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Musical Commentary on the Limits of Leadership – Parshat Tzav

03/20/2019 02:04:38 PM


At Purim we are taught to turn our usual world upside down. In the spirit of Purim I would like to consider how the music of Torah can be a form of non-verbal commentary. In this week’s Parsha, the Tabernacle is finished and there is nothing left but to consecrate and install Aaron and his sons as the priests and the High Priest. Moses robes his brother in special garments, anoints him with oil and makes the various sacrifices appropriate to the occasion. Then the Torah tells us something interesting. The Torah says “and he slaughtered the sacrificial ram”. Over the word vayishchat – and he slaughtered, there is a very rare trope sign indicating how to sing that word. The trope is called shalshelet (chained). The melody is very elongated and intricate, and gives a feeling of being stuck and unable to move forward. This trope only appears 4 times in the entire Pentateuch! In all cases, it indicates an existential crisis. However, there is nothing in the text about Moses’ feelings and nothing to indicate that he is in a crisis.

The other three times this trope appears, the textual reference is obvious. The first time, it appears over the word “he hesitated” when Lot has been told by the angels that Sodom is going to be destroyed and he must leave with his family. Lot has become a prominent person in the city and has to consider leaving all that behind if he believes the angels and follows them. As we see from the text, he practically has to be dragged. The second time, the shalshelet appears is when Abraham asks his servant (whom we assume is Eliezer) to find a wife for Isaac. The rabbis believed that Eliezer was ambivalent about this assignment, as Abraham had named Eliezer as his heir when he believed he would never have children. Eliezer would have inherited all of Abraham’s wealth. He had to choose between loyalty and self-interest. The third time the shalshelet appears is over the words “he refused” when Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph. This indicates that he refused only after considerable effort. The rabbis see this as a decision of whether to remain a Jew with the moral code of his people despite his brothers’ rejection, or to truly become an Egyptian, with a different moral code.

What does this moment of sacrificing the ram mean to Moses? The Book of Vayikra is all about sacrifices and their meaning. Up until now Moses has been the sole leader of the people – prophet, guide, inspiration, beloved of God. Now he must induct his brother into a role he will never have – that of High Priest. Every important action between the people and God from now on will be led by Aaron – and his office is hereditary and will pass to all his male descendants. Sons of priests become priests. Sons of prophets usually don’t become prophets.

The moment of slaughtering the ram is the moment of transformation, which makes this office permanent. Aaron will be anointed again with the blood of the ram, blessing his physical power necessary for the performance of his duties.

Moses has to let go and share leadership. This can be a moment of crisis for any leader. The best leaders know their limitations and create teams that furnish the strengths he or she does not inherently possess. The best teams are greater than any individual could ever be. This is why this is a moment of existential crisis and transformation for Moses – he has to change his own identity in order to confer leadership upon Aaron. Hence, a moment of ambivalence reflected by the shalshelet trope.

The tropes were not given when the Torah was given to our people. The public chanting of the Torah only began when our people returned from the Babylonian Exile in the 5th Century B.C.E. An oral tradition of the chanting began at that time. However, the tropes were only finalized in the written Chumash in the 10th century, by a group of rabbinic scribes known as the Masoretes. The tropes provide more than just music – they are punctuation and accents, and as such, they determine meaning and emphasis. The tropes are subtle form of commentary, and reflect the wisdom of the Mishna and Talmud and early Medieval rabbinic thought. They are a form of musical Midrash. When we study Torah, it is worthwhile to consider everything on the page – not just the words! Great wisdom can reside in something very small, something easy to miss. One of the beauties of Judaism is the way we are taught to be mindful – of small everyday blessings such as our food and nature. Our texts also contain small but mighty blessings!

Wed, January 22 2020 25 Tevet 5780