Monday, November 09, 2009

Diminished Letter Khaf in Be-reyshit/Genesis 23:2, Parshat Chayey Sarah


This week's Torah reading has another diminished letter - Khaf - which tells us something of the complexities of family relationships.

Depending on which Chumash you're using, the verse we'll look at can be found in Plaut p.156, Cohen p.118, Hertz p.80, Sforno p.115, JPS p.32, Jerusalem p.23, and Stone p. 106.

Let's set the scene: Avraham has just come within a hair's breadth of slaughtering his and Sarah's only child, Yitzchak, for a sacrifice to Ha-Shem. Luckily for everyone Ha-Shem saw that our devoted Patriarch was going through with it, so sent an angel to stop the knife from cutting the lad's throat.

However, on returning home, Avraham and Yitzchak find that Sarah has died. Pirqei de Rabbi Eliezer xxxii tells us this is because the seductive Sama'el, Angel of Death, came to Sarah and told her that Avraham had killed and rendered their son a burnt offering. The shock and confusion of this grievous news finished her.

וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן--בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.

And Sarah died in Qiriat Arba - which is the same as Chevron - in the land of Kena'an; and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.

" Avraham lis'pod le-Sarah ve-liv'kotahh."

Khaf (כ) derives its name from kafuf, "bent". "A kafuf" in particular means a person bowed down in humility. Also, due to it's pictographical shape, Khaf symbolises the palm of our hand, kaf yad כַּף יָד.

After Sarah's death, Genesis 23:2 reads, "...Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her." The small Khaf in the word ve-liv'kotah tells us that Avraham contained his grief, bearing his pain in his heart and not making himself a spectacle due to his sense of modesty (Midrash: Kol Ha-Torah). You can just see him gathering his robes up to his heart with this small, tight Khaf, his kaf yad, to enclose and control his feelings. How heart-breaking.

Other reasons are given for the small Khaf: Avraham may have restrained his grief because Sarah lived a full and successful life (Ba'al Ha-Turim), or possibly because Sarah's hearing the news of the Akeidah killed her, and Avraham didn't wish to publicly share his regret, lest others would conclude he felt guilty for causing her death from a broken heart.

Now, if you take this small Khaf out of the word entirely, what do you have left?
Ve-liv'kotahh, "to weep for her" becomes ולבתה u-le-vatah, "and for her daughter". Instead of " Avraham lis'pod le-Sarah ve-liv'kotahh", "...and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her", we get " Avraham lis'pod le-Sarah u-le-vatah", "...and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her daughter". What?

The Roke'ach (Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah ben Kalonymus of Worms, the husband of a Soferet Rebbetzin Dulcie*) offers the idea based on the Gemara in Bava Batra 16b that Avraham and Sarah also had a daughter, who died at the same time as Sarah.

What is a Khaf? It's name means the palm of your hand. An enclosure. It's shape is two similar things joined, which bend together to meet and marry.

Avraham's hand/agency/power, home/presence, his כתר keter, crown of Torah, his כהנות kohanut, priesthood, was diminished by losing his wife. Why? Because, according to Sh'mot/Exodus Rabba i. 1, Sarah was closer to Ha-Shem and superior to Avraham in her gift of prophecy, and he knew it. This is why he pitched Hagar and Yishma'el out at her insistence, against his own wishes (Bereshit/Genesis Rabbah xlvii. 1). This is how they got so many new souls together and brought them to The Land with belief in the Holy One (Bereshit/Genesis 12:5). They were a team.

Sarah was Avraham's crown. And he'd lost her forever. Perhaps this is why Midrash Tanchuma Chayei Sarah 4 tells us that Avraham wrote Ayshet Chayil to eulogise Sarah.
May her memory be for a blessing.

*Rebbetzin Dulcie or Dulcina of Worms was a learned wife and mother who used to repair the Torah scrolls of her husband's synagogue in Worms, and translate the prayers into the vernacular so that she could lead the women in their own services. She was murdered at age 26, along with her daughters, by Crusaders on their way to Israel.

Copyright© A. Barclay

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