Parashat Vayera

By Cantor David E. Reinwald

This week’s portion is a perfect example to discover and compare the differences of two different types of Torah trope – our regular trope for the majority of the year and trope for the High Holidays.  Why are we now going back to the High Holidays which are done for the year?  This is because this portion contains one of the most essential and elemental Torah portions read during Rosh Hashanah—the story of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac.  We now read this again during its normal appearance in our Torah reading cycle.

Trope, the system of chanting various sections of the Hebrew Bible, has only one melodic system for every text, with the exception of Torah.  The chanting of Torah transitions to a special melody for the High Holidays.  This is because all of these readings are read for a second time at their normal point during the year, with the standard trope, no longer marked as readings for the pivotal moments of the High Holidays.  I often teach to students that the very nature of the trope is that in just hearing the melody of a text sung, you will immediately know what type of text you are hearing.  There is no need to look at the text to identify if it is Torah or Haftarah, or even a megillah.  These all sound very different, and you have a certain reaction to what you are hearing.  The standard trope for Torah is actually not a really great melody, and it is like this on purpose.  I would describe it as choppy-sounding, and it is like “talk-singing”—all the better for the majority of texts which are either narrative or declarative (of laws).  Whereas, the Haftarah boasts one of the most beautiful melodies which matches well the poetic nature of so many of the Prophetic readings.  And, even if the Prophet is raging against the people, it will be sung with great lyricism.

The High Holiday Torah trope embodies great suspense, which during the reading of the Akeidah could be no more fitting.  This is one of the most intense stories told in the Torah, even when we know the outcome.  The High Holiday Torah trope is a fast moving melody, and it keeps reaching for this note that is slightly outside of the box of the system.  Listen for that note on the second word of this verse, Gen. 22:1 (“achar”), and see how it almost creates a brief feeling of discomfort in its lack of resolution.  Compare and contrast the rhythm and flow of the same verse chanted with the two different styles of trope.

Gen. 22:1 sung in High Holy Day trope

Gen. 22:1 sung in regular trope

While both standard and High Holiday Torah trope have more complex melodies on certain words, the High Holiday trope takes it to an even higher level.  You can hear this on the first two words of verse 22:2.

Gen 22:2 in High Holy Day trope

Gen. 22:2 sung in regular trope

Finally, this portion contains one of the best examples of how Trope creates dramatic pauses.  The reality is that we rarely ever pause in the middle of a verse of Torah.  But, occasionally there is a bold vertical line drawn between two words, and this trope signifies a pause.  Whenever I arrive at one of these in a text, I become so curious to uncover its meaning.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Akeidah, it is creating a pause that seems to be essential to the telling of the story.  We find this happening at the end of verse 22:11.  This is the famous part of the story where Abraham has raised his hand with the knife, ready to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  And, then, almost magically, an angel of God arrives and calls out Abraham’s name—twice.  Avraham, Avraham.  And, there is a pause between the two Avrahams.  It is left open to our own interpretation—and after all, trope is a layered form of interpretation of text, open for us to accept, debate, or suggest otherwise.  Perhaps Abraham does not hear the first time his name is called, or perhaps in that pause, he is contemplating his next action.  In music, the pauses are sometimes even more defining than the actually melody.  This is so much more the reality when we stop speaking words and we are left with a void of silence—there starts the contemplation.  Hear how the pause defines this ultimate verse of Torah, no matter which system of trope is used.

Gen 22:11 in High Holy Day trope

Gen. 22:11 sung in regular trope

2 Responses to Parashat Vayera

  1. rosalee lubell October 14, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    Thank you David for your explanation. So interesting to hear the difference bet’n the two different tropes.

  2. Cantor David Reinwald October 15, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    Thank you, Rosalee. I love all of the intricacies.