Transmission Chain

A few days ago, we observed the 25th anniversary of the passing of my revered father, Rabbi A. H. Lapin, senior rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of South Africa, chief rabbi of the Gardens Synagogue founded in Cape Town in 1841, and founding rabbi of Congregation Am Echad, San Jose, California. But to me, his oldest son, all those distinctions are far less important than for me simply to say, “He was my teacher.”

On the day before he returned home to God, I had a terrible premonition and cancelled part of a trip in order to return home early. That evening I spent in his company in Los Angeles where he was teaching a Bible class in my community, and took him to the airport the following morning.  He died soon after he returned home to my mother in San Jose later that very morning.

Immediately I jumped on a plane and flew to join my mother and to prepare to escort my father’s body to burial in Jerusalem.  All I could think about all the way to San Jose, sitting in my airline seat in total shock, was, “Did I make most use of the time that God gave me with him?”

Until my parents sent me to Bible College or yeshiva in Jerusalem when I was twelve, my father was my only teacher.  As if it were yesterday, I remember sitting across from him at his desk in his smoke-filled study (Yes, he smoked heavily until I was 10 and complained that the smoke hurt my eyes. So he stopped.) I’d have a Bible open in front me from which I’d read verse-by-verse, first in the Hebrew original and then translating it the best I could.

My father corrected my Hebrew reading when necessary and then helped me with the translation, nudging me towards recognizing the root structure upon which every Hebrew word is based, after which the meaning usually fell into place.  But that wasn’t the only way in which he equipped me with the tools for Biblical exegesis.

There are the musical notes beneath each word providing sophisticated punctuation.  More importantly however, these notes are part of the system of maintaining the accuracy of the texts.  The introduction to a Bible printed in New Jersey in 1791 contains these words by one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon:

“To the Jews were first committed the care of the sacred Writings, and for many ages they were in a manner confined to that chosen people. There was then no need of translations into other languages; yet was the providence of God particularly manifest in their preservation and purity. The Jews were so faithful to their important trust, that, when copies of the law or the prophets were transcribed, they observed the most scrupulous exactness…”

The musical notations specify just how each word should be chanted in accordance with the timeless truths of ancient Jewish wisdom.  Those too my father taught me.  And here is one of his many unforgettable lessons concerning the ‘ta’amei haMikrah,’ the tunes of the reading.

The rarest of all the 40 or so musical notes is known as the shalshelet, or the chain, because its appearance is that of a piece of chain comprising 3 or 4 links.  It appears only four times in the nearly 80,000 words of the Five Books of Moses.  It imparts a long, drawn-out, quavering quality to the word beneath which it is found.

I’ll do for you what my father did for me.  Instead of telling me why there are only four occurrences of the shalshelet, he showed me the four locations and asked me to try figure it out for myself.  Here they are:

(Genesis 19:16)  The angels are rushing Lot and his family out of the doomed city of Sodom but Lot lingers.  That word ‘lingered’ rides on a shalshelet.

(Genesis 24:12)  Abraham’s servant praying to God for success in his mission of finding a wife for his master’s son, Isaac.

(Genesis 39:8) Joseph refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife in her attempts to seduce him.

(Leviticus 8:23) Moses is slaughtering the ram as part of the ceremony inaugurating Aaron as the High Priest.

All those years ago, as a young boy, I paged backwards and forwards comparing and contrasting the four incidents.  I quickly noticed that in all four instances, the shalshelet appeared beneath the first word of the verse.  From this I deduced that the implications of the shalshelet lay upon the entire verse and my father nodded his assent with a proud smile.

Then I hesitatingly suggested that the way the shalshelet directs us to take quite a long time to chant that one word might suggest that the actions described in each verse were not done promptly.  The angels might have been rushing Lot but perhaps he had grown unwholesomely attached to the evil city of Sodom and exhibited a reluctance to leave. My father began to grow excited for me.  “Carry on,” he urged.

Well, maybe Abraham’s servant might enjoy elevated prestige in his master’s service if Abraham never has a grandson to dote upon. Maybe the servant is not throwing himself into the prayer for a wife for Isaac but instead, he is holding himself back a bit.

At ten years old I was a bit unsure of the third example or maybe I was just embarrassed to spell out the details of sexual attraction but in any event, I skipped it and went to the fourth example.  This one was easy; Moses was now establishing his brother as a high priest.  Up till now, Aaron had been Moses’ right hand man.  It is understandable that he might linger a little on the ceremony granting Aaron prestige and prominence in his own right.

I recall how delighted my father was with this and he gently prompted me to say how the identical dynamic impacted Joseph.  As much as Joseph knew that dallying with his master’s wife was wrong, he was powerfully attracted to his desirable seductress and hesitated ending the encounter.

But my teacher didn’t leave it there.  No, he continued by explaining to me the purpose of highlighting these four stories with a shalshelet.  It’s unrealistic to aspire to the inhuman level of never yearning for something wrong.  On the contrary, God created us as imperfect humans with imperfect desires.  God wants us to feel everything passionately but to resist all unworthy action.  The Bible does not suppress the inappropriate thoughts of its heroes; it teaches that in spite of the tug towards the negative, they remained true.

What impossibly high standards my father, my teacher set for me.  But even though it may seem futile to aim for the stars, doing so might just get one higher than aiming merely for the moon.  He may be gone in body these past twenty-five years but in spirit and in his teachings, he lives on as alive and as vital as when I sat before him as a ten year old boy.

29 thoughts on “Transmission Chain”

  1. Good day Rabbi. This is Godlove. I love you very much because every bit of your articles has blessed me immensely. Your program on Buried Treasure with Rev Benny drifted me into studying Hebrew. I can now read Hebrew with vowels aid. Rabbi I just want to shock you by letting you know your program is not only blessing Europe and America but also us from Cameroon in Africa which is 80%French and 20%English

  2. Dear Al–
    yes, to be sure. Self control is one of the metrics of greatness. Thanks for writing

  3. Dear Rabbi Lapin,
    I always enjoy your Thought Tools newsletter. Every once in a while there is one that really strikes a chord with me. This is one of those.
    I love the way you explain the meaning of the original Hebrew. It seems in many cases there is something lost in the English translation.
    I’ve always been intrigued with the story of Joseph. He must have had an extraordinary amount of self control to reject the advances of presumably a very beautiful woman!
    It’s reassuring to know that even Moses and Joseph struggled with their humanity at times.

  4. I am always inspired by your writings. Thank you.
    I am a Christian but am struggling with all the Bible translations available. I think a lot is lost in translation . Could you please recommend a Bible translation that offers the most literal translation, hopefully with word definitions, origins and maybe some historical notes. Thank you again for all you do.

    1. Dear Ruth–
      alas but I am not aware of any translation that even comes close to all you seek. Would you be interested in a verse by verse through Scripture course were I to offer one?

  5. Your father was a Lion of Judah….a GREAT example to the thousands of lives he touched…..even if only with a smile or a kind word, but more often than not with a profound insight. Indeed, his teachings live on through his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and countless students who carry his light forward.

    1. Thanks Meyer–
      You were such a part of his life and he so appreciated the high jinks you brought into his orbit—he always chuckled when talking of you. You are among the privileged who knew him. He belongs to a long ago era.

  6. Thank you for sharing your personal story with me and others. I was glued to the page as I read your private moments with your father.

    1. Thanks Mike–
      I was in two minds about whether to publish this piece as I felt it might be too personal and your kind note confirms my decision-

      1. Hello Rabbi, Have missed you here in the PNW! I, too, have struggled deeply with how much of my personal life and thoughts to disclose to those I am trying to teach and have learned to call it the “fear of reveal.” What I’ve found is that my willingness to push through that fear allows a passionate voice to emerge and communicate (not exposed vulnerability) in a way that resonates with the listener. Similarly, Biblical stories “reveal” intimate moments and thoughts about the people involved, and I don’t think the verses would be as useful if the teachings were condensed down and listed as bullet points. Our emotional response to the stories and connection from “reveal” of storyteller or characters teach us the most.
        Thank you for working through that fear so that we can better learn.

        Your Catholic Friend,


        1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

          Thanks Tiffany–
          You are kind and i appreciate your encouragement. Hope to be back in the PNW this summer God willing.

  7. My heart goes out to you RDL. On Dec 9, 2016, everything went wrong. I missed morning prayers, messed up my routine…The first thing I came across was an episode of your show on TCT. You talked about shiva. I remember thinking it strange and why everything that morning pointed to death. I din’t pay full attention to that episode. Then a friend called an talked about death. Then a few minutes passed and I was shocked at the news of my twin brother, my best friends death. He was young (27) and just had a new born. That’s when I went back to watch that episode of Ancient Jewish Wisdom again and again. Throughout shabbat, I thought about what my brother used to teach me. He would say never hesitate: anything that needs to be done should be done right away, even if its attractive. Then today, I read this thought tool from you. Its about the revered Rabbi and the lesson to his 10 year old son. It makes me smile and gives me hope to know that though he is gone, his spirit is with us. Maybe Hashem just wanted to teach me something. I don’t know if I learned it but you sure brought me closer to it. Thank you Rabbi Daniel Lapin.

    1. My condolences to you dear Ishmael–
      tough times. To be sure.
      Look forward and keep his memory alive by helping educate his child.

  8. Rabbi I always notice and perk up whenever you use the words “ancient jewish wisdom” in your teaching and I remember a time not too long ago when your ministry was known as “toward tradition”…. ancient jewish wisdom and toward tradition are synonomous for me!

    and as such to i bear a deep resentment and strong dislike for progressive (aka new age) judaism….which has anchored itself here in the U.S. and with which the false teachers are trying desperately to export it to Israel…. will they succeed ????

    1. Dear Robert–
      Toward Tradition, a name which many found confusing (Towards Tradition/Torah Tradition etc) morphed into the American Alliance of Jews and Christians . Progressive Judaism has captured the hearts of about 65% of self-identified American Jews. Tragically. Will it take root in Israel. I think not. One of its chief characteristics is substitution of wishing and fantasy for reality and if Israel is anything, it is a country of realists.

  9. Beautifully written Rabbi; thank you! What an incredible gift to have access to this kind of teaching, which so beautifully conveys the essence of the Torah’s points and connects the dots between parshiot to enable us to see how themes recur in different contexts.

    Wishing you an Susan and your family a fre’lecha Hanukkah! Keep well, David P.

    1. Thank you so much David–
      Yes, the mechanics of Torah are fairly easy to assimilate but the magic and mystery lie in the connections and those we can only learn from those who learned from those who learned…all the way back.
      There is much we miss in the PNW and our friends, of which you are one, top the list.

  10. You confirm and validate my own experience, Rabbi. My righteous Grandfather,Father and Mother may be gone, but indeed they have never left me. My Grandfather used to say: ‘Do right and fear no man.’ I can only wish that i could have known the other fine ancestors that passed on before my time, both Fathers and Mothers. You were extraordinarily blessed to have him as a guide, and I much appreciate your sharing his teachings with us.

    1. Thank you James-
      with my British upbringing, talking personally is just not done. Describing intimate family relationships in public is even less acceptable. Nonetheless, I must be guided by Biblical principles rather than anachronistic British custom so I determined to publish the piece just as I wrote it.

      1. Not to underestimate the British reserve and ‘stiff upper lip,’ but your conundrum resembles that of many a conscientious author confronted with the anguish of ‘how much of myself and my deepest personal belief system shall I reveal?’ Once past the decision, over the hurdle and into print, there can be perils and consequences. But where the Spirit leads and directs us, there we must go. I applaud your foresight and courage to share with us your Father’s messages and yours.

  11. What an importantly wonderful man to have in your life, Rabbi, even after all these years.

    May his memory be for a blessing, as I can see it is.

  12. Mark & Laura Lampe

    Our hearts go out to you Rabbi Lapin, your father is in Abraham’s bosom and united with the Lord our God. Rest assured that you will see him again!

Comments are closed.

Shopping Cart