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 Pentateuch 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. "Each and every day," the Talmud says, "the wife of Potiphar would attempt to seduce him with words. Cloth she wore for him in the morning she would not wear for him in the evening. Cloth she wore for him in the evening she would not wear for him in the morning. She said to him, 'Surrender yourself to me.' He answered her 'No.' She threatened him, 'I shall confine you in prison...I shall subdue your proud stature...I will blind your eyes,'" but Joseph refused her. She then gave him a huge sum of money, but he did not budge.
Joseph's rejection required tremendous fortitude. The Talmud (5) gives a graphic description of his inner torment:
"The image of his father appeared to him in the window and said, 'Joseph, your brothers' names are destined to be inscribed on the stones of the [high priest's] apron, and you will be among them. Do you want your name to be erased? Do you want to be called an adulterer?'"
A Thundering No
How, then, did Joseph overcome this enormous temptation?
The answer is captured in the three biblical words and in their "shalsheles" musical note: "But he refused."
Aware of the profound danger that he might fall prey to immoral behavior, the first thing Joseph did was present the woman with a thundering "no." As the thrice repetitive "shalsheles" note suggests, Joseph, in unwavering determination, declared three times: "No! No! No!" Forget about it, I will not do this! No buts, ifs or maybes. Only afterward, did Joseph allow himself the indulgence of the rational argument against adultery.
When it comes to temptation or addiction, you can't be rational and polite. You must be determined, ruthless and single-minded. You must monotonously and stubbornly repeat the same "no" over and over again. Never allow room for nuance, negotiation or ambivalence. The moment you begin explaining and justifying your behavior, you are likely to lose the battle. Only after an absolute and non-negotiable "no" can you proceed with the intellectual argument behind your decision.
There is an insightful expression in the Kabbalah about the way a person should deal with immoral and destructive fantasies, thoughts and impulses. "You must push them away with both of your hands," says Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi in his Tanya (6).
What does it mean to push away a thought with two hands?
At times, you can push away a negative thought with one hand only. By fighting and arguing with the impulse, you give it validation. In effect, while pushing it away with one hand, you are inviting it to return with your second hand.
Pushing an impulse away with two hands means that you simply and silently dismiss it from your brain. Without argument, fanfare or drama, you just make it very clear that it is unwelcome in your life and you must move on to alternative thoughts and actions. You do not validate it in any way, not even by arguing against it. You simply do not attribute any power or significance to it. That is what we call pushing it away with both hands. Sooner or later, it will cease trying to come back.
In this story of Joseph, then, we are given a timeless lesson of how to deal with our own ugly lusts and inclinations. Your demons are smarter than you think they are; do not try to strike deals with them. Just say: No! No! No! They will accuse you of being ignorant and stupid. So what? You will come out with a happy marriage and a meaningful life.
Between Ice Cream and Ham
This idea is critical in education as well.
Parents often wonder why their children put up such a fuss when they seek to curtail what they watch on TV, what music they listen to, and which books they read. “Why must we always fight with our children not to fill their minds with trash?” parents lament.
It has to do with the children feeling that the parents themselves are ambiguous. When the parents lack the inner vision and the moral spine to be absolutely confident in their commitment to a particular lifestyle, the children pick up on this opening and they ultimately prevail.
Why is it that when a child requests ice cream from his parents and they respond that it's not healthy, the child will continue to nudge and nudge until his parents relent. Yet the moment a Jewish child asks for a slice of ham and the parents say, “I'm sorry son, you can't have it because it's not kosher,” all conversation ends and the child immediately stops crying? The distinction is obvious. The child knows that eating ham is simply not negotiable and that no amount of crying will change his parents’ position.
When your children feel that you are absolutely and unwaveringly committed to certain moral and ethical values, their resistance will usually wane. Your cherished values will become theirs. Just as in the Joseph narrative, explanations and rationalizations are important, but they must follow a clear-cut “yes” or “no,”
(This essay is based on the writings of the Chassidic masters (7)).
E-mail the author at: YYJ@Algemeiner.org
1) Genesis 19:16; 24:12; 39:8; Leviticus 8:23.
2) Genesis 39:6-9.
3) In the continuation of the narrative the Bible states (Genesis 39:11-12): "There was an opportune day when he entered the house to do his work and none of the household staff was inside. She grabbed him by his cloak and pleaded 'lie with me.' He ran away from her, leaving his cloak in her hand, and he fled outside."
What is the meaning of the phrase that Joseph "entered the house do to his work and none of the household staff was inside?" What type of work did Joseph come to do? The Midrash suggests that the "work" Joseph came to do was to yield to the advances of his master's wife. After all of her unceasing pleas, Joseph finally succumbed. Only at the last moment did he abstain (Bereishis Rabah 87:7. Tanchumah 8-9. Zohar Vayechi 222a. See also Soteh 36b, quoted in Rashi to Genesis ibid).
4) Yuma 36a.
5) Soteh 36b.
6) Tanya chapter 12.
7) Divrei Yechezkel by the great master Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga Halberstam, known as "the Shinever." Cf. Tanya chapter 28.
My gratitude to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.