Vayeshev, No Means No

In 2002 at the end of our first International Chevra Kadishaconference in Rockland Maryland, I was given a copy of a tome I had, dare I say, long coveted. One of my fellow organizers gave me Joshua Jacobson’s book: Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation, all 965 pages. I cracked it open and saw this sub-heading on page 108: Rabbinic Exegesis of Shalshelet. I was smitten!

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The shalshelet is one of 4 rare ta’amim – and it occurs four times in Torah, 3 times in Bereshit. One of those times is this week, in Vayeshev, when Potiphar’s wife is attempting to seduce Joseph and he refuses her invitations. Hit the shlashelet.

Shalshelet means chain; this ta’am is a three-part chain both in appearance and sound. Our Sages suggest that its placement over the word “refused” implies that the chain of tradition (shalshelet mesorah) allowed Joseph to envisage his father’s face, which then enabled him to resist the charms of Mrs. Potiphar and to not break that chain of generations. That said, Joseph did marry an Egyptian woman later on and there was nary a ta’am reminding or rebuking him then.  Jacobson is slightly dismissive of such metaphorical readings. As he notes, the shalshelet – as with other ta’amim – holds a much more functional and grammatical aspect.

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In traditional Judaism the previously mentioned shalshelet mesorah is a chain of tradition understood to be unbroken – and references the rituals, traditions, and texts that have informed the Judaism of generations past, present and future.

In our sidra this week, Joseph sees himself in the eyes of Potiphar’s wife and he refuses to break this chain. It is one of those “no means no” moments in Torah.  The shalshelet over the word “refused” adds an emphatic and elongated aspect to his refusal. With apologies to Jacobson, did Joseph refuse three times? Does the ba’al or ba’alat kriah chant the shalsheletdifferently at each third of the note, perhaps increasing the volume sequentially within the ta’am? The brilliance of the cantillation system is that it not only allows the reader some degree of interpretation, it demands that act of interpretation from the reader.

Joseph’s refusal evokes our sympathy. He is young, but nevertheless, the delectable advances of his mistress are such that a question hangs in the air – how could he refuse? He must have been aware of his setting – the sumptuousness of which implied power. Joseph was sold by his brothers to Potiphar, who was a captain of the Egyptian guard, ominously, he was named Chancellor of the Butchers. Eventually Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his personal household. Temptations must have been many. But Joseph’s no meant no, however tempted he might have been. Mrs. Potiphar’s claims, though false, were taken for truth, and he was imprisoned.

The years he spent in the dungeon bespeaks a kindness in many ways – one could easily imagine rulers of that age not thinking twice about beheading such young men. But, in Biblical fashion, there is an ironic resolution that will play itself out as Joseph comes into his own power. 

After Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, and his subsequent appointment as overlord of Egypt, he is said to have married a woman named Asenath, who was the daughter of one Poti-Pherah. Poti-Pherah may have been the same person as Potiphar – and/or of his wife. Joseph thus married the daughter of the woman who had accused him of rape. But if, at any point, if Joseph had not refused, if he had not spent time in prison with the Chancellor of the Cup Bearer and Chancellor of the Bakers, if they had not heard his wondrous interpretations of their dreams, if he did not live to interpret Pharaohs dreams – this shalshelet of events would have been broken. The unbroken chain enables our story to gallop forward. Chad Gadya, chad gadya

The ta’am shalshelet marking Joseph’s refusal might also indicate a memory of his own dreams – one does not forget such significant dreams. He knew that God would bring the sheaves to bow before him. His time was not yet. Franz 
Rosenzweig*and Joseph thus become linked by a phrase – not yet – that brings them into my modern day shalshelet:  Chevra Kadisha linking “not yet” (perhaps an early version of the marshmallow test), and dreams with our ongoing exegesis of Torah. So too may we all be wondrous and innovative links in this chain of shalshelet mesorah.

Shabbat shalom

*When German Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig was asked whether he performed a particular mitzvah, he often replied, “Not yet.” He recognized Judaism as a process, something living and capable of change. He also taught that it was in the doing of a mitzvah that one understood the significance of that mitzvah. What is that space between not ready, not yet, and maybe, now?  It will be different for each of us.