For those of you that became a bar or bat mitzvah, you no doubt recall the memorization of the Torah and Haftarah cantillation notes, the endless repetition of mercha, tipcha, munach, etnachta and the like. But I’ll bet you don’t remember the obscure notes like the karnei parah, the yerach ben yomo, or, the granddaddy of them all, the shalshelet, which graces our chumashim only four times. (For links to all things trope and nusach-related, go to this site.)
This week’s Torah portion, in addition to telling us the tale of Joseph’s going down into Egypt in slavery, also gives us a rare gift- the shalshelet note. It’s a long, dramatic note, with three up-and-downs of the scale. While the shalshelet varies depending who is teaching you and what tradition they are from, this is the shalshelet that I learned.
The shalshelet is one of those red flags in the Torah, a sure sign that something momentous is about to happen or that we have arrived at a teachable moment. Other red flags? The repetition of a name (think “Avraham, Avraham” during the akedah, “Moshe, Moshe” at the burning bush, “Shmuel, Shmuel” in early Samuel, etc), the type-scene of a woman at a well, the mentioning of who the youngest son is… all of these markers tell us to pay attention.
The shalshelet is used judiciously. The first example is in Genesis 19:16, when Lot “pauses” (in Hebrew, Vayit’mamah, before fleeing Sodom with the two angels sent to save him, his wife, and his daughters. After ignoring the warnings of the angels (or were they men? The text is ambiguous) to leave the city before its destruction, Lot still waits, perhaps too long, before leaving, and only does so when he is grabbed by the angels and led away. Why does he wait? Why does he stay? Why are we told, dramatically with a shalshelet, that he can’t leave on his own? Because Lot, whose name means “hidden” or “veiled”, spends his whole life with holiness, derech eretz, and righteous behavior being hidden to him. He simply does not know how to do the right thing- his life’s stories, from claiming the good land instead of Avram, to being kidnapped by Avram’s enemies, to his later manipulation by his daughters, are fraught with no-goodness.
The second instance is in Genesis 24:12, when Eliezer pauses outside of Haran to pray for God’s assistance in procuring a bride for Isaac. The shalshelet on the word “Vayomer” (“and he said”) is a little surprising. Why is Eliezer’s speaking to God a cause for this rare cantillation? The commentators have a field day, telling us that it’s because Eliezer wanted Isaac to marry his own daughter and lays out a seemingly impossible set of criteria that the bride-to-be must meet to prove herself worthy of Isaac. The shalshelet here indicates indecision, wavering, perhaps a sense of disloyalty and hesitancy. It is a note of personal conflict.
The third shalshelet is this week’s, from Genesis 39:8. Joseph, chief servant to an Egyptian courtier, rejects the advances of his master’s wife and gets in trouble. When she makes her illicit offer, Joseph refuses, (Vayma’ein) in true shalshelet fashion. While it might seem like an indignant response to an offensive and immoral offer (The indignation! The insult! The inappropriateness! Go away from me! No!), other interpretations contend that Joseph was, in fact, conflicted and unsure about the advance of Potiphar’s wife. The text goes out of its way to point out the fact that Joseph is a “handsome and well-built” young man, and the critics tell us that the seductive entreaties of Joseph’s mistress were very difficult to resist. According to this reading of the story, this shalshelet is a marker of real difficulty and conflict, and that it was, in fact, a challenging moment for Joseph.
The final shalshelet pops up in Leviticus, as Moshe and Aaron are performing the ritual of installing Aaron and his sons as Kohanim, priests. In the middle of the ritual, Moses slaughters (“VaYishchat”) a ram and anoints Aaron and his sons with the blood of the animal. Why the shalshelet on “and he slaughtered?” Various commentators, including Rashi and the Or HaChayim, tell us that even though Moses was carrying out the ritual, he was doing so reluctantly, since the priesthood was a position that he coveted for himself. Rather than protesting, the text tells us with the shalshelet that his act of anointing Aaron as the high priest and Aaron’s sons as kohanim made him feel internally conflicted, and probably a little sad.
All four of the notes are markers of individuals wrestling with their inner demons. Lot’s intrinsic nature, Eliezer’s resistance to his mission, Joseph’s overcoming temptation to do the right thing, Moses’ overcoming his personal feelings to follow God’s word… we can all understand how they felt. We all go through moments of indecision, stress, and anxiety. It is an inevitable part of the human condition. The shalshelet, in its rare appearances, helps us to remember that the Biblical characters felt the same inner conflicts that we do every day.