Commentary for Chayei Sarah

28 Oct

This week’s parshah contains the most difficult cantillation mark in the Torah: Shalshelet (Gen. 24:12, above the first word). The major reason that Shalshelet is so difficult is because of its length. It is about twice as long as the next-longest cantillation mark, and about three times as long as the longest of the common cantillation marks. Fortunately, Shalshelet is also one of the most rare cantillation marks, appearing just four times in the Torah.

The length of the note, the music, and its shape (a vertical line that zig-zags back and forth) are all used to emphasize an extreme inner struggle going on for the character in question. This week, though, is different from all of the others. In all of the other cases, the inner struggle taking place is fairly easy to identify, but in this case, Abraham’s steward Eliezer just seems to be making a desperate plea to God to guidance. Hardly the sort of thing that requires an inner struggle.

Given his situation, his reason for asking God for guidance is easily understandable. Abraham has tasked him with an extremely important mission, but given him so few specifics that the task must seem impossibly daunting. So Eliezer headed off alone to a far-away land to sort through all of the maidens in the land to find not just any woman, but the right woman for Isaac.

Abraham, of course, had his reasons for sending Eliezer on this mission. Not only was Eliezer Abraham’s most loyal and trusted servant, but he was also from the same general region, so he would have a better grasp on the language and the culture. Perhaps he understood it a bit too well.

Though Eliezer had converted to Judaism like the rest of Abraham’s household, being re-immersed in the culture he had grown up with had a major effect on him. Seeing the idols and soothsayers he had grown up with reminded Eliezer of how simple his previous life had been, before he had starting working for Abraham, a man labeled “the outsider” by the Canaanites among whom he lived. He never lost sight of the mission, but he seems to have lost a bit of faith in his new God. Wouldn’t the woman he was being sent to find, as well as the children she would bear Isaac, have an easier life if they just worshiped the same gods as the people around them?

So when Eliezer begins to pray for guidance, he’s not even sure whom he should pray to. He has this long inner struggle of the Shalshelet and prays to God, but addresses God as “the God of my master, Abraham” rather than as his own God. The format of his prayer is controversial as well, as his prayer for guidance is actually criticized by the Rabbis of the Talmud as being a formula for Biblically forbidden divination (Chulin 95b).

Even though Eliezer seems to lose his faith here, using a pagan form of petition for guidance, God still answers his prayer, and does so immediately. Having one’s prayers answered in the Bible is a sign of one’s devotion to God. Although Eliezer might not have formulated his prayer correctly, God accepted it because deep down, he believed his prayer in his heart and his intentions were good, and in the end, that is what matters to God.

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