I spend a lot of time working with young people to learn the cantillation – or trope – for chanting from the Torah in anticipation of their becoming B’nai Mitzvah (yes, that’s the plural of Bar/Bat Mitzvah!). Most kids – and adults! – think that trope is only about how to sing the words. While it’s true that there are specific melodies associated with specific symbols, trop is much more than that. Trope helps us with pauses, inflections and emphases as well. In other words, it adds meaning to the text without having to add words.
In a sense, trope can be like punctuation. Obviously there’s a big difference between “Okay!” and “Okay?” The same is true when a different trop appears over or under a word in the Torah.
This week’s portion gives us a perfect example. In Leviticus 8:22-23, we read: “He [Moses] brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, and it was slaughtered.” There are a lot of sacrifices in the Book Leviticus. This verse seems like just another one. However, the trope that appears over the word for “and it was slaughter” – “וישחט” is a very rare one called a shalshelet (which means “chain”).
There are only four of them in the Five Books of the Torah (click here to hear the Cantor sing it) and the melody goes up and down three times. It clearly forces the reader to notice and emphasize the word.
So, what’s the big deal about THIS sacrifice as opposed to the hundreds of others that we read about in the Torah?
This was the installation of Aaron and his sons as the Priests and, therefore, the one and only sacrifice that Moses offered up in the newly constructed Tabernacle. Moses’ sons did not become priests. In fact, we know very little about what happened to Gershom and Eliezer. However, we do know that they had no leadership roles. In contrast, Aaron’s sons were the visible leaders of the Israelites’ ritual life.
It must have been a bittersweet moment for Moses the father to realize that the Tabernacle was fully functional, the Priesthood was established, but his children would have no role in it. Moses came to realize – as all parents must do – that there comes a point when children get to choose their paths. Parents can coach, recommend and pray. However, the (adult) children get to decide. His sons wanted to go in a different direction. They didn’t want to go into the “family business.”
My oldest, who is now a high school junior, is embarking on the first of these decisions – where to go to college. Certainly parents can put some limitations on the search, but ultimately the child has to pick someplace where she will be happy and appropriately challenged. Like with Moses, it’s a bittersweet moment when you realize that your child can make such a momentous decision without you. However, I hope that Moses figured out how to be proud of his sons – no matter what path they chose for themselves. I know that I will.