Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36
Ours is a right-brain left-brain tradition. In synagogue, rather than just reading the text, we chant from the sacred Torah scroll. The Masorites developed our musical system for chanting, called Taamei HaMikra, in the 10th century and assigned special symbols to the text that represent specific musical tropes or melodies. The tropes not only transform Torah into music, but add a beautiful element of interpretation, calling the listener’s attention to subtleties within the text.
In Tzav, we find the last of only four occurrences of the rare shalshelet trope. Shalshelet means “chain” and is an extended melody that contains a series of notes that are repeated three times before the music finally resolves. Each time it occurs, the shalshelet describes an internal struggle hinted at by the text. Lot hesitates to leave Sodom – shalshelet. Eliezer hesitates to find a bride for Isaac – shalshelet. Joseph hesitates before saying “no” to the seductive overtures of Potiphar’s wife – shalshelet. In Tzav, when Moses is instructed to conduct the ceremony that makes his brother Aaron the High Priest, the shalshelet appears over the word vayishchat (“and he slaughtered [the sacrificial ram]” Lev. 8:23).
What is Moses’ struggle? Why does he hesitate before offering the sacrifice on behalf of Aaron?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that this is the act in which Moses surrenders his role as sole leader of Israel. From this moment on, Aaron will no longer be Moses’ second fiddle, but will be the primary conduit for the spiritual connection between the people and God. Moses will continue as prophet, but the priesthood will pass to Aaron and his descendants.
We all face life-defining choices and existential decisions, and there is nothing easy about these moments. Rabbi Sacks writes: “To say yes to who we are, we have to courage to say no to who we are not. Pain and conflict are involved. That is the meaning of the shalshelet. But we emerge less conflicted than we were before.”
Each shalshelet highlights a moment of existential clarity. Lot is a Hebrew not a Sodomite. Eliezer is the servant of Abraham, not his heir. Joseph follows the moral code of God, not the ways of Egypt. Moses is a prophet, not a priest.
Who are we?
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras