I love trope midrash. There’s a lot to explain in that sentence. Midrash is commentary, interpretation, exploration of meaning. “Trope” is the word used for the musical notation that appears in Torah text, telling the reader how to sing and punctuate the verses. There are different tropes for different occasions: Haftorah trope is different from Torah trope, and there are different melodic modes for High Holidays, Purim and other holidays. All the same notation, not the same notes. Trope midrash is a little like gematria, where Hebrew letters have numbers assigned to them, and gematria-nerds have fun adding up “words” and finding meaning in their numbers, relationships to other words, etc. I’m a trope nerd, noticing where certain notations end up on certain words, and looking for meaning in that occurance. Trope midrash.
This week in particular, in parasha “Chayei Sarah” (Gen. 23:1-25:11), I’m in trope heaven because of a little-used squiggle called, “shalshelet”. It’s a triple trope, meaning the five note scale gets sung three times, with a little flourish at the end. Believe me, you notice it when you hear it. This week, it’s on the word “vayomer” (and he said), a pretty innocuous word unless there’s the triple-crown trope on top of it. Eliezer, Abraham’s most esteemed servant, is commissioned by Abraham to return to his birthplace and get a wife for his son, Isaac. Abraham doesn’t want a girl from Canaan, and entrusts this most dear servant with a momentous task. Eliezer sets out on his travels with camels and goods. He goes to the town meeting place, the well, to see the girls of the town doing their evening water-drawing. Eliezer offers a prayer to the God of his master, asking for success in his mission. Vayomer, he said, shalshelet-ly.
The commentators have always found meaning in the places where the shalshelet occurs; it happens only four times in the whole Torah, and three of them are in Genesis. The first is when Lot hesitates about leaving Sodom, as destruction is about to rain down. This is the second occurence, and the third is when Potiphar’s wife unsuccessfully tries to seduce Joseph; the notation is on the word “refused”. The rabbis have said the shalshelet (which means “chain”) indicates vacillation, hesitatancy, uncertainty, a clash of emotions. The “chain” is getting rattled, maybe pulled in a different direction. One midrash says that Eliezer, who had a daughter of his own, knew that if he couldn’t find an acceptable wife for Isaac, then his own daughter would marry him, joining a rich and influential family. Was Eliezer only partially hoping for success? Did the chain that bound him to Abraham get stretched and rattled? Would it break?
Maybe this kind of hesitation and uncertainty happens only four times in the Torah, but it happens all the time to me, and most of the people I know. We choose our words and actions carefully, which is usually a good thing. But every once in a while, some choices really rattle our chains. Are we trying to break a chain of behavior? Or are we trying to maintain a connection, hoping it won’t break as we try out new ideas? Is it wrong to wonder, to take a moment and play, “what if”? Rambam (Maimonides) said that one who hesitates and then chooses right is on a higher plane than those who never hesitate. It’s easy to do the “rote” thing; more meaningful to choose the “right”.
I love shalshelets – they waver and bounce and almost fly off into the sky, but ultimately they come home, more impressive for the path they took.