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Parshat Masei: A Rare Musical Journey

07/13/2021 04:48:58 PM


This is the D'var Torah that Cantor Fogelman offered during Friday night services on 7/9/2021. 

Many of us have planned or may have already gone on road trips this summer. One of the best parts of a long car ride is jamming out to that perfect playlist of music. Of course, these days our family road trip soundtrack is chosen mostly by our three-year-old DJ, Alex. We listen to Moana, Frozen, and The Little Mermaid on repeat, mixed in with a smattering of Passover music. Yes, that’s right – Passover songs in July.

            The second half of this week’s double Torah portion, Masei, is all about journeying. The word Masei literally means “Journeys.”  The portion begins with a laundry list of the 42 stages in the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. With the exception of a few asides detailing some events that took place along the way, the Torah presents forty straight verses recording nothing more than place names. This section contains the Torah’s longest continuous list of the places where the Israelites encamped.

            Fortunately, Jewish tradition recognizes the importance of a good soundtrack for a long journey. There is a special chant used to recite these verses. As AW Binder, one of the most famous transcribers of Torah cantillation, notes: “To add majesty to the description of the Journeys of the hosts of Israel as they moved through the desert to the Holy Land, the festive tropes are also used.”

         Curiously enough, the melody or “festive tropes” as Binder calls them, is identical to the one that we use when chanting Shirat Hayam or the Song of the Sea. We celebrate our freedom from slavery with a melody that Binder describes as being “of very ancient origin.” “These festive cadences were only used several times during the Jewish liturgical year and so were not tampered with, as was the trope which was used every Sabbath,” he writes. “Its strong pentatonic character also points to its antiquity.”

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb finds the special melody for the journey verses in Masei to be a curious phenomenon.

I always have found it somehow ironic that the custom is to chant the monotonous list of journeys and sojourns with a triumphant melody,” he writes. “Why do the stages of a tortuous 40-year-long trip through the desert deserve such musical accompani­ment? After all, this ordeal was a punishment for the Jewish people, as we read several weeks ago in the Torah portion of Shelach. It was as a result of the sin of the spies that all of this traveling became necessary.”

Rabbi Weinreb suggests that the answer to this question can be found at the tail end of the list of places.   

“Immediately after the long list of brief stops on the painful journey, at the conclusion of all that travail, G-d says to Moses, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: when ye pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan ... ye shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein; for unto you have I given the land to possess it ... and ye shall inherit the land by lots according to your families ...”

“Aimless wandering, with no end in sight, is torture. But, a journey with a clear destination, on the other hand, is a wondrous experience, despite its many obstacles. Without the promise of the inheritance, without the assurance of an eventual place for our families to take root, the references to the many way stations would be chanted to a very solemn melody, perhaps even to the melody of Lamentations, which we soon will read on Tisha B’Av, the fast day of the Ninth of Av. But, with the vision promised to us, with the delineation of the exact borders and boundaries of our lands, all of the suffering along the way somehow becomes worthwhile. The lengthy list of way stations becomes transformed into the lyrics of a triumphant marching song.”

We can also look back to the very first time we hear this melody, namely the moment the Israelites left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. The song represents the very beginning of the Israelites’ transformation from slaves into free people. They are entering into the unknown; they don’t know how long they will be traveling, what life will look like along the journey, and whether they will make it to their final destination of the Promised Land. Spoiler alert: Only two of the original travelers who left Egypt, Joshua and Caleb, will make it across the Jordan into Israel.

As we approach the end of the arduous forty-year journey through the wilderness, the melody reappears as a comforting leitmotif to remember how far we’ve come. After all, we have reached the end of the book of Bamidbar, which literally means “in the wilderness.” Most of the traveling is done. The remaining book of the Torah, Devarim, consists of Moses’ advice to the Israelites as they prepare for a transition in leadership and a new life in the land flowing with milk and honey. Think of your favorite movie scores, especially the ones by John Williams: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter: They all have those familiar earworms that reappear at crucial moments in the plot.

            Interestingly enough, we also hear this special musical motif at an earlier point in the book of Numbers as we proclaim the names of the tribal chiefs. As Joshua Jacobson explains in his book, Chanting the Hebrew Bible, the melody adds what he describes as “a majestic tone” to these passages. This, we encounter elaborate music at the beginning of the Israelites’ journey, at a transitional moment of leadership, and at its conclusion. We also use this melody to celebrate strength on finishing each book of the Torah, as we do this week: “Chazak chazak, v’nitchazek!”

            But wait, there’s more: In addition to these musical passages, Parshat Masei contains the Torah’s only occurrence of two additional cantillation markings: Yerach ben Yomo, which means day old moon (it is also known by the name Galgal, which means sphere) and Karney Farah (which literally means “cow’s horns,” also known as pazer gadol. The markings get their names from the symbols they resemble – karney farah literally looks like a pair of cow’s horns. These two symbols appear in Numbers 35:5.

The curious phrase depicted by these unique makings is the seemingly mundane description of “two-thousand cubits” – a cubit being a unit of measurement. Even stranger, is that this phrase of “two thousand cubits” is repeated four times in the same verse – one for each direction. In this case, the measurement of two-thousand cubits refers to the distance of the suburbs outside of the cities of refuge promised to the Levites. The Torah describes suburbs to be built two-thousand cubits from the city center in each of four directions: North, South, East, and West. The unusual Yerach ben Yomo and Karney Farah cantillation is sung when describing the cities built to the east. Each of the subsequent directions are sung to a different melody.

Oddly enough, the words to which these marks are set seem fairly dry and routine,” writes Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg on In discussing the 48 cities to be set aside in Israel for the Levites, the Torah outlines the exact radial measurements for the boundaries of these cities. What is so exciting about that, so dramatic, that warrants such a shrill note?”

In answer to his own question, Rabbi Rosenberg writes: “Perhaps this is what the Torah is hinting to us. Every inch of the Land of Israel is a big deal. We must calculate and measure it, defend and protect it. It is a gift from God, and should be treated with utmost care.”

I’d like to take this theory one step further and explain that the fact that each area is described using a different musical motif suggests that each of the cities is meant to have its own unique character. After all, the Levites were historically the temple musicians. To have the Levite cities chanted with sophisticated musical phrasing plays homage to their talents.

The unusual Yermach ben Yomoh-karneh parah phrase appears in one more place in the Bible: Chapter 7 of Megillat Esther. The verse also deals with cubit measurements – in this case, the height of the gallows Haman built for Mordechai – but the fancy melody does not appear on the word “Amah” for cubits. Instead, it colors the phrase “which Haman has made.” By virtue of the fact that the note is chanted on the word Haman, which we drown out, it’s likely that no one really gets a chance to actually hear the music associated with the phrase!

I encourage you to think about your own theories for the inclusion of these special melodies and cantillation motifs. If anything, they are a reminder that even the most repetitive of journeys can be made more interesting by listening to the right soundtrack. Also, when you put things into perspective: being stuck in traffic for a long time is far less painful than wandering aimlessly in the desert for 40 years!

Shabbat Shalom!

Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782