Watch Your Tone – VaYiggash 5783

D'var Torah | Genesis

Those familiar with the chanting of the Torah – not just its study – are aware of a specialized notational system called “trope.” Trope allows for the cantillation of the text, modulation of voice over longer passages, and the proper accenting of words. The Talmud (Megillah 32a) already praises the value of trope. But scholars cannot pin down an official version of chironomy until the late medieval or early modern period when instructional manuals begin to appear. The Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, d. 1797) was familiar with trope and even incorporated into his Torah commentary.


The GR”A (as the Vilna Gaon is known by his acronym) observes that the opening words Genesis 44:18 are coded with trope kadma, azla, revi’i, zarka, munah, segol (Kol Eliyahu, VaYigash).  He then considers why these specific notes were assigned to the words that say: “Then Judah approached him and said, ‘Please, my lord….” The GR”A concludes that the trope fit perfectly the intention of the text. The names of the notes kadma and azla are Aramaic for “advance” and “go.” And the name of the note revi’i is Aramaic for “fourth.” Judah is Jacob’s fourth son. It is he, Judah – not the oldest Reuben – who approaches Joseph and pleads for the life of Benjamin.


Judah had previously promised father Jacob that he would return him unharmed, even at the cost of his eternal life, according to the Midrash. That idea is reflected in the trope that follow: zarka, munah, segol. Zarka is Aramaic for “cast away, munah is Aramaic for “remain,” and segol is Aramaic for “treasured.” In other words, Judah is prepared to forgo a heavenly reward where all Jewish souls would otherwise reside.


Aside from justifying the application of trope to the text, the Vilna Gaon implies that when it comes to communication tone is as important as text. How words are spoken is as important as how the words read. This is a mighty lesson to absorb as texting becomes the favored means of communication.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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