Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Tzav

As a teenager, I thought I was bulletproof. I played ball with reckless abandon, and did not reserve this for only games that mattered; it was a way of life. My mom loves telling the story of the day the gym called her to tell her that her son had broken his ankle. I was playing pick-up basketball with my brother. She asked the caller, “which son?” The response was simply, “Both.” I drove to the basket and injured both of us. The list of injuries I have sustained is long, and you think at some point, I would wise up. Since turning 50, I have significantly added to the list … though only one injury even has a story almost worth telling.

 My wife, Lori, calls it “Y chromosome disease.” All men have it. It is our fate: men to do stupid things with our bodies. For all of us, it takes a lot of effort for us not to default to our “God given” deficiencies (somewhat tongue in cheek guys … ladies, I know you are nodding your heads).


Some parts of our lives are absolutely beyond our control. This concept of fate is only a piece of the puzzle, for we also always have the ability to choose how we respond to that which we cannot control. We do have the ability to choose better self care; we can choose to pay more attention; we can choose to be more aware and more sensitive. A famous “truism” reminds us that if we don’t like what is happening, we should work to change it. If we can’t change it, then we need to change the way in which we approach it. Ultimately, we have the power to choose our desired personal destiny. The value of education is to help us learn how to make better decisions. The value of experience helps us frame these decisions in ways that make sense. Every day, we are blessed with this opportunity. Every day, we are confronted with this challenge. How we internalize the blessing and address the challenge will determine the relative direction of our destiny and the values of our lives.


There is, however, still more. The value of Torah is that it creates conversations. You know I believe that. You also know that I believe that the Torah, written without vowels and sentence structure can say all sorts of things when the reader organizes the text vocally. We each have the power to write a completely different text than the one our neighbors write, even while we all begin at the same starting point … the consonantal structures.


Between 1400 and 1000 years ago, a group of sages tried to create a standardized text for the purpose of ceremonial uniformity. They knew that the static text should not change the ability to manipulate it and wrestle with its potential meanings, but wanted to create a standard. They put vowels, punctuation, and musical notation to the text. If you open a Jewish Bible, you will see their work on every word, line, and page of text. They did something more, though. In these additions, they hid their own textual commentaries. In so doing, they set in stone that every time the text is read in ceremony, it is read in a way that emphasizes and de-emphasizes pieces of the story line.


We know that spoken or sung texts give us a whole lot more emotional and intellectual opportunity than words simply written on a page. How we vocalize a text often provides it with meaning that the text, by itself, might not convey. So, the musical notes added to text motivate us towards specific understandings. This phenomenon is part of this week’s Torah story. One of the notes is called a “Shalshelet,” and in some sense of onomatopoeia, it is a note that extends the pronunciation of the word longer than would happen normally in reading it. This note happens in only four places in Torah (three in Genesis and one here).  Many scholars have noted that its unique and rare use calls attention to specific themes in the text … including some that only become evident because of the way in which these specific words elongate and play out when chanted.


I have also read several pieces that focus on the psychology of this week’s story line to help in understanding. This week, Moses formally anoints his brother and his brother’s children as priests. He does the sacrifice on the altar that begins the ceremony … the last sacrifice he will ever perform at the altar. He will no longer be the singular shaman for the people, and will share power … perhaps even cede power to his brother. This musical note appears in the text at the moment of the fire on the altar’s passing of leadership. The text does not speak about Moses’ anxiety, but the musical vocalization gives us a sense of anxiety. Is he prepared emotionally to let go? From this many scholars argue that we have to be intentional about our choice making. I agree, but that point is already well made.


The unique lesson tied to each of the four uses of this note transcends the self. Moses (and in Genesis Lot, Joseph, and Eliezer) are all at pivotal points in their stories, when this shalshelet note happens in text. For Moses, his ability to turn over the reins of leadership ultimately has little to do with him and everything to do with the people. The whole world is going to change, and, by that one act, we will move from a people based in the prophetic sharing with God into a world of ritually based worship. Moses’ conundrum may be about his ego and loss of self esteem, but I do not think so. I think he is worried that he now has the task of keeping prophecy alive, even while all of our time and behaviors are directed to and at the altar.


We each control our own destiny, until someone changes it for us. Each of us has to be willing to give up a piece of ourselves and change our destiny when we see that the needs and well being of the rest of society would make our insular selves irrelevant or counterproductive to our society. Sometimes, it means making sure that society, even in moving in a new direction, never loses its grounding. We are at a crossroads in the faith world. We have let politics, ego, and power become the ritual of our religions. The names/labels of each of our religions are used in the most unholy of ways, as people destroy each other’s loves … under the guise of religion. No wonder so many people are walking away, and in doing so, abdicate the label and all it purports to stand for to the most fanatical of uses.


The shalshelet is a warning to us. Even as we walk through the ritual in our lives, we cannot let go of the prophetic call to justice, righteousness, mercy, compassion, love, and peace. Even as we see people usurp our religious labels for their own hateful purposes, we have to reclaim our traditions, and once again find ourselves standing before the altar of loyalty and faith to each other and to the dignity with which God created each of us. Go back to Church, to Temple, to the Mosque. Go back and claim your rightful and righteous inheritance. Go back and reclaim your traditions from the fanatics who abuse it. Go back and let’s join in the prayer for peace. Shabbat Shalom.