D’var Torah: December 2, 2015

Dear Friends,

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, Joseph’s brothers were so overcome by jealousy of their brother, that they sold him into slavery. Potiphar, a courtier of Pharoah and his chief steward, purchased Joseph. But despite his low circumstance, G-d was with Joseph and made him a successful man. Potiphar liked Joseph and made him a personal attendant, and put him in charge of his household. It wasn’t long before Potiphar’s wife set her eyes on the handsome and successful Joseph, demanding that he carry on a romantic entanglement with her.

Joseph’s response at this moment is to refuse her, but the chant mark that appears on the word, “Vay’ma-ein – and he refused” is the shalshelet. The shalshelet appears only four times in the entire Torah,and in each case, the rabbis believed that it was there for a reason. The shalshelet, according to the method of chant most commonly used in North America, sounds like a vocal exercise, a repeated arpeggio on the notes of a major chord. Edna Sultan, in her article, “On the Significance of Cantillation,” describes it as a “triple yodel, portraying the pendulous trains of thought and emotion conveyed by the respective word.”

So, what does this shalshelet tell us about Joseph’s refusal of Potiphar’s wife? It could lead us to several interpretations, depending on how it is chanted. It could be a shalshelet of triumph as Sultan sees it. Joseph has come from a low place, but is now refusing the master’s wife. How far he has come! It could also be a shalshelet of great hesitation. Surely he realizes the danger in refusing her. Rabbi Bahyai Halawa saw the shalshelet, meaning chain, as showing that Joseph felt “‘enchained’ by his conscientiousness, steadfastly resisting.” He sees this trope mark as being a non-verbal “melismatic midrash.” Perhaps the repeating pattern indicates indecision – going back and forth first one way and then the other. There are many possible midrashim for a single text. In this case, I suppose it would be up to the interpreter of the te’amim to determine his or her own midrash by the manner in which he or she chooses to chant this passage.

Joseph was a spoiled child, but perhaps he has learned a lesson through his experience with his brothers. For the old Joseph, this would surely be a moment of triumph, a proof that he was as great and mighty as his dreams told him he would be. But is Joseph still this way? I want to believe that this shalshelet indicates a strong refusal, but I’m not certain that Joseph has reached this maturity just yet. I change my mind on this from time to time, but if I were to chant it tomorrow, I think I would indicate some hesitation in Joseph’s voice. I imagine that Joseph’s bruised ego would love the attention and would have felt that he deserved it. Still, refusing Potiphar’s wife is as dangerous as accepting her as a lover. In fact, he will be thrown into jail for it once she accuses him of attacking her. Joseph can’t win. He must refuse her. I imagine the entire thought process going through his mind as he is “chained,” the literal meaning of the name of the chant mark, by his choice.

Cantor Sally Neff