Parashat Vayeshev 5779

Rabbi Yuval Keren – 30 November 2018

Joseph’s momentary shalshelet

The Hebrew Torah text with vowels often has an additional set of markings that appear above and below the letters. In Hebrew, they are known as ‘taamei hamikra’, meaning cantillation marks or ‘trope’. The trope acts both as commentary on the text and as textual punctuation markings such as commas, semicolons, full-stops etc.
The trope was introduced to the Hebrew text about a thousand years ago, together with the introduction of the Hebrew vowel markings. Much of the trope being used on the text is quite common but every once in a while a rare form of the trope is used. One of the rare tropes is called shalshelet meaning ‘chain’. It is the longest soundbite of all the cantillation marks, and this is far from being a coincidence. Shalshelet provides the indication of an inner process in the mind of the subject, a moment of inner crisis, a time to make a fateful decision.

The first time the trope appears in the Torah is in the story of the destruction of Sodom. (Gen 19:16)
“The angels urged Lot on, saying, “Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city.” Still he delayed (וַֽיִּתְמַהְמָ֓הּ).” The angels seized his hand … and brought him out.

The medieval commentator Rashi explains that Lot hesitated to leave because he wanted to save his property! Other commentators criticise Lot for his hesitation explaining that this was a moment of doubt in God’s salvation. They contrast Lot’s hesitation with Abraham’s enthusiasm in fulfilling God’s instructions.

Another place in Genesis where we find shalshelet is in the story of Eliezer and Rebecca. Just before meeting Rebecca at the well in Haran, Eliezer has a short prayer (Gen 24:12).
“He said (וַיֹּאמַ֓ר), “Eternal God, the God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune today, and deal graciously with my master Abraham:”

The midrash tells us that Eliezer had a young daughter. Before the miraculous birth of Isaac, Eliezer was supposed to inherit Abraham’s property. When Isaac was born, he hoped that Isaac would marry his own daughter and she will inherit. As he stood at the well he has an opportunity to fail in his mission and perhaps persuade Abraham to marry his daughter to Isaac. The shalshelet in his loyalty to his master comes first and, despite a short shalshelet pause in his thoughts, he prays for the success of his mission.

In today’s portion we find another meaningful shalshelet (Gen 39:7-8):
“After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused (וַיְמָאֵ֓ן). He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands.”

The simple reading of the text is clear. Joseph refused to yield to Potiphar’s wife’s seductions and he shows his unconditional loyalty to his master. Yet, the shalshelet gives us an indication to an important interpretive subtext. For a short moment Joseph is tempted – and that temptation is very strong. He was a young man and she might have been very attractive. This was, therefore, a watershed decision for Joseph. Will he compromise his values and his loyalty for his master, or will he yield to his weaknesses. Yet that short moment of doubt passes and Joseph sticks to his principles.

Sometimes we come across a shalshelet moment of our life. We need a thought, a split of a second, to decide on the appropriate course of action. It can take many forms, be it financial, social, political, ethical or even sexual. We can respond to it as Joseph and Eliezer did, by setting aside our personal desires and needs in favour of integrity and truth. We can also respond to it as Lot did with the hope that there will be guardian angels who will whist us away from trouble.

The choice is indeed ours.

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