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Torah Sparks

December 20, 2003 - 5764

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Annual Cycle: Genesis 37:1-40:23 - Hertz, p. 141; Etz Hayim, p. 226
Triennial Cycle 3: Genesis 39:1-40:23 - Hertz, p. 147; Etz Hayim, p. 238
Maftir: Numbers 7:1-17 - Hertz, p. 596; Etz Hayim, p. 805
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7 - Hertz, p. 987; Etz Hayim, p. 1269

Discussion Theme: Self Discipline

After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” And much as she coaxed Joseph day after day, he did not yield to her request to lie beside her, to be with her. (Genesis 39:7-10)

Commentary: Internal Conflict

  1. Joseph was about to yield to the enticements of Potiphar’s wife when the image of his father appeared to him and strengthened his resolve to say no. (Talmud Sota 36b)
  2. The Torah says that he "refused."(Genesis 38:8). With cantillation, it is written with a note called a great shalshelet and a pesik. [Musically, the shalshelet has a number of movements while the pesik is a stop.] She made many movements to tempt him, but he put a stop to it and refused to even look at her. (Gates to Jewish Heritage Website)
  3. The cantillation note for the word va-y’ma-en (translated as “but he refused”) is the rare note “shalshelet,” which appears only four times in the Torah. It is a wavering, back-and-forth note, suggesting indecision and ambivalence on Joseph’s part. Rabbi Harold Kushner, Etz Hayim, Genesis 39:8)
  4. Yosef’s sense of morality was so strong that he did not even consider her advances. Netziv in Haamek Davar Genesis 39:8)
  5. As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on, saying, “Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of your city.” Still he delayed (cantillation mark is “shalshelet”). So the men seized his hand, and the hands of his wife and his two daughters — in the Lord’s mercy on him — and brought him out and left him outside the city. (Genesis 19:15-16)
  6. Why did Lot hesitate to leave Sodom when he was warned that it was about to be destroyed? He chose to salvage his wealth. (Rashi Genesis 19:16)
  7. Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and set out, taking with him all the bounty of his master; and he made his way to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor. He made the camels kneel down by the well outside the city, at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water. And he said (cantillation mark is “shalshelet”), “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ — let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that you have dealt graciously with my master.” (Genesis 24:10-14)
  8. “Perhaps the woman will not go”— The word translated as “perhaps” (u’lai) is spelled here like “ei-lai” which means “to me,” to allude to the following: Eliezer (Abraham’s servant) had a daughter, and he was searching to find a pretext so that Abraham would tell him to turn to himself, to marry his daughter to Isaac, that is, Eliezer was torn by his desire to have his own daughter become the bride of Isaac. Abraham said to him, “My son is blessed and you are cursed, and one who is cursed cannot cleave to one who is blessed.” (Rashi on Genesis 24:39)
  9. “He 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 (cantillation mark is “shalshelet”). Moses 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 “shaleshelet” trope appears only four times in the Torah, in each case, over a verb that describes a moment of personal crisis; of deep soul-searching. Each of these four individuals is filled with doubt, confused over what decision to make; which path to follow. Look at each of the four instances. What was the difficult decision that had to be made? How do they differ? How does the zigzag form and staccato sound that goes back and forth and back and forth reflect the inner emotion of the biblical figure? Are there times when we are like Lot oscillating between our material and spiritual values; like Eliezer doubting our own abilities; like Moses weighing our own self interest against God’s plan; or like Joseph struggling to do what we know is right, and not what we know is wrong? What helps us overcome these hesitations and doubts?

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