Melting our hesitations by the fire

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tzav, holds the middle point of the verses in the Torah, in the heart of the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus, Vayikra, is the only book whose name begins with a vav – a letter which literally means “hook” and stands for “and”, expressing connectivity. The parasha’s name, Tzav means – command. Add one letter and you get tzevet – team. Add another letter and you get tzavta – togetherness. Perhaps, there is something about creating togetherness that needs a certain amount of order and guidance.

The parasha open when Hashem tells Moshe to instruct Aaron and his sons regarding the Korban Ola (Ola sacrifice). The instructions describe how to offer the Mincha (Meal), Chatat (Sin), Asham (Guilt) and Shlamim (Peace) Offering; who brings it and who eats it. The parasha continues with a detailed description of how Moshe takes Aaron and his sons, gathers the whole community of Bnai Israel at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, washes Aaron with water, dresses him with the High Priest’s garments (including the choshen, urim & tumim and more) and anoints him with the special oil. The whole Mishkan is anointed as well as all its vessels. Then Aaron the Kohen brings the Sin offering, the Ola and the Milu’im for the very first time. There will now be seven days when Aaron and the priests are to begin their service and not leave the Tent. The 8th day will be the day the Mishkan will be dedicated.
We are so used to Aaron being the High Priest that we might miss the fact that it is Moshe who, very quietly, transferred the priesthood to Aaron! This process is accompanied by a very unusual musical marking or “trope” known as shalshelet.
The “tropes” are a system of special cantillation signs or marks for chanting the TaNaKh (Hebrew Bible). They help accent certain words, divide a verse and in general, add meaning to the reading.
While some tropes appear in every verse and other quite regularly in any given paragraph, the “shalshelet”, which is very (very!) undulating, appears only four times in the whole Torah! What is the meaning of the shalshelet? In order to understand it better, we’ll check where it appears:
1. When the messengers instruct Lot to escape from Sodom, the shalshelet appears above the word “and he lingered”– vayitmahameha:
וַיִּתְמַהְמָהּ–וַיַּחֲזִיקוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים בְּיָדוֹ וּבְיַד-אִשְׁתּוֹ וּבְיַד שְׁתֵּי בְנֹתָיו, בְּחֶמְלַת ה’ עָלָיו; וַיֹּצִאֻהוּ וַיַּנִּחֻהוּ, מִחוּץ לָעִיר.
And he (Lot) lingered; and the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the Lord being merciful to him. And they brought him forth, and set him outside the city (Genesis 19:16)
2. When Abraham’s servant travels to search for a wife for his master’s son, Isaac, the shalshelet is on top of the word “and he said” – vayomer:
וַיֹּאמַר—ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם, הַקְרֵה-נָא לְפָנַי הַיּוֹם; וַעֲשֵׂה-חֶסֶד, עִם אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם.
And he said: ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, send me, I pray, good speed this day, and show kindness unto my master Abraham (Genesis 24:12).
3. Joseph is being challenged as he is tempted by Potifar’s wife. Here, the shalshelet appears over the word – va’yema’en – and he refused:
וַיְמָאֵן–וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו, הֵן אֲדֹנִי לֹא-יָדַע אִתִּי מַה-בַּבָּיִת; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יֶשׁ-לוֹ, נָתַן בְּיָדִי.
And he refused, and said unto his master’s wife: ‘Behold, my master, knows not what is in the house with me, and he has put all that he has into my hand (Genesis 39:8).
And this is how it appear in this week’s reading:
4. We find the shalshelet under the word vayishchat – and he slaughtered:
וַיִּשְׁחָט–וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה מִדָּמוֹ, וַיִּתֵּן עַל-תְּנוּךְ אֹזֶן-אַהֲרֹן הַיְמָנִית; וְעַל-בֹּהֶן יָדוֹ הַיְמָנִית, וְעַל-בֹּהֶן רַגְלוֹ הַיְמָנִית.
And he slaughtered. And Moses took of the blood thereof, and put it upon the tip of Aaron’s right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot (Leviticus 8:23).
We should note that there are other tropes which are rarer than the shalshelet and yet, the shalshelet has caught our interest. There is an idea that all these “shalshelet” cases, always on the first word of the verse, communicate a hesitation, some desire to delay, tarry, postpone the act ahead. Lot does not really want to leave Sodom; Abraham’s servant is possibly uncertain about his mission; and Joseph is pulled by his desires which he barely overcomes. But what about Moses? Is it possible that Moses here has a “hick-up”? a moment of regret, realizing it is Aaron and his offspring who will receive the honor of priesthood? A little pained grimace across his face??

In the beginning of the parasha, we find the following (Leviticus 6:2):

ב צַו אֶת-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת-בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר, זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה: הִוא הָעֹלָה עַל מוֹקְדָה עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ כָּל-הַלַּיְלָה, עַד-הַבֹּקֶר, וְאֵשׁ הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, תּוּקַד בּוֹ. 2 Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the burnt-offering: it is that which goes up on its firewood upon the altar all night unto the morning; and the fire of the altar shall be kept burning within.
The verse’s ending is unclear as to where will the fire keep burning? Within “bo” – does it mean within the altar? Or perhaps, within Aaron, the priest attending the fire? It’s possible to understand that the fire should be within the one serving, within us. This continues in 6:6: אֵשׁ, תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ–לֹא תִכְבֶּה.  Fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually; it shall not go out.
Rav Kook says: “the fiery, stormy Divine thirst, which burns in mighty flames in the heart, it is forbidden to quench. Anyone who extinguishes an ember off the physical altar, transgresses “shall not go out” [of this verse – as it says in Tractate Zavachim 91:b]. Even more so, if someone extinguishes the high spiritual ember off the spiritual altar…”
The shalshelet allows us our hesitation. We have conflicting wishes, desires, plans, dreams, hopes, disappointments, and the Torah recognizes all that. And yet, at the same time, it encourages us forward, to overcome reluctances and second-guessing ourselves, to feel the warmth of the fire, grow and enjoy its light.

Shabbat Shalom.

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