by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple
Shakespeare says there are sermons in stones. Judaism finds sermons even in musical notes.
Take Gen. 24:12 in this Shabbat’s Torah reading. Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, has been sent to find a wife for Isaac. He speaks to God and says, “Send me, I pray, good speed this day”. On the word vayomar, “and he said”, the musical note (the trope) is shalshelet, a long up and down chain of sounds which suggests his worry and trepidation about being able to fulfil his mission.
There is another shalshelet in last week’s sidra. When told to leave the doomed city, Abraham’s nephew Lot lingers. Going means that he will leave his possessions behind. His wavering is denoted by the note on the word vayit’mahmah, “and he lingered” (Gen. 19:16).
The book of B’reshit contains only one more shalshelet. It occurs in the story of Joseph being tempted by the wife of Potiphar. The Hebrew says vay’ma’en, “and he refused” (Gen. 39:8). He is being pulled in two directions – the direction of sin and the direction of righteousness. No wonder he is dithering. In the end he refuses the woman’s wiles and finds the moral strength to refrain from sinning.
We all say to ourselves that when faced with a big dilemma we would not hesitate. We would be decisive, without wavering, lingering or vacillating. That, of course, is when it is all still hypothetical and academic. When the problem really confronts us it is never so easy. “Am I really going to make a success of my task?” is Eliezer’s question, and anyone who undertakes a responsibility cannot avoid a feeling of trepidation. Even an accomplished preacher or orator has a sense of emata d’tzibbura, “fear of (or respect for) the audience”, and can never be certain that all will go well.
Lot’s question is, “If destiny calls me to leave my comfort zone and the material things I am used to, will I really be able to cope?” It’s a valid concern, and many of us at some stage have had to work through it. Joseph’s question is, “Am I really strong enough to resist temptation?” and no-one knows in advance what the answer is.