By Shlomo Riskin
The second part of our portion of Tzav deals with the seven-day induction ceremony of Aaron and his sons as the priests-kohanim of the Sanctuary. Moses the Prophet conducts the proceedings: First he “invests” them, dressing them in their unique priestly garb, father and sons; and then he slaughters the second ram, the consecration-inauguration ram, “which fills and completes the function of the priests [father and sons] within their priesthood” (Rashi ad loc).
The seemingly insignificant phrase “and [Moses] slaughtered it” in the introductory text to our commentary, is one of the most poignant and moving phrases of the entire Bible which also illuminates the purpose of the priest-kohen in contrast to the prophet.
Both of these nuances of interpretation emanate from a rare cantillation “trope” – the shalshelet – which appears above the letter “het” in the Hebrew word vayishhat (“and he slaughtered”). The cantillation tropes provide the musical notation to the words of the Bible, telling the Torah reader when to pause (as in a comma), when to stop (at the end of a verse), when to sound decisive and when to strike a high note. None of the tropes are as distinctive, or as lengthy, as is the shalshelet; it appears only four times in the Bible, usually connoting the drama of confused hesitancy and deep apprehension.
For example, when Joseph is alone with Mrs. Potiphar, and she attempts to seduce him, he refuses – “vayi’ma’en,” (Genesis 39:8). Remember, he is lonely and alone, a stranger in a strange land, feeling rejected by his family and needy for even a fleeting moment of warmth and physical connection. He is mindful of how his father would view such an act of adultery, and yet apprehensive that a refusal could cause this powerful woman to destroy him. The lengthy and meandering shalshelet atop the alef of va’yi’ma’en suggests all of the conflicting complexities within Joseph’s refusal.
But what is complex about slaughtering a ram? Why does the evocative and dramatic shalshelet appear in our verse describing the consecration of Aaron and his sons? In order to understand this, we must realize that the initial plan was for Moses to have received the Kehuna– priesthood, the hereditary leadership function in Israel.
However, when the Almighty suggests to Moses that he be His emissary to Pharaoh to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses demurs, again and again refusing the mantle of leadership (Exodus 3:10-4:17), declaring himself to be unworthy. At length, “the Lord became angry with Moses, and He said, ‘Is there not Aaron your brother, the Levite? He will surely speak…he will be your mouthpiece, and you will provide for him [the words] of God.’” In this context, God initially refers to Aaron as the Levite, not as the kohen-priest; but when Moses keeps refusing to be the emissary, God removes the dynastic priesthood from Moses and bestows it upon Aaron.
And I believe that this switch in role was much more than a result of God’s anger; it rather had to do with the different functions of priest and prophet and the different personalities of Aaron and Moses.
Moses was a man of God (Deut. 33:1); his active intellect actually “kissed” the active intellect of the Divine, and so Moses was able by dint of the almost superhuman qualities of mind and soul to communicate God’s Torah on earth. Hence Moses must communicate to his brother the Divine will. Moses describes himself as “heavy of speech”; he had little patience for small talk, for human fellowship, he breaks the tablets, he hits the rock, or even for family relationships or obligations (he divorces his wife; he even neglects to circumcise his son Eliezer (Exodus 4:24-25).
He seeks only Divine fellowship and Divine Torah talk, and such endowments of intellect and spirit cannot be passed down as an inheritance to the next generation; they are sui generis, limited to rare, charismatic individuals, blessed with unique abilities.
Aaron, on the other hand, was a man of the people, who loved making peace between individuals.
He loved all of humanity and through loving acts and words, brought everyone close to Torah (Avot 1: 13).
Moses acquired the Torah intellectually, but Aaron taught it to the masses with love. And acts of loving- kindness can be passed down from parent to child, from generation to generation; to speak loving words and to do loving deeds can be learned and bequeathed.
Nevertheless, Moses the human being would have loved to see his sons assume religious leadership positions in Israel; but they do not. And when he is thrust in the position of directing the investiture of Aaron and his sons, and especially when he slaughters the consecration-inauguration ram expressing the dynastic aspect of the priesthood, Moses cannot help but hesitate to give vent to feelings of loss, frustration and even a little jealousy, as well as apprehension as to his own continuity within his own family line. Moses, who gave himself over completely to God and nation, understands at this pivotal moment the personal sacrifice it had cost, the loss of family closeness and continuity it had engendered. This I believe is the message of the shalshelet.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.