There are moments in life which punctuate like pizzicato. A point which, though short lived, reverberates forever. There are fermata moments, too, where a beat is held and prolonged… until the moment is broken and time moves on.
This week’s parsha Chayei Sarah has both, and our attention is drawn to these moments by Masoretic notes. A tiny letter kaf punctuates the intro of the sedra, and a sustained moment of song, the Shalshelet trope, holds us in suspense in the middle of this week’s narrative. I think they both come to teach us the same lesson.
וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה
וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן–בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ
And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba–the same is Hebron–in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. (Gen. 23:1-2)
The word וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ, “and to weep for her” contains a kaf zeirah, a small letter כֹּ (kaf) which is not only minute but is also elevated.
Sarah was Avraham’s beloved wife, and the first twenty verses of the parsha are dedicated to her death, eulogy, and burial.
The question is: why is the kaf written smaller than the other letters in the phrase that describes Avraham’s eulogy and mourning for his wife?
The Baal HaTurim teaches that this letter is smaller because Sarah lived a very full life to a good old age, and therefore Avraham bewailed her for a briefer span. But he still mourned, and he did weep. We learn that his wife’s death greatly affected Avraham, because when Sarah died, Avraham aged suddenly, his hair turned white, and he abstained from the way of the world (Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah 6).
Sarah embodied chesed and lovingkindness, and merited a son in her old age. We learn that the first cradle was rocked in Sarah and Avraham’s home (Bereshit Rabbah 53:10). She had established a household with her husband that inspired many souls. Sarah refined her character so much that she even outgrew her own name. Just as Avram became Avraham, from a father to the father of nations, Sarai became Sarah, from ‘my sole princess’ to ‘the princess over all’ — a princess to the whole world (Berachos 13a).
So great was Sarah that the Talmud teaches us (Sanhedrin 107a) the letter yud which was removed from her name stood and cried for many years. It was only contented when Joshua arose, a man of stout heart and sterling character, and G!d added the yud to his name.
How did Avraham encapsulate all that Sarah, his wife, was? He wove all the letters of the Aleph Bet together into an epic poem.
The rabbis teach us that Avraham composed the poem Eshet Chayil to eulogize Sarah. This is the same ode to the Heroic Woman that the Jewish world reads every Friday night to celebrate the women of the house. It is taught that this poem was passed down through the generations until King Solomon later immortalized it in the book of Mishlei (Proverbs 31).
There are specific verses in this poem that are connected with Sarah, for example, the verse “she envisions a field and buys it” refers to Sarah because while she was still alive, she had planned to purchase the Cave of Machpelah (Tanchuma, ed. Buber, Chayei Sarah 3), an endeavor that Avraham completes for her, even at great expense to himself.
Avraham encapsulates Sarah’s positive attributes from Aleph to Taf in his eulogy. Of all her beauty and her foresight, her capability and her strength, her kindness and her diligence, there is one trait to which the little kaf specifically calls our attention — the verse of Eshet Chayil that begins with kaf:
.כַּפָּהּ, פָּרְשָׂה לֶעָנִי; וְיָדֶיהָ, שִׁלְּחָה לָאֶבְיוֹן
The palm of her hand she stretches out to the poor; she reaches forth her hands to the needy.
It is this attribute, I believe, that was a defining characteristic of Sarah. It was this trait of generosity to others that Avraham valued most in his wife, because it was this trait that his servant Eliezer was sent forth to look for in Isaac’s future bride. After all, the first part of the parsha is about death, and the rest of the parsha is about marriage: Sarah’s line continuing on through her son, Isaac.
Once Sarah is properly buried, Eliezer sets out on a long journey to find a wife for Isaac. His prayer is to find a woman with a generous heart who reaches out her hand to the needy. It is at this moment of Eliezer’s prayer, on the word וַיֹּאמַר (and he said), that another Masoretic note makes itself known: the Shalshelet trope.
It was always our tradition to lein (read) this word with an unusual trope (cantillation mark) that makes time stand still. It was the Masoretes, though, who developed and wrote down the system of cantillation marks so that they would endure until today. The Shalshelet only appears four times in the first five books of the Torah, always at a crucial juncture.
Eliezer waivers at the well, waiting for a woman to show herself worthy to be a successor of Sarah. A young Rivka emerges, going about her daily routine, and turns aside to do what is right rather than what is easy. She helps a stranger, Eliezer, to whom she owes nothing, by drawing water for him and his many camels.
It was an act of kindness that was as small as the tiny letter kaf. But it is sometimes the smallest acts of kindness that have a global impact.
Eliezer had traveled from Canaan back to Sarah and Avraham’s birthplace. He was a stranger in town, an outsider, and Rivka treated him like a human being, like family. Her generosity of spirit singled her out as a woman who could live up to Sarah’s example, it was because of her character that she did join Avraham’s household by marrying Isaac.
One of the meanings of the letter kaf is “spoon”, from the word kafaf—to bend. In Hebrew, the kaf yad is the palm of the hand, which is only visible when it is open.
Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin writes that there is a key difference between the Hebrew words for the self anochi and ani. Both mean “I”, and yet…
When a person walks around all day and says, “I, I, I,” he has a problem with egotism. How does one overcome this self-inflation? By adding a kaf to the אני (ani), the I, and transforming it into the אנכי (anochi). When the “I” submits to G‑d, when it recognizes and bends to the higher power through the kaf, it is no longer the egotistical I. Rather, אנכי (anochi) is the “I” that serves as a channel to do G‑d’s will.
In the Torah, G!d uses the word anochi to self-reference. Sarah excelled at growing her ani self (her self-orientation and focus) into a divine-oriented anochi self, where she reached out her kaf yad to others.
Sarah was such a powerful example to the Jewish people that, beginning with Rivka, we have followed in her footsteps ever since.