Saturday, December 20, 2008
The Stubborn Note
By Yosef Y. Jacobson
The Bible is well known as a book of words. Less known is the fact that it is a book of tunes. Each word of the Torah contains a musical note with which it is read and sung in synagogues whenever the Hebrew Bible is read publicly.
This is, parenthetically, what makes the reading of the Torah a challenging task. Since these notes are not transcribed in the Torah itself — they were transmitted orally from generation to generation — the person reading the Torah must memorize the appropriate note for each word.
These musical notes, passed down from Moses through the generations, are extremely meticulous and significant. They often expose us to a word's or a sentence's depth that we would have never appreciated from the word or sentence themselves.
One of the rarest and most unusual musical notes in the Bible is known in Hebrew as the "shalsheles." No other written musical note of the Bible is rendered in a repetitive style except the shalsheles, which stubbornly repeats itself three times. The graphic notation of this note, too, looks like a streak of lightning, a "zigzag movement," a mark that goes repeatedly backward and forward.
This unique musical note appears no more than four times in all of the Torah, three times in Genesis and once in Leviticus (1). One of them is in this week's portion, at a moment of high moral and psychological drama.
Here is the story:
Joseph is an extremely handsome teen-ager and his father Jacob's favorite child. He is sold into slavery by his brothers, who loathe him. Displayed on the Egyptian market, he is bought by a prominent Egyptian citizen, Potiphar, who ultimately chooses the slave to become the head of his household. There, Joseph attracts the lustful imagination of his master's wife. She desperately tries to engage him in a relationship, yet he steadfastly refuses her.
Here is the Bible's description (2):
"Joseph was well-built and handsome in his appearance. After a while his master's wife took notice of Joseph and said, 'Come to bed with me.' But he refused. He said: 'With me in charge, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against G-d?'"
Over the verb "but he refused," tradition has placed a shalsheles, the thrice-repeated musical note.
What is the significance of this rare note on this particular verb?
There is one more intriguing detail in this narrative, concerning the way the Bible reports Joseph's response to the woman's proposition. When his master's wife asks him to lie with her, we would expect Joseph to first explain to her why he cannot accept her offer, and then conclude by saying no. Yet the Bible tells us that the first thing Joseph did was refuse her. Only afterward does he justify his refusal. Why?
Joseph's refusal, we must remember, was not devoid of ambivalence and struggle. On the one hand, his entire moral sense said: No. It would be a betrayal of everything his family stood for — its ethic of sexual propriety and its strong sense of identity as children of the covenant. It would also be, as Joseph himself explained to the woman, a betrayal of her husband and a sin to G-d.
And yet the temptation, tradition tells us (3), was intense. We could understand why. Joseph is an 18-year-old slave in a foreign country. He does not even own his body; his master exercised full control over his life, as was the fate of all ancient slaves. Joseph has not a single friend or relative in the world. His mother died when he was 9 years old, and his father thought he was dead. His siblings were the ones who sold him into slavery, robbing him of his youth. One could only imagine the profound sense of loneliness that pervaded the heart of this gifted and handsome teen-ager.
A person in such isolation is not only overtaken by extremely powerful temptations to alleviate his solitariness and distress, but very likely may feel that a single action of his makes little difference in the ultimate scheme of things.
After all, what was at stake if Joseph succumbed to this woman's demands? Nobody was ever likely to find out what had occurred between the two. Joseph would not need to return home in the evening to face a dedicated spouse or a spiritual father, nor would he have to go back to a family or a community of moral standing. His family's reputation would not be besmirched as a result of this act. He would remain alone after the event, just as he was alone before it. So what's the big deal to engage in a snapshot relationship?
In addition, we must take into consideration the power possessed by this Egyptian noblewoman who was inciting Joseph. She was in the position of being able to turn Joseph's life into a paradise or a living hell. In fact, she did just that, having him incarcerated for 12 years in an Egyptian dungeon on the false charges that he attempted to violate her.
The Talmud (4) describes the techniques the woman used in order to persuade Joseph. Click here to read more