By Jonny Freedman
When was your last shalshelet moment?
Parashat Tzav is my bar mitzvah parashah, and I have had the privilege of leyening the entire parashah almost every year since. Ironically, as a lifetime vegetarian who cannot envisage and has never prayed for the restitution of the sacrifices, every year I live and breathe the complex descriptions of the sacrificial rites and rituals! It has therefore been challenging to find personal meaning in these words. One route that has been illuminating for me has been to consider the Torah cantillation, or trope, and in particular the rare appearance of the shalshelet note. This only appears on four occasions in the entire Torah. In our parashah we see it in chapter 8, verse 23, on the first word, vayishchat. Look out for it! It looks like this:
Besides its rarity, the shalshelet is probably the longest note in the Torah, and traditionally a chance for the Torah reader to show off, a temptation that is far too great for me to avoid!
On at least two of the four occasions where it appears, the use of the shalshelet – a long, drawn-out note – is easy to understand. Appropriately, it is used to indicate hesitation. For example, in Bereshit 19:16 it is used on the word vayitmama, meaning “and he lingered”, referring to Lot, lingering in Sodom prior to its destruction. Similarly, Joseph holds back from succumbing to the seductive temptations of Potiphar’s wife with a shalshelet hovering over vay’ma-en – “and he refused” (Gen. 39:8). The zigzag shape and sound of the note themselves reflect a backwards and forwards movement which epitomises indecision and ambivalence. I’m reminded of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof as he struggles with his approach towards his daughters’ choice of increasingly more unsuitable husbands: “On the one hand… On the other hand….”
In our parashah, vayishchat means “and he slaughtered it”, referring to the ram whose blood Moses would elaborately use to anoint his brother and nephews as priests. So it’s somewhat less obvious as to why a shalshelet should be used here. Rashi suggests that, in keeping with the shalshelet’s prior use to denote uncertainty and indecision, this time it is Moses who is uncertain. Moses must in part have coveted this great honour for himself, yet found himself bestowing it upon his brother and nephews.
We know that Moses was a reluctant and hesitant leader, but one who ultimately was prepared to set aside his indecision and put his faith in the hand of God. We all have moments of intense self-doubt and uncertainty. I now like to think of these as shalshelet moments. Which way should I turn? Martin Luther King Jr., another great and courageous leader, said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “Faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future”. Next time I’m faced with a dilemma as to which path to follow or choice to make, I pray that my faith enables me to make the right decision.
Jonny Freedman is a member of St Albans Masorti Synagogue.