Lead or Get Out of the Way

Reb Ezra Weinberg

Reb Ezra Weinberg

Parshat Tzav

Jewish leadership is hard business. I don’t envy our leaders, but I pray for them and their ability to access our collective wisdom and see beyond our weighty contemporary conflicts.

I believe the Torah can be a tool to move us past our collective stuckness. Parshat Tzav models this for us but in a most unpredictable way: through its trop!

My love of Torah can be traced to my years at the Forman Hebrew Day School in Elkins Park when it was still housed at Beth Sholom. I was lucky enough to learn how to leyn Torah from Cantor David Tilman. Learning the cantillation marks and putting music to our sacred text was like a 3D experience of Torah learning.

And the peak moment of Torah trop education was learning the shalshelet: the longest note in the Torah. Shalshelet comes in the shape of a lightning bolt and takes about 10 seconds to sing. I never miss shul when there is a Shalshelet, and it is my biggest gripe with the triennial cycle. Only four words in the entire Torah are graced with the Shalshelet; three of them are in Breishit and the fourth is in this week’s parsha: Tzav.

If you were to line up the four places where this note appears, you might notice an interesting commonality: The Shalshelet serves to externalize an inner drama of a character in the Torah. This extremely rare trop comes in moments of great consternation around a decision and depicts someone in search of courage to move forward. Let us look at the Shalshelet moment in Parshat Tzav and see what it might have to teach us.

It is easy to overlook the massive leadership transition about to take place in the eighth chapter of Leviticus. For most of the parsha, we learn all the instructions from G-d to Moses regarding the different sacrifices to be administered by Aaron and his four sons.

But in the sixth Aliya, something big happens. The first-ever group of priestly is initiated. Up until this moment, Moses is the de facto kohen or priest. In fact, he is both the prophet and the priest. The Torah is not explicit with Moses’ feelings about this highly publicized initiation and transfer of role. As far as we know, he does what he is told. But if we zoom in on the precise placement of the Shalshelet, we get a hint of an inner drama going on within Moses.

In the span of nine sentences in Chapter 8, we see the word “vayishchat” (and he slaughtered) three times. At the pshat (basic) level, the Torah describes the initiation of Aaron and his sons, which requires the ritual slaughter of a bull and two rams. With each stroke of the knife, Moses comes closer and closer to relinquishing his claim as the priest.
With each passing vayishchat moment, Moses accepts the reality that his priestly duties, which are fundamentally about bringing people closer to G-d, are coming to an end. How is the gravity of this moment landing with Moses?

Moses’s inner conflict is revealed in that last vayishchat.

Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger’s description in a recent d’var Torah for the OU notes that, “Moshe is conflicted over never again being able to function as ‘kohen’ and thus never bringing any future korbanos (sacrifices).” This third and final vayishchat is the one crowned with one of the four Shalshelets of the Torah.

As we listen to the 10-second vayishchat sung in shul, one can’t help but imagine the emotion going into that moment of leadership transfer from Moses to Aaron. Is it doubt? Is it regret? Is it stuckness? Is Moses not quite ready to hand over the reins?

The Shalshelet, with its haunting, timely, yet delayed, shofar-like sound, perhaps signals to us the inner challenge of leadership transition. Perhaps this was one of Moses’ most unheralded courageous moments as a leader.

Despite the delay and all his potential reservations, Moses understood that the priesthood was ultimately not his calling. Sometimes the best thing a leader can do is let someone else lead.

Reb Ezra Weinberg is a Philadelphia-based rabbi and a practitioner of conflict transformation. He is the founder of ReVoice: A Journey of Discovery for Jewish Families After Divorce. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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