November 12, 2009

Serious Slapstick

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 9:38 pm by Megan

סד וַתִּשָּׂ֤א רִבְקָה֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא אֶת־יִצְחָ֑ק וַתִּפֹּ֖ל מֵעַ֥ל הַגָּמָֽל׃ סה וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֶל־הָעֶ֗בֶד מִֽי־הָאִ֤ישׁ הַלָּזֶה֙ הַֽהֹלֵ֤ךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה֙ לִקְרָאתֵ֔נוּ וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הָעֶ֖בֶד ה֣וּא אֲדֹנִ֑י וַתִּקַּ֥ח הַצָּעִ֖יף וַתִּתְכָּֽס׃

“Rebecca raised her eyes, saw Isaac (for the first time), and fell off her camel. She said to the servant (Eliezer), ‘who is that guy walking toward us in the field?’ He said, ‘He is my master.’ She took her veil and covered herself with it.” (Gen. 24:64-65)

I’m reading Torah again this Saturday, which means I’ve spend all week immersed in the third third of Hayei Sarah, this week’s parasha. It contains one of the funniest scenes in all of Torah – the two verses I’ve cited above.

Reading it makes me giggle every time – Rebecca sees Isaac for the first time, this guy who Eliezer has been talking up for, presumably, weeks; the guy who she has agreed to leave her home and family for; the guy she is going to marry; and she falls off her camel. Whatever the reason for her reaction (and midrash offers reason after reason after reason), what is this if not classic slapstick?

A comforting thing about preparing to read this on Shabbat is that the trop also thinks that there is something unusual going on here. Trop works on a system of patterns and phrases – the symbols (each representing its own note or group of notes) come in predictable pattern, so once you see one you can be pretty sure what will come after. Changes to these patters often (not always, but often) represent Masoretic recognition of something funny or strange going on in the text.

After Rebecca falls off her camel, she asks Eliezer who this guy is who startles her so badly. As she does this the trop, for lack of a better word, stutters. “Who’s that guy/Mi ha-ish ha-la-zeh?” comes attached to the first two symbols in a standard four-symbol pattern, so it would be reasonable to expect “walking in the field/ha-holech basadeh” to carry the second two symbols in the pattern. They don’t. Instead, they repeat the first two symbols, leaving “towards us/likrateinu” to carry the symbol which finishes the phrase. Read out, this hiccup or stutter (which also rhymes!) gives the impression of a Rebecca who is somehow scattered, very much not her usual, pulled-together self.

The multi-layerd humor here (text + trop) brings me joy, but there might also be a moral to this story.

Rebecca has an unexpected reaction to Isaac, yes. She startles and stutters and doesn’t show a whole lot of grace in her first response to him. But, by the end of the chapter, she has done what she said she will do and married him. More than that – he is comforted after his mother’s death, and she is an integral part of that comfort.

She was able to overcome her reaction – her shock or surprise or discomfort – and fulfill her promise, and in doing so she was able to bring healing to someone who was in need of it.

I wonder how often we who are human see someone who strikes us as weird or strange, worthy of falling off a camel for, and simply stay in that initial place of awkwardness and discomfort. What would it take for us to, like Rebecca, have those first reactions and then move past them? To instead look for our common humanity, the places where we can bring healing, or even the image of God?