Saturday, November 19, 2005

Parsha: Rabbi Saks on Eliezer's Inner Conflict

Rabbi Saks, Chief Rabbi of England, offers an amazing insight into Avraham's servant's conflict and taamei hamikra.

"........The shalshelet is an unusual note. It goes up and down, up and down, as if unable to move forward to the next note. It was the 16th century commentator Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi (in his commentary to Bereishith 19:16) who best understood what it was meant to convey, namely a psychological state of uncertainty and indecision. The graphic notation of the shalshelet itself looks like a streak of lightning, a "zigzag movement" (tenuah me'uvetet), a mark that goes repeatedly backwards and forwards. It conveys frozen motion - what Hamlet called "the native hue of resolution sicklied o'er by the pale cast of thought" - in which the agent is torn by inner conflict. The shalshelet is the music of ambivalence.

One instance occurs in Genesis 24:12. Abraham has sent his servant (not identified in the text, but taken by the commentators to be Eliezer) to find a wife for his son Isaac. He goes to the city of Haran where Abraham's family remained while he went on to the land of Canaan. Arriving at the town's well, he proposes a test: the woman who comes to draw water, offers some to the traveller, and in addition gives water to his camels will be the one chosen by G-d for his master's son. Over the "and he said" introducing his request of G-d that this test should succeed, the masoretic tradition has placed a shalshelet.

The commentators identify multiple sources of ambivalence at this point. First, was the test permitted? Jewish law forbids relying on "omens" (Deut. 18: 10, Hullin 95b), and Eliezer may have felt that his test was dangerously close to pagan practice (Ran to Hullin 95b, however, states that Eliezer's conduct was legitimate; he sought not an omen but a sign of the woman's character).

Ibn Caspi himself suggests that Eliezer was unsure as to whether a single test like this was sufficient grounds on which to base so fateful a decision as the choice of a marriage partner for Isaac.

The midrash (Bereishith Rabbah 59: 9), however offers the most insightful explanation. Eliezer had mixed feelings not about the test but about the whole mission itself. Until that point, says the Midrash, he had been "sitting and weighing whether his own daughter was suitable for Isaac." He had hoped, in other words, that one way or another, Abraham's estate would pass to him.

There are two cues that led the midrash to this hypothesis. The first is that when Abraham first spoke to G-d about his childlessness, he said: "O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus" (Ber. 15: 2). Eliezer, at that time, had reason to hope that he would be Abraham's heir.

The second is that when Abraham charges him with the mission to find a wife for his son, he replies, "What if [ulai] the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land?" As Ibn Ezra notes (Commentary to Psalm 116: 16), the word ulai is not always neutral. Sometimes it signifies an eventuality one does not want to happen, but at others it indicates an event one does wish for. Eliezer's "what if" may have been an unconscious expression of the fact that, with half his mind, he wanted the mission to fail. That would once again place him or his daughter in a position to be Abraham's heir.

It was therefore with profoundly mixed feelings that he prayed for a woman to appear who would be G-d's choice of Isaac's wife......."


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