By Cantor David Reinwald
On May 26th, I ventured into two new arenas. I made my debut leading the TBS Torah Study and I also introduced a new method for Torah study– one that I had never experienced before, but that I had often thought about. This is the process of studying the meaning of the text through the perspective of the trope, the system for chanting the Torah. I approached Parashat Bemidbar, the first portion in the Book of Numbers, from this standpoint by focusing on passages that had more complex tropes– thus they had more notes per word or phrase, and made these parts stand out from the rest. I wanted to know what was defining those sections. I also looked for patterns in the text, and then paid close attention when these patterns were broken and/or repeated elsewhere. I learned a tremendous amount about the portion– things that would otherwise remain hidden until one analyzes it from this perspective.
My process that I followed for Parashat Bemidbar was one that I would mostly call “Trope to Text.” This means that I started by looking continuously through the trope, looking for the passages that would stand out solely from that angle, and thus, skipping over a lot of the rest of the text set to more regular and basic trope patterns. Anyone who has read Torah closely knows that this is going to skip a lot of other sections of the Torah that should not be deemed unimportant. Thus, it is just as worthy to reverse the process and follow another process that I would call “Text to Trope.” This involves choosing passages that are particular essential to the portion, and then seeing how the trope relates to them. And, so I will do for Parashat Korach, choosing a couple of key passages for us to look at.
So, how does one choose these passages? You can, of course, just choose them by your own opinion of its merit. However, I think it is beneficial to look at a historical understanding of what has been given importance by the classic commentators. I naturally have gone to Rashi in doing this, as I discovered the Rashi, the French medieval Torah commentator, was doing his work right around the same time that the “winning system” of trope was gaining universal acceptance. I believe that Rashi would have had full knowledge of all of this, and I am positive it influenced his perspective on the text. Rashi himself was always very concerned with language. Trope, by its very nature, is a system of punctuation and accentuation of words. They go so well hand-in-hand.
Parashat Korach is a very dramatic portion, and so Rashi has a lot to say about it. I will just zero in on a couple of worthy passages. If there is another passage that you are wondering about, please comment on this d’var Torah, and I will be glad to analyze the trope for you! I have found the Rashi commentary alongside English translation of both his commentary and the Torah to be incredibly helpful on Chabad’s website. You can find the entire portion here: http://www.chabad.org/parshah/torahreading.asp?AID=45591&p=1&showrashi=true
In verse 16:3 of the portion, we see Korach and his followers in the initial questioning and almost persecution of Moses and Aaron. Rashi focuses on the words “rav lachem,” that there is too much greatness taken to ‘you,’ addressing Moses and Aaron. Korach is jealous of this fact. The trope highlights three words in this phrase, and so we can see that Rashi will often focus on just part of a chanted phrase. The words with florid trope prior to the end of the phrase mentioned above are “vayomer aleihem,” — “and they spoke to them.” This may seem like a very basic statement, but Korach and his followers are not uttering a basic statement to Moses and Aaron. They are making an almost blasphemous claim (with which there is a lot of commentary both later in this portion and spoken and argued about until the present day!). The trope highlights this fact.
In verse 16:7, we see the phrase “rav lachem” return, and again Rashi takes interest. But, here, it is Moses returning the phrase back at Korach and his followers. He instructs them to bring forth an offering of fire (notably the same offering that Nadav and Abihu brought forward, killing them… Moses clearly wanted them to exercise dangerous practices). Perhaps, what Moses was illustrating here that in the opinion of Rashi, Korach and his followers were fools. They knew that the cost of sinning would be their lives, and yet, they still went ahead feeling that they had privilege that would keep them safe. Moses says back to them that they have taken too much greatness upon themselves. The trope here remains basic on “rav lachem.” Moses is very sure of his words and needs no flourishes or complexities. The portion continues into the next verse with Rashi describing Moses as being sympathetic and speaking softly to Korach, trying to calm him and bring him back to his senses. Here, the trope also remains basic and steady.
As you see, this is a method of Torah study that can be refined to each verse, and to each and every phrase. I am loving the ability to clarify and interpret the words of the portion through the trope that I hold so dear. There are infinite possibilities! Stay tuned. I’ll be offering more Torah study through trope in future divrei Torah.
A very interesting approach. There seems to be a lot of subtlety in the interpretation. Have others taken this approach before? I look forward to learning more.
Not that I know of. I was told that there is some commentary on trope in the Talmud. I feel like a pioneer, as I have never experienced anyone else leading me deeply through this path. Thanks for reading!