In Parashat Chayei Sarah Abraham sends his servant Eliezer on a very important mission – to find a wife for his son Isaac. Eliezer journeys a very long distance – from the contemporary land of Israel, all the way to the place of Abraham’s birth somewhere in contemporary Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia) – in order to find a wife (Rebecca) for Isaac. As Eliezer prepares to meet Rebecca, he prays that the women who come out of their homes to draw water from the well will be generous and of a giving nature. Eliezer will be able to identify a suitable wife for Isaac when a woman whom he asks for water also offers to provide water for his camels (Genesis 24:12-15).
One of the most intriguing aspects of this prayer is not included in the actual text of Torah. Many generations after the composition of Torah, a group of people known as Masoretes (~ 11th century) appended the text of Torah with special grammatical markings which indicated how a particular text was to be emphasised and sung. These markings are known as ta’amei ha-mikra (literally “biblical stresses”) but are more commonly referred to as “trope.” Before Eliezer prays to God, Torah records, “And he said” – vayomar in Hebrew. Vayomar and vayomer are very common words in the Torah. But on this particular occasion, the Masoretes have accented the word vayomar with a special note called a shalshelet. The word shalshelet means “chain” and the pronunciation of the word is recited as an extended chain of notes, lasting three times as long as any other note. Further, the shalshelet appears as a Masoretic marking only four times in the entire Torah – three times in the book of Genesis, and once in Leviticus.
What is so special about this word vayomar that it is highlighted by a shalshelet? Contemporary rabbis believe that the shalshelet is a marking that indicates hesitation. As willing as Eliezer was to participate in this journey at Abraham’s request, we cannot overlook the importance of the journey. Eliezer needed to find a wife for Isaac, so that Isaac and Rebecca would bear children, and continue Abraham’s familial line (and thus the line of the future Jewish people). He needed not only to find a wife for Isaac, but also to find the right wife for Isaac. This was quite a tall order for Eliezer and he had every right to feel hesitant. The shalshelet highlights this sense of hesitation on Eliezer’s account.
In our lives there are no scriptural markings which accent our lives or tell us how we are “supposed to feel.” There is only the full gamut of emotions which we often experience in different ways each and every day. All of us will encounter moments of hesitation, moments of reluctance, moments where we are unsure of ourselves. What is most comforting about this week’s parashah is that in his moment of hesitation, Eliezer expresses his feelings, his wishes, his deep-seated fears and emotions. In our moments of hesitation it is important to remember that we are participants in a time-honoured covenant, a sacred relationship with the Divine. Judaism teaches that, like Eliezer, it is always possible for us to turn toward God for guidance, comfort, a place to express ourselves, and love.