Do you know how to sing shalshelet? When my eldest child was twelve, she and I signed up for aclass in ta’amei ha-mikra, the cantillation signs for chanting Torah and Haftarah. Also known as trop, the signs specify the musical phrases for chanting sacred texts. I had never been able to master trop before then, but with a reliable study partner and a teacher who was prepared, pleasant, and patient, I finally succeeded. The most difficult trop to master was shalshelet, which means “chain.” It is a long and complex series of notes—a pazeir on steroids—that lengthens the word to which it is applied, drawing it out to convey that the subject of the passage is hesitating and wrestling mightily with conscience or an inner urge before acting.
Shalshelet occurs only four times in the Torah. One of the four is found in this week’s parashah, Tzav, in Torah’s description of the sacrifices Moses brought to be slaughtered on the occasion of the anointment of Aaron as High Priest by his brother, Moses.
וַיַּקְרֵב אֶת-הָאַיִל הַשֵּׁנִי, אֵיל הַמִּלֻּאִים; וַיִּסְמְכוּ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו, אֶת-יְדֵיהֶם--עַל-רֹאשׁ הָאָיִל.וַיִּשְׁחָט--וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה מִדָּמוֹ, וַיִּתֵּן עַל-תְּנוּךְ אֹזֶן-אַהֲרֹן הַיְמָנִית; וְעַל-בֹּהֶן יָדוֹ הַיְמָנִית, וְעַל-בֹּהֶן רַגְלוֹ הַיְמָנִית
[Moses] brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head. Moses slaughtered [the ram] and took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. (Leviticus 8:22-23)
The moment Moses sacrifices the ram and daubs its blood on Aaron’s ear, thumb, and toe, ordaining him ever after as the High Priest of Israel, the balance of authority and power shift. Moses has held the reins of leadership from the first moment he approached Pharaoh. Aaron has been by his side to help, support, and assist—but Moses possessed the authority and direct connection with God. Now Moses is transferring divine authority to his brother, Aaron, who will act in the realm of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) without consulting Moses. Aaron will herewith wield power and command respect not merely as the brother of Moses, but in his own right as the High Priest. What is more, Aaron will hand down the office of High Priest to his own—but not Moses’—progeny. The shalshelet on “he slaughtered” gives voice to Moses’ hesitation, to his inner struggle in the moment he slaughters the ram, ordains Aaron, and thereby transfers a large measure of his authority: there is no going back. Moses and Aaron have embarked on a new power sharing arrangement.
Sacrificing the ram mirrors Moses’ sacrifice of a significant measure of his own leadership authority. Moses sacrificed the ram, acting in the role of the High Priest, at the inauguration of Aaron and his sons—this is the last time he does so.
The Talmud imagines that Moses’ experience of loss is magnified by having nearly become the High Priest himself. The Talmud recalls that when Moses encountered God at the burning bush, Moses expressed reluctance to lead Israel, claiming he was unfit and asking God to assign someone else as God’s agent. God’s frustration and anger were evident at the time.
וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה בְּמֹשֶׁה, וַיֹּאמֶר הֲלֹא אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ הַלֵּוִי--יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-דַבֵּר יְדַבֵּר הוּא; וְגַם הִנֵּה-הוּא יֹצֵא לִקְרָאתֶךָ, וְרָאֲךָ וְשָׂמַח בְּלִבּוֹ
Adonai became angry with Moses and said, “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you.” (Exodus 4:14)
The Talmud interprets God’s words to mean that originally God intended Moses to be the High Priest and Aaron to be a Levite.
ר"ש בן יוחי אומר אף זה נאמר בו רושם שנאמר (שמות ד) הלא אהרן אחיך הלוי והלא כהן הוא הכי קאמר אני אמרתי אתה כהן והוא לוי עכשיו הוא כהן ואתה לוי
R. Shimon b. Yochai said: …it is said, There is your brother Aaron the Levite. Now surely [Aaron] was a priest? Rather, this is what God meant: “I had intended that you would be a priest and he would be a Levite. Now, however, he will be a priest and you will be a Levite.” (BT Zevachim 102a)
As a result of Moses’ reluctance to lead Israel, God had a change of heart and designated Aaron to serve as Israel’s High Priest—which meant that all descended from him would be kohanim—in place of Moses. Moses, who could virtually taste the priesthood, felt he had forfeited what might have been his.
There are many times in our lives when we surrender authority we feel ought to have been ours, or might have been ours, or could have been ours—or truly was ours. Our family and personal relationships, as well as communal endeavors and professional partnerships, require us to share power and authority, give in to the needs, desires, and talents of others, shift our expectations of how things will be, and often reshape our self-image. Like Moses, we may hesitate, perhaps experiencing regret, reticence, fear, or even loathing. Moses’ hesitation, his inner struggle, not only mirrors our own, but affirms how natural the reluctance is to hand over the reins to another. But so too is Moses a wonderful model for carrying through with power sharing, a leader who puts the needs of others ahead of his own ego needs.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman