Commentary for Tzav

30 Mar

This week’s parshah contains one of the rarest and most difficult cantillation marks in the entire Torah: Shalshelet. Appearing just four times in the entire torah, and only appearing on verbs in the third person singular, Shalshelet’s extreme length, zig-zagging shape, and zig-zagging music are used to denote an extreme inner struggle on the part of a person about whether or not to do the action in question.


In our parshah, the person is Moses and the action he is struggling with performing is sacrificing a ram at the ceremony to officially inaugurate Aaron as the High Priest and Aaron’s descendents as the priestly line. The reason that Moses, God’s faithful servant, is struggling with an action that seems fairly routine for someone like him is that Moses covets this position for himself. After all, it was he who went up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, he who pleaded on behalf of the people when they made the Golden Calf, and he through whom God communicates new laws and ordinances to the people. Why should Aaron, his sidekick, be the one who receives this big honor?


Jealously is not an emotion we generally associate with our great religious leaders, and in particular with Moses, who is described in the Torah as being “very humble, more so than anyone on the face of the Earth (Num. 12:3).” One would think that such a humble person would be happy to accept God’s decision, and happy to have such an integral part in the ceremony. Instead, the Torah puts a Shalshelet on the word slaughtered to bring our attention to this internal struggle that otherwise would have gone completely unnoticed.


The Torah points Moses internal struggle out to us specifically to teach us that such feelings are perfectly okay to have. We are humans. We have feelings and instincts and desires. God understands that. Judaism (with the important exception of believing in false gods) is not a religion of thought-crimes. The Tenth Commandment tells us that we should not “covet” someone else’s spouse or possessions, but one is only liable for breaking the commandment if one takes illegal or unreasonable steps to acquire that which he or she covets. While the internal struggle symbolized by the Shalshelet is important, the end result is the word the Shalshelet is chanted on: Vayishchat – “and it was slaughtered (Lev. 8:23).” In the end, Moses did God’s will and played his part in the ceremony. It is perfectly okay to struggle with our desires and emotions. The important part is to make sure that in the end, we have acted appropriately.

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