by Cantor David E. Reinwald
Over the past two years, I have taken a really in-depth interest in finding connections between the trope (chant) of our texts and the words it highlights. Trope is a system of interpretation that deserves full recognition alongside any of the other classic commentaries (ie: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, et al). And while it has a lot to teach and uncover, it is just that–a system of interpretation, so one is free to agree or disagree with its suggestions. After all, at one point in time, decisions were made as to how to chant the text, which words to phrase together, and which words to highlight.
I always stop for a moment when I hear a word that pops out of the text. It often will have a more elaborate trope placed on it, and I wonder, what makes this word so important? Sometimes the word’s importance in the context of what is being told is immediately apparent, yet often, this is not the case. Many times, one would stand in puzzlement looking at a word that is so basic–it may only be a preposition, and yet it has been given such elaborate musical highlighting using the trope. I often then look beyond this word to see if it is dividing up two other ideas as an almost ‘bookmark’ between the two. Or is it somehow connected to another word or phrase at some other point in the portion or in the Torah?
This takes us to this week’s portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei. This is a portion concerned with laws that pertain to individuals, and is the last collection of such laws in the Torah. While teaching this week’s bat mitzvah student part of her Torah portion, I was struck by the similarity in the chanting of one verse to the chanting of the V’ahavta. Listen to this verse, Deut. 24:22, here.
It all began with that first word, “v’zacharta” — “and you shall remember,” chanted with the same trope as the opening, eponymous word of the V’ahavta. The tropes which follow it are not trope-for-trope the same as the V’ahavta, but they share a similar pattern in their order. And, in the final paragraph of the V’ahavta (which is from Numbers, not Deuteronomy, but pasted together in this backwards-read way), the opening words are “l’ma’an tizk’ru va’asitem et-kol-mitzvotai” — “that you may remember and do all my commandments.” (Listen to the full chanting of the V’ahavta here.) These passages share the common concept of remembering our exodus from Egypt as cause for continuing to observe the commandments. This is always one of the heavy burdens of responsibility placed upon our backs, and I even wonder if it is an historical “guilt trip” pointing its finger at the entire Jewish people. It is God saying, “You–I led you out of Egypt, out of that awful misery, so don’t forget it in everything you do, and especially when you do these things, which you are now able to do in your days of freedom!”
All jest aside, I am so empowered by the ability of trope to create this weaving undercurrent connecting words and ideas throughout our texts. It is an unparalleled system which we can continue to study and uncover the secrets it carries–secret only until they are uncovered, for the trope was created for us to better and more easily understand these amazing teachings and wonders within our sacred texts.