My studies at Leo Baeck College taught me to use many tools to better understand the biblical text. On any given week, I grab a stack of dictionaries, commentaries, and take a look at some of my favourite online commentaries to stimulate ideas and look for hidden meaning in the text. I also bear in mind that every translation is interpretation, and how we interpret text can be affected by tools we use for study. One of the most underutilized tools is the system of cantillation marks, or ta’amim, which complement the words. Ta’amim are not simply a shorthand for musical notes. They are a part of a carefully-constructed system for pronouncing, punctuating, and even dramatizing the Biblical text. A very clear example of how a reading of the text can be enhanced by ta’amim is in Genesis 39 in which Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph. The JPS Tanakh translates the word va-y-ma’ein as “But he refused”. However, the cantillation mark over the Hebrew is a shalshelet, a chain of notes that go up and down repeatedly, dwelling on the word before moving onto the next. In this light, va-y-ma’ein could mean that either Joseph very deliberately and forcefully refused Potiphar’s wife’s advances; or, va-y-ma’ein could mean that Joseph hesitated—perhaps for quite awhile–but in the end refused! Without taking the shalshelet into consideration, both of these readings might be missed completely.
As I studied the Akeidah this week, my eyes fell to the words in Genesis 22:8, “Elohim yir’eh-lo ha-se l’olah b’ni”, which is Abraham’s response to Isaac’s question “where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”The JPS Tanakah interprets Abraham’s words as, “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son”; however, the particular ta’am under the word ha-seh (the lamb), creates a division between ha-seh and the next two words, l’olah bni. Re-punctuating the translation according to the ta’am,we now have “God will see to the sheep, for the burnt offering my son”. The word b’ni, my son, describes olah, sacrifice.
We can then reinterpret the verse like this: Without saying “Isaac, you are the sacrifice”, Abraham is telling Isaac exactly that. It’s so tragic it’s almost comical: Isaac is a grown man. Up to this point, he has been carrying wood, the very wood on which he will be sacrificed; Abraham, his father, has been carrying the knife. And yet, Isaac doesn’t understand, so he asks his father where the sacrificial sheep is. In Abraham’s answer, he is saying (sadly), “Do I have to spell it out for you, son? You are the sacrifice”. Isaac was so caught up in the unfolding drama that he had not registered—at least not consciously—what was about to happen on the mountain. Suddenly, the events come together for Isaac…leaving early in the morning before his mother could notice… leaving the two servants behind…carrying the wood for burning the offering…the sacrificial knife and the fire. We can imagine Isaac mouthing the word “oh”. And yet, the verse continues v’yelkhu shneihem yachdav “and the two of them walked on together”. Isaac does not argue; he does not attempt to get away from his ageing father. Instead, he and Abraham continue on side by side. Whether or not Isaac knew the truth before, he now understands and accepts his role as a willing sacrifice. Indeed, the Rabbis taught that Isaac asked Abraham to “bind my hands properly that I may not struggle in the time of my pain and disturb you and render your offering unfit…” (Frag Targum Gen 22:10) The fact that Isaac was so willing raises many new questions.
But perhaps the text can offer us an important lesson. Sometimes when we are so “bound up” in a situation, we cannot see what is truly happening. Jay Woodman wrote, “When being objective, we can transcend and look back at our constructs with powerful clarity; instead of looking through them, which can give a murky and distorted view”. Whether that situation is us wrestling with the text, or trying to wrap our mind around a problem, It is only when we step outside of the situation that we can gain perspective and greater understanding.
Rabbi Monique Mayer
Ordained Leo Baeck College 2009
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.