This Shabbat is my son Noam’s bar mitzvah. Growing up in a girls’ home, it was my first experience of being surrounded by the melodies of the sedra and paying attention to ta’amei hamikra — the notes of cantillation accompanying the words of the Torah.
I’m sure I speak for many in saying that we don’t pay much attention week after week to the musicality that we never learned. However, I realized how lacking in sense I was. The notes indicate how the words of the verse should be sung, with each sign having its own distinctive melody. In the past, I tasted it through the experience of leining Megillat Esther and feel the pathos of the story through the dramatic changes in melody and through the notes at specific critical points in the development of the narrative.
the ta’amim date back to antiquity; according to some opinions they were given to Moses along with the Torah at Sinai, although according to most traditions they were formalized around the 10th century. Not only do they show us how to read words, for example by denoting pauses in varying degrees, but they also serve as a commentary on those words, covering the pshatthe ordinary meaning of the text.
Parshat Tzav, I now know, includes something rare and rather wonderful — a shalshelet. Noam mastered this long and elaborate string of notes which is one of only four occurrences in the entire Torah. The symbol of the shalshelet up and down, up and down, as if unable to advance to the next note. It was the 16th century commentator Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi (in his commentary on Genesis 19:16) who best understood what this meant, namely a psychological state of uncertainty and indecision. The rating of the shalshelet, “literally a chain”, itself resembles a lightning bolt, a mark that goes back and forth repeatedly. It translates a frozen movement in which the agent is torn apart by an inner conflict.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks devotes an essay from his book, leadership lessons, to understand exactly that. He emphasizes that in each use case of the shalshelet, the character in question is going through an emotional crisis. The first three are in Genesis, relating to scenarios involving Lot, Eliezer and Joseph. In Parshat Tzav, Moses commands the Israelites to build the Mishkan, the sanctuary, as a house for God. Once this project is complete, Moses is to enthrone his brother in the role of high priest, beginning a seven-day consecration process for Aaron and his sons. The text doesn’t suggest he has a problem doing that. However, the shalshelet falls on the word, vayishchat: “and he slew (the ram).”
Rabbi Sacks explains what must have been going through Moses’ mind at that exact moment. Until then, Aaron was second in command to Moses, and now he is taking on his own leadership role in a role denied to Moses himself. The Talmud (Zevachim 102a) explains that after the episode of the burning bush, when Moses resisted God’s calls to lead, that opportunity was taken away and given to Aaron instead. According to Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid, Moses was overlooked for the role because he was a Chalal (as the son of a divorced woman) and invalidated for the priesthood. Thus, at the time of the enthronement, he may have realized that his sons would not become priests. He has mixed emotions, a sense of loss and conflict about who he is and who he isn’t. Although the text does not tell us explicitly, this single note tells us a lot about Moses and about leadership. His identity crisis, his doubts about whether Aaron can surpass him in leadership is arguably what makes him the leader he is.
As it is rare that a leader does not have internal conflict. In recent days we have seen a fine example of leadership in the person of Vlodymyr Zelenskly – striking in his ability to convey with clarity what needs to be done and the important message he gave to the Western world. Thank God Zelensky didn’t shalshelet in his voice when he speaks because his mission is so critical. However, when we aspire to lead, we can also identify with many of our biblical ancestors who struggled with inner demons and crises that caused them to waver. It’s human. Like 17and John Zenger, German printer and journalist of the last century, said: “Great leaders are not defined by the absence of weakness, but rather by the presence of obvious strengths.
For me, this is an important reminder that as leaders, we all have times when we hesitate. However, these moments are an opportunity to grow, to give way to others, to have the humility not to try to be or to do everything. Like 19and Andrew Carnegie, American industrialist of the last century, said, “No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or take all the credit for having done it.”
It’s also a reminder of what we miss when we ignore music and the power music has to move us and teach us things on a different emotional level. We are told that the Torah has 70 faces (Numbers Rabbah 13), that is to say that it can be approached from several angles, all of which shed new light on the text. Much like a bar mitzvah at the start of its learning journey in Jewish life, it reminded me to be continually open to new ways of approaching Torah and discovering ever richer insights. I will definitely reflect on this while proudly listening to Noam’s Torah reading on Shabbat!
Jo runs LSJS, a world-class center of Jewish learning and education, which provides innovative educational programs and trains and develops teachers for the Jewish community. Jo holds a degree in languages from the University of Cambridge and has had a legal career in international arbitration. She has worked with communities and schools across Europe and teaches and lectures widely in the community.