By underscoring Lot’s hesitation, the Torah may be reminding us of the imperative of intentional actions, of being fully awake to our real place in the world.
Vayera, this week’ portion, includes interwoven and powerful narratives that influence events for generations to come.
This portion is filled with high drama: Divine visitors promise Abraham and Sarah a future of hope and then warn Lot that his city and all the inhabitants will be obliterated. Because Abraham will “teach his children and those who come after him to … do right and good,” God speaks with him about the future. God’s presence is manifest throughout this portion: God’s well refreshes and rescues Hagar and Ishmael, on Mount Moriah, God provides a ram in place of Isaac, and the promise of the patriarchal line continues with the announcement of Rebecca’s birth.
As we chant the Torah week after week, the form of our chanting guides and deepens our understanding of the Torah’s messages. This portion is distinguished by introducing a rare cantillation sign, the shelshelet. This “triple pazer” appears only four times in the Torah.
The shelshelet appears after two divine emissaries, having experienced the subhuman behavior of the people of Sodom, urge Lot to flee the city. Lot hesitates. Is he traumatized by the events of the last 24 hours, and his inability to respond to the terror at his door? Or does the arresting, unfamiliar chant echo Lot’s reticence about leaving all that is familiar?
The shelshelet appears three other times. In Parshah Chayai Sarah, when Abraham’s servant arrives at the well where he hopes to meet an appropriate bride for Isaac, his prayer to God for success begins with a shelshelet of petition. In Parshah VaYeshev, the young slave Joseph is approached by Potiphar’s wife and he refuses her advances with an adamant shelshelet.
In Parshah Tzav, Moses slaughters a ram with a shelshelet that reflects the precision of the ritual. Each of these instances wakes up the listener to the action described.
The shelshelet in this week’s portion is unique, as it is about hesitation, not clarity. This portion could be read as a series of tests: of the faith of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar; a test of God’s compassion; and a test of Lot’s character. Lot fails this test.
Nehama Leibowitz teaches that Lot’s mediocrity is reflected in his inability to see the debasement of the context in which he lives. The blindness that ultimately afflicts the Sodomites and their symbolic heirs is first manifest in Lot himself, as he offers his daughters to the rapists who clamor at his door.
The angelic emissaries intervene and save Lot’s daughters, and attempt to save Lot and his wife. Lot vacillates; the shelshelet dramatizes his ambivalence. “The men, in God’s pity for him, seized his hand, his wife’s and those of his two daughters, and took them out, setting them down outside the city.”
How often do we hesitate — frozen in our inability to choose? Lot hesitates but survives. His wife does not. Did she hear the angels warn: “Do not look behind you?” Or does she hear other voices, unrecorded in the Torah, that call her to look back?
By underscoring Lot’s hesitation, the Torah may be reminding us of the imperative of intentional actions, of being fully awake to our real place in the world. May the sounds of Torah guide us, as Abraham’s heirs, “to do what is right and just.”
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected]