Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Parashat Chayei Sarah

Synchronicity, ESP, and Finding a Wife

By Julie Seltzer

Verse Per Verse
One afternoon, you start thinking about an old friend that you haven’t seen in ages. Minutes later, the phone rings. On one level the synchronicity astonishes you, but on another level you’re not surprised in the least – you saw it coming.

The Talmud makes reference to this kind of seeing. In what way, asks the Talmud, is the light that was created on Day One different from the light of the sun, moon and stars, which were created on Day Four?

“Rebbi El’azar said: With the light which the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the first day, one could see from one end of the world to the other.” (Chagigah 12a)

What does it mean to be able to see from one end of the world to the other? If distance – ie, space – is collapsed, then so is time. Without speed-of-light constraints, our perception was not limited by laws of sequential time or causality. As clearly as we could see the present, we were able to see everything that was and everything that will be. This light, this intuitive sight, was soon hidden. But hidden means that it’s still there, just harder to access.

In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, Avraham’s servant experiences such a moment of seeing. He is charged with going to find a wife for Avraham’s son Yitzchak. But how is he to find the right one? How is he to know? He envisions a scenario:

"If I say to a girl, 'Tip over your jug and let me have a drink,' and she replies, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' she will be the one whom You have designated for Your servant Isaac'….." (Kaplan translation)

Barely has Eliezer (as he is later named) finished envisioning the course of events, that sure enough, reality begins to play out exactly as it played out in his mind:

“He had not yet finished speaking, when Rebecca appeared. […] She quickly lowered her jug to her hand and gave him a drink. When he had finished drinking, she said, ‘Let me draw water for your camels, so they can (also) drink their fill.’” (24:15; 24:18-19 Kaplan translation)

Talk about déjà vu! The text follows with:

“וְהָאִיש מִשְׁתָּאֵה, לָהּ; מַחֲרִישׁלָדַעַת הַהִצְלִיחַ יְהוָה דַּרְכּוֹ, אִם-לֹא”

Everett Fox translates this line as “The man kept staring at her, (waiting) silently to find out whether YHWH had granted success to his journey or not.”

My focus is on the word משתאה “mishta’eh,” translated here as “staring…(waiting)” The word is unusual, not found anywhere else in Torah, and the commentators can’t even agree what the root is. Rashi says that it stems from שאה meaning empty wasteland or desolation. He and others connect the word to being astonished or dumbstruck – hence the “staring.” Rabbi Sadia Gaon says that mishta’eh comes from שתה, to drink, and that Eliezer is simply drinking the water that Rebecca gave him. Onkelos connects it to the root “שהה”, meaning “waiting” or “staying.” The Targum reads: “But the man waited, and was silent…” The New American Standard Bible translation also incorporates this notion of time lapse: “Meanwhile, the man was gazing at her in silence...”

My understanding also combines emptiness with a drawn-out moment in time: mishta’eh is about creating space for what normally eludes the naked eye. In this moment of vacated time-space, Eliezer becomes acutely aware of everything that is happening. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, addresses Eliezer’s perception: “He understood that God brought him what he asked for.” (Rashbam’s comment is in direct opposition to the simple translation of the text, which is that Eliezer was waiting to see whether God had brought him what he asked for, for he did not yet know if Rebecca was from the right lineage.)

With clarity of vision, Eliezer perceives what is about to happen and perhaps even helps reality along by thinking it. In this moment of (col)lapsed time, he also gazes at the infinite permutations for what might have been – each and every alternate version of the story. Like a photon that traverses every possible path before it is located in a particular point in space, lingering in the present moment permits the hidden primordial light to shine from one end of the world to the other. Not only could Eliezer intuit what would unfold, he could also see the various permutations for what could have unfolded – or perhaps, in other terms, what did unfold in an alternate dimension.


  1. Yea, yea, yea! OK, we are partial to anything that links Torah with Richard Feynman but even discounting that, nice work. We had never thought of Eliezer as a time-traveling visionary but it sure works for us. Yasher Koach!

  2. was it Jung who said 'synchronicity is god's way of being anonymous?' i love the image of the man gazing into space, as the camels drink, and creating the reality of his vision, by actually ENVISIONING it.
    thanks Julie!!

  3. Thank you, Julie!! It's nice to be reminded that waiting can be an active, not just a passive, event. Sometimes it takes much more energy to simply step back and trust the value of "(col)lapsed time" in understanding our world and our relationship with the people in it.

  4. very nice - i also really like the idea of waiting as active. there is an idea along the lines of "Eliezer perceives what is about to happen and perhaps even helps reality along by thinking it"in Nachman, where he says that simply recognizing the nekudah tova of even a rasha gamurah will transform them.

    yasher koach!