There are two approaches to existence, explains Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, that of fate and that of destiny. The fate existence is characterized by passivity, “devoid of meaning, direction, purpose,” wherein the individual is an simply object moved by “the forces of the environment.” He is referred to as “species man” for he acts according to the natural drives of all men and is thus indistinguishable as an individual, “a mere random example of the biological species.” In contrast, explains the Rav, “the existence of destiny … is an active mode of existence, one wherein man confronts the environment into which he was thrown” and applies himself, “possessed of an understanding of his uniqueness, of his special worth, of his freedom…” In so doing, the individual elevates himself above the species to be worthy of the title, “man of God.”
Existence, then, is a challenge – God invites man to transform himself, to transcend his own biology by boldly applying his freewill – in short, to turn fate into destiny. This challenge is poignantly expressed by the most provoking liturgical note in the entire Torah: the shalshelet. Used on only four occasions, the note designates a word, a critical moment, in the character development of an individual. The note, I contend, marks the point at which the individual chooses between fate and destiny.
The first shalshelet appears in the story of Lot when he lingers in Sodom after being told of the city’s imminent destruction (Genesis 19:16). Lot lingered, explains Rashi, because he was reticent to leave his property. This should come as no surprise, for it was precisely Lot’s proclivity for wealth, to the exclusion of moral considerations, that brought him to the corrupt capital of Sodom in the first place (Rashi, Genesis 13:11,13).
Now, with the city burning and an angel at his side, Lot is given an opportunity to evince a modicum of regret for leaving Abraham and his God, a chance to demonstrate that his disposition for material wealth is not the only thing that motivates him. Yet, even after being dragged from the city, his thoughts remain bound to his possessions, as evidenced by the angel’s plea, “escape for your life” (Genesis 19:17).
The shalshelet, as such, distinguishes a decisive moment in the character development of the individual – will he rise above his nature or will he remain mired in it. Lot’s lingering demonstrated that, unable to realize that life takes precedence over possession, he was incapable of transcending his base nature. The event proved him an irredeemable object, a mere random example of the species “man”. Appropriately, the story ends with his two daughters relating to him as a mere object for propagation of the species. Such a species man is unworthy of further mention and, indeed, is never heard from again.
The second shalshelet occurs when Eliezer, on a mission to find a wife for his master’s son, said a prayer to request God’s help:
And he said: ‘Lord, the God of my master Abraham, please cause it to happen before me this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham. Behold, I stand by the fountain of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water. Let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say: Let down thy pitcher, please, that I may drink; and she shall say: Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also; let the same be she that Thou hast appointed for Thy servant, for Isaac; and thereby shall I know that Thou hast shown kindness unto my master.’ (Genesis 24:12-14).
Though some commentators find merit in his formulation, the sages, in both the Talmud and the Midrash, impugn Eliezer of making an improper request, which, if not for Divine favor, might have had dire consequences. So severe is the Talmud’s opinion of Eliezer’s petition that it is brought as an example of forbidden divination.
Why couldn’t Eliezer arrange a simple, unambiguous prayer? Eliezer’s initial response to his mission provides the key: “Peradventure the woman will not be willing to follow me unto this land” (Genesis 24:5). The Midrash (Ber.R. 59:9) explains that these words reveal Eliezer’s hidden aspiration to marry off his own daughter into his master’s family. Now, while such an aspiration is natural, the fact that it impeded the fulfillment of his task is perfidious.
Free from his master’s watch, this mission, which required Eliezer to contravene his own personal agenda, represented a once in a lifetime opportunity to transcend himself. But alas, unable to overcome himself, he made a request with such an impossible set of conditions that God had to bring out Rebecca “before he was done speaking.” Rabbi Chaim Eisen, in his article “Unmasking Abraham’s Slave”, writes, “It is his inability to overcome his own passions, to intrinsically change, which links Eliezer inextricably to be defined as “accursed.””
Once again, the shalshelet signals a turning point in the character development of the individual; will he rise above himself and choose destiny, or will he be forever shackled to the fate of the human as species, driven by personal interests. Eliezer, failing to distinguish himself from the nameless masses of the species “man”, remained, as from the outset of the story, the ever nameless “servant of Abraham”. He, like Lot before him, is never heard from again.
The third shalshelet occurs when Joseph refuses to be seduced by his master’s wife (Genesis 39:8). It takes no great imagination to realize why the shalshelet accentuates the word “refused”. Indeed, the Midrash articulates: “Is it possible that Joseph, at seventeen years of age, with all the hot blood of youth, could act thus [and refuse]” (87:6)?
The test came precisely when Joseph “began to pamper himself with food and drink and curl his hair” (Rashi 39:6). With the pleasure principle holding sway, Joseph is forced to confront his humanity and choose: self-gratification or morality. Against his instinctive impulses, Joseph refuses the advances of the temptress, stating unequivocally, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God” (Genesis 39:9).
This shalshelet, like those before it, denotes a defining moment for the individual. This time, however, the individual chose destiny over fate. Joseph, through his moral forbearance, chose to defer to the will of God. In so doing, he transcended the species man and earned himself the eternal title: “Shepherd of Israel.” (Sotah 36b).
The fourth and final shalshelet designates Moses’ slaughter of a sacrifice effecting the priestly inauguration (Leviticus 8:23). Why, we must ask, would Moses be ambivalent over performing yet another sacrifice? The answer is that this is not just another sacrifice, but the last sacrifice that Moses will ever perform. This is the final inauguration sacrifice following which his brother assumes the mantle of high priest.
Nevertheless, why should the installation of Moses’ brother as high priest pose an issue? The Talmud (Zev. 102a) furnishes the answer: the position of high priest was initially destined for Moses, a position he indeed desired; yet, following the meeting at the burning bush, God reassigned the position to his brother. As such, this was not simply a procedure of installing his brother into a position of great honor, but rather installing his brother into his position of great honor.
By relinquishing his foreordained honor, explains Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar (Leviticus 9:1), Moses bore the most difficult of trails. Rabbi Attar emphasizes that the test included numerous circumstances through which Moses demonstrated the “completeness of his desire to do the will of the Creator, to the extinction of his own feelings.”
This last shalshelet, like the three that preceded it, marks a truly difficult test of the individual’s moral mettle. Moses, like Joseph before him, transcended himself in a display of forbearance and humility. He thus distinguished himself above the species and earned the title, applied for the first time to any mortal, “man of God” (Deut. 33:1).
“Species man or man of God”, writes Rav Soloveitchik, “this is the alternative which the Almighty placed before man.” The choice is marked by the shalshelet which arouses us to hear – within our own everyday activities – the call to rise above the fate of the species and to choose destiny.