Friday, November 6, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1-25:18) contains something unusual, not in the words themselves, but in the trope (cantillation marks) the indications of how the melody is to be chanted.  After the death of Sarah at the outset of the parshah, and after Abraham has mourned her and purchased land in Canaan to bury her, he sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac.  The servant goes to Aram Naharaim, and prays to God to help him find the right woman.  The first word of his prayer, va’yomar (“he said”) is sung with the shalshelet, a rare sign that is found in only four places in the Torah.  There are other rare tropes, but they don’t sound very different from the standard melody.  Shalshelet has a very distinctive sound, going up and down the scale three times.  When you have heard it, you know you’ve heard something unusual.
What is so important about this word that it merits the shalshelet? The servant’s prayer, that he might find a suitable mate for Isaac, is what changes the story of Abraham and Sarah from a one-time phenomenon to a spiritual inheritance that has lasted for thousands of years.  Rebecca meets and then exceeds the criteria that the servant has asked God to show him.  She is eager to go with the servant, she and Isaac fall in love at once and, in coming Torah portions (spoiler alert) she will manipulate her husband to further the cause of the son best suited to carry on the leadership of the people to the next generation.
Also, interestingly, the word shalshelet means “chain”.  Rebecca never gets to meet her mother-in-law Sarah, but she is the bearer of the female leadership of this people who will, in another few years, become the people Israel.  May this chain, which has been carefully carried for so many years, continue to be passed on from one generation to the next.

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