Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, Shabbat 16th Adar II 5776, 26th March 2016
The Torah is not a text with openly expressed feelings and emotions. Hebrew, in general, is a language of action, not introspection – not that there is anything wrong with introspection. Our prayers, for example, which replaced the sacrifices, are supposed to be portals for introspection, where we can examine and try to purify ourselves just as the korbanot, the sacrifices in the Holy Temple, were intended to purify us. Thus the book of Vayikra is probably as far from feelings as we can get. Note that the sacrifices were mainly actions, not words. The kohanim were not told to say anything special when offering the sacrifices.
Yet emotions are sometimes there. But you need a specialized tool for sensing them. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, our parsha offers an example of how ta’amei hamikra, the cantillation squiggles above and below the words of the text that tell us how to chant it, spotlights one such case.
Of the 25 or so ta’amim, 21of them are used regularly in varying combinations. These are the usual ups and downs that you hear when Mordechai or I read the Torah or someone chants the haftarah. But the other four are quite special. Two of them appear only once each in the Torah, one right after the other, in what seems to be a totally innocuous place. Another one appears about five times. And one of them, the Shalshelet, which spirals up and down three times, making it the longest sign of them all, appears only four times in the Torah, and each time it appears it indicates an existential crisis, according to Rabbi Sachs.
The first three cases are in Bereshit. Lot is ordered by the angels to get himself out of Sodom as fast as his legs will carry him so that they can destroy the city. Vayitmahama – he hesitated. With a shalshelet.
In the second case Avraham’s servant Eliezer is torn between going back to Haran to find a wife for Isaac or not doing the work, in which case he will inherit his master’s estate. Shalshelet.
In the third case, Yosef, the beautiful young man, is the object of desire of his master’s wife. She wants to seduce him. He hesitates. Shalshelet. We know that he was really tempted.
And now the fourth case appears here in our parsha. Moshe is preparing to anoint his brother Aharon as the high priest. He has to prepare sacrifices, which will actually be the last ones that he offers, because sacrifices will become Aharon’s domain. And on one of the words “and he sacrificed” we find the fourth shalshelet. Why is it here?
In the first three cases we can understand the inner turmoil of Lot, Eliezer and Yosef. But Moshe? Offering up a sacrifice? Where’s the emotional turmoil?
It has to be here, because the Shalshelet tells us it is, so we must look a bit deeper. And it’s not that difficult to decipher, except that we don’t usually associate the feelings chazal see here with Moshe. These are feelings of wistfulness, sadness, perhaps of opportunities missed to be something more.
What more could Moshe have been? He could have been the high priest. He could have been the one, the only one, allowed into the Holy of Holies to pray for the nation on Yom Kippur. He could have been the one whose children carried on after him as high priests. After all, the priesthood is determined by heredity. How many prophets had children who were also prophets? If they were smart, they realized that spouting God’s words (usually in warning or condemnation) was not a way to win friends and get a good job. And we see such examples with Samuel and others.
But Moshe made the choice. According to the Talmud, God had intended for Moshe to be the high priest, but when he begged off at the burning bush, insisting that he could not speak, and Aharon was selected to be Moshe’s mouthpiece, the plan was changed and Moshe was removed from the short list of candidates for the post.
So this was Moshe’s internal strife, reflected in the shalshelet. He was happy for his brother, of course, but the realization hit him that now he was no longer the only number-one in the camp. Yes, God would continue to speak through him, but there were areas where he was no longer in control.
We don’t find many places where Moshe expresses regret about his own choices – about what the people did, yes, but not about his own career. And the regret here is not in the text, only in cantillation symbols.
We now understand the hesitations of Lot, Eliezer and Yosef in Bereshit, and of Moshe here in Vayikra. But the important fact is that in all four cases the individuals overcame whatever regrets or sadness they may have experienced, and carried out what they were supposed to. Lot left Sodom, Eliezer found Rivka and gave up his inheritance, Yosef resisted Potiphar’s wife, went to jail and then became viceroy of Egypt. And Moshe – well, Moshe just continued being what he was: the only person with direct contact with the Lord and the undisputed leader of the people.
The message seems to be that when faced with momentous choices and options, we may waver, but if we are true to ourselves, we finally do what we know is right, and move forward without too many regrets.
Stephen Crane, an American poet and novelist of the late 1800s describes this idea with a strong metaphor:
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter — bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”