tells his servant, “You will not take a wife for my son from among the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose midst I dwell. Rather, you shall go to my land, my birthplace, and get a wife for my son Isaac.”(24:3-4).
The servant takes ten camels on his journey to Aram-naharaim, birthplace of Avraham, as he plans how he will fulfill his master’s wishes. Damesek Eliezer then beseeches Almighty G-d. “Vayomar/and he prayed: Eternal One, G-d of my master Avraham, please bring me ‘luck’ today and do a kindness for my master Avraham…”(24:12). He asks G-d for a sign! The young woman, who volunteers to bring water for his camels in addition to himself, will be the one for Isaac. Before he had completed his prayers, Rebekah steps forward with water for both him and his camels, and he knows that his prayer have been answered with G-d’s blessings.
There is so much for us to learn from these few words! The Hebrew phrase, “Vayomar/and he prayed…” is vocalized with a florid and long musical cantillation, called Shalshelet that is found only four times in the entire Torah! What did the Masoretic scholars from S’fat in northern Israel during the 7th and 8th centuries, who were responsible for formalizing the musical cantillation system, teach us by placing this ornate and dramatic musical phrase on the Hebrew Vayomar? Each one of the four places where the Shalshelet occurs is on an action word filled with indecision and doubt. There is a Rabbinic teaching that Damesek Eliezer recited this prayer with hesitation and doubt because he had a daughter of his own whom he wished to make a “Shidduch/Match” with his master’s son, Isaac, and was therefore very conflicted about his mission. I read recently another reason why this verse is so special: it is the very first time that anyone in the Torah employs verbal prayer asking G-d Almighty with words for divinely inspired help and assistance! In the “Etz Hayim” Humash, the editors teach us, “The servant of Abraham is the first person whom Scripture records as praying for personal guidance at a critical moment” (Page 132). Today, we do this all the time! But Damesek Eliezer was the first in the Torah. Possibly, the Masoretes placed the Shalshelet musical phrase on this word because of its drama and uniqueness in using words to beseech the Creator for assistance!
Damesek Eliezer could not have known that he was fulfilling G-d’s plan for Isaac and for the Jewish people. Isaac is foreordained to marry Rebekah in order that the Jewish people grow and multiply. Rebekah was G-d’s Shidduch/match for Isaac, and Damesek Eliezer was the Shadchan/Matchmaker. We shall read in future portions just how successful this match was, in spite of multiple challenges and interfamilial conflicts.
Rebekah ultimately agrees to the proposed match, and her family sends her off with her nurse, Damesek Eliezer and his men. As they leave, her family recites to her, “Sister, may you become thousands of myriads; may your descendants take possession of the gates of their foes” (24:60).
This blessing is recited at traditional weddings as the veil is lowered over the face of the bride, to this day!
This past Tuesday evening, Rabbi Sussman stopped by the chapel, drawn in by the sounds of operatic arias and choruses being sung by our fantastic volunteer choir, Shir KI, and our professional quartet. He reveled as our singers brought forth music by Verdi, Handel, Offenbach, and Gershwin, sung in Italian, English, and French. Rabbi Sussman came forward and stood by my music stand as the rich and sonorous music filled the chapel.
We are preparing for Shapopera, a Shabbat service in honor of Rabbi Sussman, to be presented on Shabbat evening, December 10, at 7:30 pm.
Do not miss this first event honoring Rabbi Sussman! You will be thrilled by the magnificent and famous music and romantic lyrics!
More details will follow soon!
Ellen, our family Avrum, Rabbi Howard, Naomi, Alana, and our grandchildren Micah Toby and Sophie Daniela, join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom.