This Shabbat, we read the portion of Chayei Sarah, the fifth Sidrah of Bereshit/Genesis, beginning with chapter 23. We are deeply immersed in the history of the patriarchal period. Despite the title of the portion, “Sarah’s Lifetime…,” the Sidrah opens with the death of the First Matriarch, Sarah, at age 127. Her beloved husband, Abraham, enters into a complex negotiation with the Hittites to buy a family burial plot, the Cave of Machpelah, in the town of Hebron. He identifies himself as a “Geir V’Toshav,”/Resident Alien. He offers 500 shekels, and his long negotiation is successfully completed. The Cave of Machpelah becomes the permanent memorial and resting place for our Patriarchs and Matriarchs to the present day! (Rachel, wife of Jacob, is the exception. She is buried along the road to Bethlehem.)
In chapter 24, we read about Abraham’s search for a suitable wife for his son, Isaac. He sends his senior servant, later identified as Damesek Eliezer, back to Abraham’s birthplace in search of a bride for Isaac, so that he would not marry a Canaanite woman. This servant, entrusted with the care of Abraham’s major wealth and assets, is now given this crucial mission by his master. The servant prays to G-d Almighty, one of the very few examples of real prayer in the Torah, that he succeed in fulfilling his responsibility. The prayer begins with the Hebrew word, “Vayomar/And he prayed: Eternal One, G-d of my master Abraham, please bring me luck today, and do a kindness for my master Abraham (24:12).”
The Masoretes, the 7th and 8th century scholars who placed the musical cantillation symbols above and below each word of Torah, selected the cantillation symbol Shalshelet for the word Vayomar. Every cantillation note relates exactly to the meaning of the word. The musical note Shalshelet is a very florid, lengthy, and elaborate musical phrase that occurs only four times in the entire Torah! Each time we find this cantillation, the Torah reader must take many seconds to sing the highlighted word. This musical phrase teaches us that there is a degree of indecision and uncertainty on the part of the individual performing the act being described.
We learn from the Shalshelet cantillation symbol on Vayomar that Damesek Eliezer was not totally vested in his responsibility, and had doubt. The Rabbis teach us that he had a daughter of his own and desperately wanted to make a match for her with Isaac. But this was not to be! Before he had even completed his prayer, Rebecca, daughter of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel, brings water to Damesek Eliezer and his camels. Damesek Eliezer is now positive that the young woman will be the most suitable bride for Isaac! After she agrees to the proposal, her family members recite upon Rebecca a blessing: “Sister, may you become thousands of myriads; may your descendants take possession of the gates of their foes (24:60)!” This blessing, of course, comes true! At traditional Jewish weddings to this day, these opening words are recited to every bride before her veil is lowered.
Abraham has 12 more sons, and dies at age 175. His sons Isaac and Ishmael reunite to bury him in the Machpelah Cave that had been purchased by Abraham just for this purpose earlier in the Sidrah/Torah portion.
Earlier this week, Jews all over the world commemorated Kristallnacht, The Night of the Broken Glass. On November 9, 1938, the Nazis unleashed a violent pogrom that resulted in the destruction of over 2400 Synagogues throughout Germany. This event represented a new and violent dimension to the anti-Semitic activities of the Nazi party. Many historians consider Kristallnacht to be the beginning of a new level of anti-Jewish activities. This past week, Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, spoke of Germany’s shame at the events of Kristallnacht.
“We remember the disgrace of November 9, 1938, the pogroms against Jewish fellow citizens throughout the country, the people driven to their deaths, the burning synagogues, the destroyed stores,” said Merkel. “We commemorate the victims of the crime committed by Germany against humanity, the Shoah, in shame.” Merkel’s message was part of the “Let There Be Light” program, a global campaign of unity based on the premise of encouraging all to unite in solidarity against bias, bigotry, antisemitism, racism, hatred and intolerance during which Synagogues all across the world were fully illuminated, all night long, to mark this horrendous occurrence.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in Great Britain, died this week at age 72. He was born in a Jewish home where he received a basic Jewish education. At age 19, he traveled to the United States, meeting with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the most famous Talmud scholar at Yeshiva University, and with Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Based on his interactions with these giants, Rabbi Sacks went on to complete his studies in philosophy at Cambridge and the University of London, and then pursued Orthodox Rabbinic ordination. After serving as Rabbi of three synagogues, he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the British Empire in 1991, serving in this role until 2013. Rabbi Sacks was a charismatic and charming teacher, lecturer, scholar, and prolific author. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2005 and made a life peer in the House of Lords in 2009. He had a long personal relationship with Prince Charles.
During his career, he advocated great inclusivity, teaching that there were many valid ways to know G-d.
His translation of the traditional prayerbook is used all over the world. It is my own favorite prayerbook that accompanies me wherever I go. His books, articles, and lectures are a testament to his brilliance and sincerity as a teacher of Jewish values, fervent belief in G-d, and lover of the State of Israel. Jews of all denominations can learn from the life and teachings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory.
Here is a relevant message from Rabbi Sacks of blessed memory, delivered in 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMVgX8cXsHA
Ellen, our children, and grandchildren join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom U’m’vorach.
Hazzan David F. Tilman