“Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well” by Carlo Moratta, 1657
“Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well” by Carlo Moratta, 1657

What the servant ‘said’ was huge

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Chayei Sara

Genesis 23:1-25:18

The ordeal of the Binding of Isaac is over, and Mother Sarah takes her final breath. Her grieving husband secures her burial place, and the mourning period comes to a close.

Now Abraham, like all who endure the loss of a beloved, must find a way to face the future. He turns to his most trusted servant, and enlists his sworn support in finding a suitable wife for Isaac from among his own kin. The servant arrives at the “city of Nahor” (Nahor was Abraham’s brother), halts his caravan and begins to speak. The Hebrew word used is vayomar, “and he said …” (Genesis 24:12).

The Torah has countless appearances of this little word, mostly in a slightly different grammatical form — vayomer — but meaning “and he said” in every instance. Male voices say many, many things in our Torah. But this particular “and he said” is different.

Torah chanters and b’nai mitzvah tutors love this section, because the trope — the musical and emphasis-indicating symbol offered for this otherwise unremarkable word — is completely remarkable. It is a shalshelet, an extremely rare cantillation mark that looks like a lightning bolt and whose name means “chain.”

The reader/chanter lingers on the word, drawing out the melody with a thrice-repeated arpeggio and an extra top-note at the end. It packs quite a dramatic punch, and is followed by a vertical line called a p’sik, a brief but potent pause.

What was it the servant “said” to command such attention? Perhaps, as some commentators suggest, the servant was hesitant to speak. After all, we soon discover that this is no ordinary utterance. On the threshold of a new chapter for the family to whom he is beholden, the servant speaks to the “Eternal One, God of my master Abraham.” The melody was chosen precisely and deliberately to make an impact, for this unnamed servant is about to do something not structured in the ancient Israelite world but beginning to emerge as a way of communication with the Divine. He prays. He worships, and beseeches God, with words.

“Please bring me luck today,” he implores the Eternal, “and do a kindness for my master Abraham” by sending a divinely chosen bride for Isaac. In the Hebrew, we hear the seeds of what would become the opening of the Amidah, which always begins with the avot, the paragraph linking us to our ancestors as we address the Divine Spirit: “Praised are You, the Eternal, our god and the god of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob …” (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah were added later in more liberal Jewish communities).

The staging and musicality of the servant’s plea to God are elaborate and designed for maximum effect.

But something else is at play, I think. Logic suggests that the eved, the servant, is Eliezer the Damascene, named back in Genesis 15 as Abraham’s only possible heir for the then-childless couple. But he is pointedly not named in Genesis 24, though he is called the “elder of his household who had oversight of everything that was [Abraham’s]” (Genesis 24:2). Throughout this entire episode, he is simply “the servant” or “the slave” or often just “the man.”

This makes his declaration to the Holy One that much more astounding. For it is here, at the dawn of the Jewish People, we find permission for anyone, even an anonymous eved, to open his mouth and pour out his heart to God for help, support, sustenance and success. No intermediary, no monarch, no scribe, liturgist, poet or prophet was necessary.

To this very day, the act of prayer is called avodah, the “service” of the heart, from the same root as the word for the eved.

As we emerge from a brutal election cycle, well do many of us know the fear that our voices may not be heard, that we shout into the void in vain.

Judaism asserts otherwise, and hopes for different.

Our task must be to always stand (and fight, if necessary) for the principles that all people are made in the Divine Image and are worthy of the blessing of free speech, and that all citizens — regardless of gender, religion, socioeconomic status, party or philosophy — should have equal access to safe voting and the ability to participate in a true representative government. And may the day yet arrive when we speak out for justice and peace, that our voices will be heard on high, and our prayers will be answered on Earth.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].