In this weeks parsha we find a rare cantillation mark known as a shalsheles. The musical trop appears in only 3 other places in the Torah (7 times in total when including Nach); lech Lecha regarding Lot leaving Sdom, Chayei Sara regarding Eliezer taking a wife for Yaakov and later on in Tzav regarding Moshe Rabbanu’s transference of the Kohen Gadolship from himself to Aaron.
In each occurrence of the shalsheles there appears to be an inner hesitation before a conclusion is reached which is almost represented by the musical to and fro of the note before a sharp sudden ending.
In our Parsha we find 17 year old Yosef HaTzaddik being tempted in all manner of ways by Potifar’s wife. The 17 year old at the height of vulnerability in terms of physical maturity was in danger of falling into the trap of seduction whilst being exposed to the most challenging of tests.
The shalsheles in our parsha joins the word וַיְמָאֵ֓ן (‘but he refused’) describing the point in which Yosef refused Potifar’s wife. The use of the shalsheles indicates a struggle on Yosef’s part before a decision, as seen in the ‘to and fro’ of the note.
The Gemora in Sota36b advances the opinion of R’Yochanan who states that when Yosef entered the house he had the intention of sinning, only managing to break away after seeing a vision of his father, Yaakov, at the window. The Shalsheles note which pictorially looks like a snake is describing the inner struggle and decision making that Yosef had with his yetzer ha’Ra before finally breaking free.
The Kedushas Levi goes further and derives 10 different pshatim from the shalsheles. In one such answer he highlights the connection between shalsheles which means chain and the 3 Avos who came before Yosef. A chain is comprised of minimally 3 links and like the pasuk in Koheles 4:12 states ‘a three-fold rope cannot easily be broken’. Yosef not only saw the image of his father but was told that if he commits this sin his name will no longer appear on the Kohen Gadol’s choshen, i.e that he will not merit to be one of the shevatim. The shalsheles comes to teach Yosef that if he gives in he will forfeit being a link in the chain.
If Yosef looked at himself in isolation he would have perhaps chas v’shalom given into temptation, but when the vision of his father appeared he realised his part in history, his part in the chain. In the single action of leaving Potifar’s wife and running onto the street leaving his clothes behind Yosef haTzaddik managed on the one hand keep another link in the chain and on the other hand break free from it.