MUSIC TO MY EARS
Every word in the Torah conveys a message that can teach a valuable lesson. In the sixth aliyah of this week's Torah portion, all seems normal. If one just reads the words, it appears that nothing unique is happening - Moses is continuing to perform the melu'im, inaugural service, in the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
Every word in the Torah conveys a message that can teach a valuable lesson. In the sixth aliyah of this week's Torah portion, all seems normal. If one just reads the words, it appears that nothing unique is happening - Moses is continuing to perform the melu'im, inaugural service, in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). However, if we were to look at (or listen to) the trop, the musical notes which direct us on how to sing each word in the Torah, we would notice that there is an extremely rare note towards the beginning of this section called the shalshelet, a uniquely elongated cantellation with a triple rise and fall (Leviticus 8:23). The shalshelet appears only four times in the entire Torah, each by seemingly different stories: Moses and the offerings in this week's portion, Lot (Abraham's nephew) escaping the destruction of the city of Sodom, Eliezer (Abraham's trusted servant) searching for a wife for Isaac, and Joseph fighting off the temptation of Potiphar's wife. What is the connection between these events? What is so noteworthy that such a special trop is assigned to each of these seemingly average actions?
Let us look at each of these stories a little more closely to see if we can discover a parallel. Lot was commanded by the angels not to look back on Sodom, his home, while it was being destroyed. As Lot was leaving with his family, this shalshelet directs us on how to read the word "vayitmama - and he hesitated" (Genesis 19:16). Although he found it difficult to leave his home, Lot overcame his desire to remain in his city, in order to fulfill Hashem's will that he not look back. (Lot's wife was not as fortunate - she had a more bitter, or salty experience, as the case may be - see ibid. 19:26.)
Eliezer was Abraham's top servant and the head of the great patriarch's household. Many commentators say that, had Isaac not been born, Eliezer would have carried on the line of the Jewish people. Eliezer hoped secretly that his own daughter would have the merit of marrying Isaac. Though Eliezer was certainly a fine man, he was a Canaanite, and Abraham said that only someone from his own homeland of Aram Naharaim would be fitting to marry Isaac. And so Eliezer was sent in search of a wife for his master's son. When Eliezer sees Rebecca and realizes that she is the one whom Isaac will marry, the Torah puts a shalshelet on the word "vayomar - and he said" (ibid. 24:12) at the beginning of the encounter. Eliezer overcame his own reservations and desires in order to fulfill Abraham's, and Hashem's, will.
Joseph was serving in Potiphar's home, and, daily, Potiphar's wife attempted to seduce their handsome new servant. Every morning Joseph had to face the temptations offered by his owner, and one day he nearly succumbed to his desires. The Torah places the shalshelet on the word "vayema'en - and he refrained" (ibid. 39:8) from the illicit act. This decision to follow Hashem's will, even against his own overwhelming desires, demonstrated tremendous mesirat nefesh (self-sacrifice), not to mention the fact that Joseph was, as a result, thrown into prison. As a side point, it was because of this jail sentence that Joseph later became the viceroy - had he not refused the advances of Mrs. Potiphar, he never would have achieved his high status in Egypt.
Moses is considered the greatest man in our history. We say in our daily prayers that there will not arise another like Moses. He was the one who took the Jews out of Egypt. He spoke to Hashem face to face. According to Hashem's initial plan, Moses would also have been the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). Instead, because Moses argued with Hashem about accepting the responsibility to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, his brother Aaron became the Kohen Gadol instead. Moses knew this, and felt no jealousy. His only desire was that he be able to serve Hashem in more and better ways, and what greater way is there than to be privileged to be the Kohen Gadol who offers the Yom Kippur sacrifices and enters the Holy of Holies for the only time of the year? At the end of this week's portion, Hashem was teaching Moses how to do all of the service of the Mishkan - the sacrifices, incenses, and other offerings that were to be made. Moses was then to teach these techniques to Aaron. Moses still had a hard time passing on this awesome responsibility and opportunity to serve Hashem. However, we see throughout the Torah portion, "vayishchat - and Moses slaughtered" (Leviticus 8:23). The Torah found this act of selflessness to be of amazing magnitude, and rewarded Moses with this shalshelet, highlighting his tremendous strength of will to carry out everything that Hashem commanded.
In our own lives, there are many times when we are faced with temptation. Whether it be in the business world, the Torah world, or in our own homes, we are often prone to feel that G-d isn't really watching. Would it make such a difference if I spoke lashon hara (evil speech or slander) just this one time? Would anyone notice if I overbilled him by a half hour, or exaggerated a little bit on my application? So what if I didn't focus on Torah study for my entire day in Yeshiva? The point is, it does matter! The Torah rewards selflessness and following the will of Hashem over our own. It is those special times, in the Torah and our own lives, that Hashem takes note of. Moreover, it is in the normal times of our lives, a plain conversation, as in Eliezer's case; day-to-day work, as with Joseph; a mile-long journey, as with Lot; or a seemingly routine act, as by Moses, that stand out. It's every day that we are faced with the decisions that can be so extraordinary. That's what we can learn from a single word in the Torah.
Steven Schwartzberg, a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva M'vaseret Tzion in Israel.
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