Friday, January 24, 2020

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’ey’ra – Sh’mot (Exodus) 6:2- 9:35 with Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use


One of Moshe's roles, at the time recorded by our Parasha, was to link the Children of Yisrael with their forefathers, history, and destination, but not before establishing (for them and even more so for himself) the identity of their Elohim.  This was no easy task!  YHVH had already revealed Himself to Moshe in the desert, both in sight and word.  And while Moshe was trying to negotiate with Par'oh on behalf of the Master of the Universe, as well as to 'introduce' Him to his own people, he himself had a hard time grasping the awesome revelation which was unfolding before his eyes.  Our Parasha opens up with yet another monologue of Moshe's heavenly Father, displaying great patience with His child, who at this point had not fully adjusted to the dimensions of his newly found destiny and relationship.  The opening "I am YHVH", together with the subsequent words, serve as another reminder to Moshe, designed to anchor, steady, and prepare him for what is ahead and to build up his trust and faith.  Last week, upon his inquiry as to Elohim's name, YHVH gave him a somewhat elusive answer (3: 14): “Ehe'ye asher ehe'ye”, adding, “thus you shall say to the Children of Israel, Ehe'ye has sent me”. These words are (typically) translated: ”I am that I am”. Yet if we glance back at 3:12, we find that “ehe'ye” means “I will” (as it says there: “I will be with you”).  It appears that YHVH was not about to divulge His real (or 'full') name at that point.  His response and the tone by which it was conveyed sounds almost like a (temporary) discharge or dismissal. Thus, paraphrased, it may be read: 'never you mind Moshe… I Am and Will be Who I Am - what is it to you?' (Compare Yeshua's response to Shimon Keifa - Peter - in John 21:22).

The verb “ehe'ye” – I will be – is contained in “YHVH”, the name which Elohim is now, by His own initiative, revealing to Moshe (6:2). Thus the letters h.v.h (hey, vav, hey), which are tantamount to h.y.h (hey, yod, hey) meaning “to be”1 form the root of the venerated tetragrammaton.  "Being" and "present" both originate from this one root. The tetragrammaton, therefore, speaks of "being" and of the "present presence".

Now that Moshe learns Elohim’s name, he hears Him say something quite surprising and unexpected, namely: “I appeared (literally – I was seen va’ey’ra) to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as El Shaddai, but My name YHVH, I did not make known to them” (6:3).  However, the name YHVH is mentioned in connection with the Patriarchs.  In fact, there is evidence that they used this name when addressing Elohim (e.g. Gen. 15:8).  The Sages discuss this point at length, but we will not delve deeply into the subject other than to say that since He revealed Himself to them as “El Shaddai”, the “Mighty Breasted One”, or by implication the ”Mighty One Who is Sufficient”, it was this aspect of His being with which they must have been most familiar (e.g. Gen. 35:11).  In the course of His on-going and progressive revelation of Himself, the Elohim of Yisrael is about to demonstrate that He is in control of the present, the One Who Is Present, and truly the One who IS the Present: Yah-hoveh. (Yah, as His name and also connected to the verb “to be”, is used a number of times, e.g. Ex. 17:16, although lost in the translation, and in many other instances in the Psalms.) In chapter 9:3, “the hand of YHVH", that was “to be on [Pharaoh’s] cattle…” is rendered as “yad YHVH hoya”. “To be on” in this case is “hoyah” (which contains the same letters as YHVH), meaning that He is fully present and brings to bear this Presence as He chooses.

The passage, which starts in verse 3 of Chapter 6 and continues all the way to verse 8, constitutes a unique and significant unit, in both content and form.  The beginning statement is also found at the end (v. 8), that is, "I am YHVH".  In verse 3 reference is made to the Patriarchs, while a similar reference shows up just before the end, in verse 8, in the form of a very emphatic statement (cf. last Parasha, Ex. 3:15,16). The third point in this monologue deals with the Covenanted Land (v. 4), and is echoed in the beginning of verse 8.  Verse 5 talks about the groaning (and therefore sufferings) of the Children of Yisrael, while verse 7 again deals with the same theme.  Thus, the four elements mentioned appear both in the first and second half of the passage, although the second time round the order of these themes is reversed.

The central part of this passage stands firmly on its own, as a precious stone set in fine filigree, surrounded and framed by the four repetitions mentioned above (i.e. YHVH’s Name, Patriarchs, Land, and Sufferings). It reads as follows, “Therefore say to the children of Israel: `I am YHVH, and I will take you out (ve'hotze'ti) from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver (ve’hi’tzalti) you out from their bondage, and I will redeem (ve'ga'alti) you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.  And I will take (ve'la'kach'ti) you to me for a people’” (6:6-7 emphases added).  Here too there is a ‘foursome’, although this time it is of four verbs, which describe a process.  First comes the "taking out" from one place to another, second is the “deliverance” from the enemy and the rigors of the impending desert journey. The third level, “redemption”, is also deliverance, but connotes “judicial ransoming”. The "redeemer" is a “go'el”, which in the Bible is synonymous with a "blood relative". Hence, this announcement in and of itself renders the Divine Redeemer as a blood relative who has the means and will to purchase the object of his redemption, take it upon himself to recover and restore everything (including that which has been lost) to right order, and be an avenger of wrongs (e.g. Lev. 25:26; Num. 5:8; Ruth 3:12, Ruth 4; Josh. 20:5). Finally, the "taking" here is much like the "taking of a wife" in marriage (see Gen. 25:20, for example).

When this series of actions is completed “…you shall know that I am YHVH your Elohim” (6:7). Immediately following this, YHVH continues to promise to “bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am YHVH” (v. 8, emphases added). The declaration “I am YHVH" pronounced both at the beginning and end of the passage, powerfully denotes His all-encompassing view and position, contrasted with the restricted human perspective and vantage point of the Sons of Yisrael. The progressive process we have been following evidences that there is only One who can act on every level, with nothing ever being required of the recipients. This IS the grace, “which is not of yourselves [but] it is the gift of Elohim!” (Ephs. 2:8).  However, for this grace to be appropriated, faith is required and thus we move on to the anticlimactic end (v. 9 ): “So Moses spoke thus to the sons of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses on account of their despondency and cruel bondage”.  "Despondency" is literally “shortness of spirit/breath”, sometimes meaning impatience, while "cruel bondage" is actually “hard labor” (v. 9). 

Following this 'introduction' or preamble, the rest of the Parasha is mostly devoted to the implementation of the action plan described above.  In 6:11, YHVH calls out to Moshe to (literally), “come - BO - speak to Pharaoh…” Notice that above He promised to “bring” – ve’heveti – His people to the land. “Come” – bo – stems from the same root as “bring” – la’ha’vee (that is, “cause one to come”). Thus the “coming” that Moshe is commanded to do before the next phase, which will include verbal ‘combat’ with Egypt’s ruler, is a “coming” first to Elohim (putting full trust in Him). Prior to the second plague (of frogs), Moshe will be charged once again by YHVH to “bo” – come - to Par’oh (8:1, and likewise in 9:1 and in next week’s Parasha’s opening verse).   

Moshe responds to YHVH’s commission twice with “…I am of uncircumcised lips” (6:12, 30), obviously trying (once again) to dodge his responsibility by claiming that he is not a fit speaker. But whereas last week we read that he used the expression: “I am not eloquent… but am slow of speech and of a slow tongue” (4:10), this time he feels the need to press the point even further, since "uncircumcised lips" could also denote uncleanness.  YHVH is not 'impressed' and does not take up this matter with His messenger.

It is the condition of Par'oh's heart that YHVH is about to deal with, as He says to Moshe, “And I will harden Pharaoh's heart…” (7:3a). Shaul (Paul) elaborating on this says, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will, He hardens” (Rom. 9:18). Romans 1:18-21 may help us to further understand this idea:For the wrath of Elohim is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,  because what may be known of Elohim is manifest in them, for Elohim has shown it to them.  For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew Elohim, they did not glorify Him as Elohim, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (italics added). 

Back to where we left off in Exodus 7:3. The second part of the verse reads, “… and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt”, with the result being, “And the Egyptians shall know that I am YHVH when I stretch forth My hand upon Egypt and bring out the Children of Israel from among them” (v. 5 italics and emphasis added). It should be pointed out that the “hardness” of Par’oh’s heart is qualified by three different words – ka’she – hard (e.g. 7:3); chazak – strong (e.g. 7:13) and kaved – heavy (e.g. 8:11). Interestingly, in the present Parasha where it says that YHVH hardened the monarch’s heart the first two are mostly used, but when the latter is doing it himself, it is “kaved”, which is also related to “honor” and “glory”. Thus Par’oh’s inner motivation is exposed. (For the same idea see 9:17, though there a different, but synonymous verb is used.) In next week’s Parashat Bo, on the other hands, YHVH will be taking the responsibility for having made Paroh’s kaved, while in the following Parashat Be’shalach, in chapter 14, k.v.d will be used in a variety of meanings.

In His plan to bring His people out of Egypt, YHVH exerts His authority by judging Egypt (see 7:4). “And the Egyptians shall know that I am YHVH, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt…” (v. 5). “Stretching out” in this case is “ne’to’ti” here (the verb being “nato” – its root is noon, tet, hey, n.t.h). This verb denotes leading or pointing direction, and thus in verse 9 when A’haron is told to cast his rod, it is designated by “ma’teh”, originating from the same root. A’haron and Moshe were to represent YHVH’s authority over Egypt’s ruling powers, both the natural ones as well as the supernatural. Indeed, when A’haron casts his rod in front of Par’oh it turns into a serpent, which in Hebrew is “tannin”, literally an alligator. Thus YHVH demonstrated His power over one of Egypt’s most powerful symbols. In fact, in Ezekiel 29:3 Par’oh himself is addressed as the “great tannin” (translated “monster”), that is the great alligator (for the same idea see also Ez. 32:3). The very rule and authority of Egypt is therefore symbolized by this “alligator” (a creature that inhabited the Nile), and is the first to be challenged by Elohim as will, in the course of the coming plagues, several of Egypt’s other ruling powers (‘gods’). 

Just prior to inflicting the first plague, Moshe speaks for YHVH saying to Par’oh: ”…Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness” (7:16). “Serve” here is from the root “work". We remember vividly from last week's Parasha, the many negative references to work and labor.  Here "work" becomes worship” of YHVH, as are most other references to worship.  The hard working slaves (“avadim”, of the root word, a.v.d) of the Egyptians are about to be liberated and become free to carry out “avodat  Elohim” – that is, rendering service unto YHVH.

 If at first YHVH made His name known to Yisrael by attaching it to their ancestors’ names (the Elohim of…), thereby demonstrating His faithfulness, now He wants to convey to His people that He is in charge of their present circumstances, in control of all of nature - both animate and inanimate; of mankind, beasts and the elements.  The first to be affected is Egypt's source of water and life, the Nile (Ye’or in the Biblical terminology), which He turns to blood.  Blood, in its turn, is also a symbol of life and atonement but it now becomes a deadly substance in the very body of water, which in the second plague will be swarming with frogs (8:6). The Nile was the grave of many of Yisrael’s infants (ref. Ex. 1:22), and now that blood is crying out, not from the ground, but from the water… In addition, all of Egypt’s other water sources were also turned to blood (7:19).

The fourth and fifth plagues (8:21; 9:3) are the first ones not to occur in the vicinity of the Israelites' dwellings which means, that the land of Goshen was free of them.  The swarms of insects, as they are called, and the pestilence, are both terms with familiar roots, which we have already encountered.  "Swarms of insects" (and other translated versions) are “a'rov”, and "pestilence" is “dever.  “Arov” (which shares its root, a.r.v., with the root for “erev” – “evening”) means a “mixture”, hence the mixed variety of species.  Last week we looked at “midbar” - “desert”, noting that “dever” (i.e. “pestilence” or “plague”) sometimes "drives" (of the same root, once again) its victim to the “desert”. 

This time it is 'real' pestilence, not the figurative type, which is plaguing the herds and flocks of the Egyptians (9:8, 9). “Boils and hail with fire flashing… in the midst of… it” (9:24) are the next two plagues, both of which have no tangible effect on the Israelites, “in the land of Goshen in which My people dwell” – with “dwell” being a translation of “stand”. “Stand”? Why stand? Could the text be hinting at the temporary nature of their existence in Goshen, as shortly they would be leaving that locale? There YHVH made “a division between My [His] people and your [Par’o’s] people” (8:23).  Division” here is “p'dut” which literally means “ransom”.  It is the ransom which always separates those who are "My people" from those who are Par'oh's.  The basic meaning of the Hebrew root [p.d.h] is “to achieve the transfer of ownership from one to another through payment of a price or an equivalent substitute.”2 More on this idea in next week's Parasha…


1 In Hebrew, the "v" sound (vav) and the "y" sound (yod) are often interchangeable, such as in the name Chava (Eve), which denotes “life,” although the noun “life” is “chayim,” and “to live” is “ lich’yot”.
2 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2,
ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago, P 198

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

In Hebrew Tools of Parashat Va’ye’ra (And He Appeared, lit. “was seen”), in B’resheet 18, we already encountered the verb for “seeing” in the preset tense. In our Parasha we tackle this verb again, but this time in past tense. Remember the all-famous question that YHVH posed before Yirmiyahu: “What do you see Yirmiyahu”? (11:1), or in Hebrew, ma’ ata’ ro’eh Yirmiyahu?”  In our Parasha, Elohim promises (in 6:6) to bring out the Sons of Yisrael from Mitzrayim. Let’s see how this verb may be used in Modern Hebrew. Additionally, we will make use of a couple of other verbs that are utilized in the Parasha.

And now it’s your turn to practice:

What did Moshe see?
Ma ra’ah Moshe? (lit. what saw Moshe?)

Elohim brought out the Children of Yisrael
Elohim hotzee et Bney Yisrael
(notice that the verb “hotzee” is to “take out”, “bring out”, “pull out” – unlike in English, it is designated by one word only)

He took them to the wilderness
Hu lakach otam lamidbar

He gives and He takes
Hu noten ve’hu lo’ke’a’ch

Elohim is strong
Elohim hu chazak


Thursday, January 16, 2020

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Sh’mot – Sh’mot (Exodus) 1– 6:1 with Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use



The opening verses of this Parasha reiterate what we have read recently in Parashat Va’yigash; namely, the names of the sons of Yisrael who had gone down to Egypt. Compared to the first list (Gen. 46:8-25), this one is much more brief and 'basic.' It is these "names" (“sh’mot”), which lend the title to the Parasha, as well as to the whole book. The fruitfulness promised to the Patriarchs is already starting to be evident. "And the children of Israel were fruitful [of the root p.r.h for “fruit”], and increased [of the root sh.r.tz applied to the animals in Gen. 1:20-21] abundantly, and multiplied - va’yirbu - and became exceeding mighty – va’ya’atzmu; and the land was filled with them” (Ex. 1: 7 italics added). This verse sums up one of the first phases of the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt, while at the same time also echoing B’resheet (Genesis) 47:27: "So Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen; and they took a hold of it - va'ye'ach'zu - and grew and multiplied exceedingly" (italics added). The above-mentioned verb for “increase” – va’yishretzu – is not mentioned in the Genesis 47 scripture, and as we noted, it is generally applied to animals. Is this a hint as to the condition of the Israelites at this point? Last week we noticed how Ya'acov, when bringing up the “land of Yisrael” in the course of blessing Ephraim and Menashe, emphasized "achuzat olam" (48:4), the "everlasting possession," or literally, the “everlasting hold." But while the old Patriarch stressed "holding" or "grasping tightly" on to the Land of Promise, his descendants seemed to be very quick to "take hold" of foreign soil (as seen in the above quoted v. 27).   

According to Nehama Leibowitz[1], by their settling and establishing a foothold in Egypt, the Israelites committed a sin. Thus, their new home turned into a place of exile and bondage, as the Parasha clearly points out. The commentary goes on to say, however, that suffering and exile also produced refining and purification (e.g. Deut. 4:20; Jer. 11:4; Is. 48:10), had an educational value (e.g. Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Deut. 16:11-12), and motivated the humanitarian treatment of others (e.g. Lev. 25:38-43; Deut. 5:14-15). Slavery and bondage demand redemption, and according to the commentary, such a redemption "serves as a spur for a religious duty, imposing on every Israelite the duty to redeem his fellow being from slavery." However, we cannot ignore the clear and somewhat inauspicious prediction given to Avraham during his awesome vision in B’resheet (Genesis) 15, namely, "Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (vs. 13, 16).

"The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete”; “yet” (in the above quote) is "ad heh'na," literally "thus far." In Vayikra (Leviticus) 18: 25 we read: "For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants." From the time YHVH made His declaration to Avraham it took well over 600 years for the Amorites’ (a generic name for the Canaanite people groups) iniquity to be "sha'lem," “complete.”  The 'quota of their iniquity' is only made full when the Children of Yisrael enter the Land of C’na’an, and thus the former are being "vomited out by the land."  In this way, the four hundred years of Egyptian exile, and another forty of wandering in the desert, were necessary for the completion of Elohim’s objectives for the Israelites, while this time capsule was also instrumental in fulfilling a larger and more global 'judicial plan.' In the Divine economy, nothing is ever meaningless or lost. The Great Economist is very precise, and is sovereign over time, events, and the protagonists’ roles therein.

Let us return now to the present situation in Egypt. The rising of the new king "who does not know Joseph" (1:8) introduces us to a new phase into which Ya'acov's children are being thrust quite unawares. This king identifies the Israelites as a Nation, or People - "am," which may also explain the reference to them in singular person, rather than plural. "The people [am] of the sons of Israel is more mightier [‘rav ve'atzum’] than we” (v. 9), while above, in verse 7, the plural form is used. This multiplicity and might appear to constitute a threat to Egypt’s king and to his people, hence the above description of this foreign race (being "more numerous and mightier than us", italics added). It seems that exaggeration and bigotry play no small part in these words, which are used to instigate a plan to solve the “Hebrew problem” (compare the term “Jewish problem” used in Europe, which culminated in Hitler’s “final solution”). Interestingly, at the very end of last week’s Parasha, Yoseph charged his brothers concerning taking his bones back to the land, whenever YHVH would visit (pakod) them (Gen. 50:25). In our Parasha, at the very beginning of the book of Sh’mot (Exodus), we read about the “might” of the People of Yisrael. Both bone and might share the same root of a.tz.m (ayin, tzadi, mem). This root lends itself to several significant words, which we will examine more thoroughly in Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha (Numbers 8-12). Suffice it to say here that Yoseph’s bones “multiplied” greatly, in accordance with the promise granted to his sons, although at present this blessing appears to be a potential source of a harsh adversity.

Thus, to counter this (hypothetical) threat of a population explosion, the king takes a number of measures, all of which are expressed in verbs denoting suffering, suppression and servitude, found in chapter 1:11-14. First they "set over them" - “sa'rey mi’sim” - tax collecting princes, to (literally) "afflict them with suffering." However, "the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew” (v. 12). The verb "grew" is "yifrotz," of the root p.r.tz which we examined in Parashat Va’yeshev (Gen. 38:29), where we noted that it means "to break forth."  This caused the Egyptians "to loath" or "abhore" (“va’yakutzu”) them, and in turn they made them do rigorous labor (“va'ya'vidu” - a.v.d. - labor, work; while “eh’ved” is “slave”). "And they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of work in the field. All their work in which they made them work with rigor" (v. 14 italics added). In verses 13-14 the root a.v.d (ayin, vet, dalet) - work, labor, slave - occurs five times, impressing upon the reader the sense of perpetual toil.

The commentator Benno Jacob [2] observes that the initiators of the acts of ritual enslavement are always mentioned (in their acts of harassment) in the plural, whereas the Israelites are referred to in the singular (in verses 10-12 each reference to the Israelites reads "he", although not translated that way in English). The commentator goes on to say, "Israel is pictured here as characterless, faceless, bereft of leadership." Interestingly, the Parasha opens with the names of the individuals whose descendants, in just a matter of a few verses, are described as being submerged in a sea of suffering and oblivion (although, as mentioned above, the singular person could have also been used because the Israelites were viewed as an “am” – a single nation, a people).

 The only two characters singled out here are the midwives (who are mentioned by name). They were assigned the heinous task of doing away with every Hebrew male newborn. Their defiance of the king's edict (1:17) results in Yisrael becoming even more numerous and mighyrav and atzum (the same term we looked at above, stemming from the root a.tz.m, v. 20b). These two Elohim-fearing women testify of the full involvement of Yisrael's Elohim with His People, even at a time when the Nation was being forced into conditions of bondage and forgetfulness. However, whereas "am Yisrael" as a whole was occupied with endless and huge building projects for their taskmasters, it says about the midwives that Elohim established their "batim" – 1:21 literally “homes, houses" and also “families, dynasties” (translated “households”)!

The subjugating process increasingly gathers momentum; taxing (1:11) turns into hard labor (v. 11), then to enslavement (vs. 13, 14) and to 'limited' infanticide (v. 16), which finally becomes an imposition on the entire Egyptian nation, compelling it to engage in a full-blown genocide by exterminating every Hebrew male newborn (v. 22). Thus, the 22 verses of Sh’mot’s first chapter recount a long and eventful span of time.

The next chapter reports a sudden development. Nehama Leibowitz comments, "One family, father, mother, and daughter emerge from the gloom of this faceless mass."[3] The anonymity is only gradually broken, though, as the protagonists of this first part of the chapter remain nameless, albeit distinct. The only specific name in this narrative is the name that Par’oh's daughter gives the baby whom she finds. It is to be Moshe, "because I drew him out of the water" (2:10 emphasis added). And as we observed in Parashat Miketz (Gen. 41-44:17), this name is probably an Egyptian one, as "mes" or "mesu" in ancient Egyptian mean "child" or "son," [4]  yet the Hebrew language adapts to foreign terms by employing puns or a 'play on words' (such as the in the name "Bavel," Gen. 11:9). There is, however, one other instance in Scripture where the root m.sh.h  (mem, shin, hey) is used: "He drew me out - yimsheni - of many waters," sings King David (2nd Sam. 22:17; Ps. 18:16), being an apt description of Moshe’s current condition, and also of the future predicament of his people, when they too will face a large body of water. The basket that baby Moshe was put in is called "tey'va," the identical word used for Noach's ark! The gigantic structure and the little basket are both havens of safety and protection, out of which deliverance (having also the association of water) with large-scale ramifications was destined to emerge.

It takes the death of the king (2:23) for the Children of Yisrael to "groan" and "cry out" -"va'yiz'aku" - and “their cry" - "shava'atam" - goes up to Elohim. Notice that here the verb “to cry out” is different from the noun “cry.” In other words, by the time the cry (“za’a’ka”) reaches heaven, it turns into a "sha'v'a" (sh.v.a. shin, vav, ayin), a noun which is "akin to deliverance or salvation" (y.sh.a - yod, shin, ayin) [5]. Thus, the cry already contains within it the response! And so we read that Elohim "heard," "remembered," "looked" (or "saw"), and "acknowledged" (2:24-25).

Chapter 3 elaborates on the implementation of the above verbs through the person of Moshe and his mission. It will be by Moshe that YHVH will reveal Himself to His People. Moshe spends time in the desert, "midbar," "tending the flock of Yitro (Jethro), his father-in-law… and he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of Elohim” (3:1). "Midbar" stems from the root d.v.r (dalet, vet/bet, resh), meaning “speech,” but this root also supplies us with “to drive” (as in “push out”) and “defeat.” It shares the same root with "pestilence" or “plague,” and with the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple ("dvir"). It seems that when the one who is stricken with plague (sin) is driven to the ‘backside’ of the desert, it is there that he hears YHVH’s still small voice speaking, and before long finds himself in the Holy of Holies, with Moshe being a case in point. In 4:10 – 16, the root d.b/v.r. is repeated seven times in various forms such as “words” and “speaking”.

YHVH reveals Himself to Moshe, talking to Him in the place of silence and desolation, thus indicating that His Presence and sovereignty are not limited by the way things (also of the root d.v.r - davar = thing) may appear in the natural. The sea, for example, that will face the Israelites in their future escape, will turn into "dry land" which will enable their passage. Incidentally, this “dryness” or “parched land” is called "charava" (Parashat B'shalach, Ex. 14:21), of the root ch.r.v (chet, resh, bet/vet). The particular desert location referred to here is called “Chorev” (Horeb, 3:1) and also stems from the root, ch.r.v (chet, resh, vet), which means “desolation or waste,” forming also the root for "cherev" - “sword” and “churban” – “destruction.” Not surprisingly, in this part of the world where water is scarce, “dryness” and “destruction” are almost synonymous.

Elohim’s plans for His people may be elicited from some of the terms used here. He declares that He Himself "will go down" to rescue His people from Mitzrayim (Egypt - straits, narrowness, adversity), and "will bring them up" to "a good and broad land" (3:8 emphases added). When Moshe is to assemble the elders of Yisrael he is to convey to them that, the Elohim of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'acov literally, "visiting has visited you and that which has been done to you in Egypt" (3:16). We also noticed above, in Yoseph’s request at the end of the B’resheet (50:25), that he used the same term when he expressed his faith about Elohim visiting His people to take them back to the land. In both these cases "visit" is "pakod," the root being p.k.d (pey, kof, dalet), and means “to visit, attend, muster, appoint,[6] count, or miss.” This word is also known as "precept" (e.g. Ps. 119:15, 27). Like several of the other words for "commandments" and "laws" this one also has, as is evident here, a different or broader meaning than what is generally perceived - something that we will be taking a closer look at when several of these terms will surface in future Parashot (Parasha – singular; Parashot – plural). This verb appropriately sums up YHVH’s multi-facetted plan for His people.

 The long discourse that the reluctant Moshe has with YHVH is about to end when YHVH tells him: "Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say" (4:12). Similar words are repeated in verse 15, with the promise to instruct him and his brother A’ha’ron (Aaron) as to what they will have to do. It was likewise a totally submissive Yeshua who expressed a similar idea during His earthly ministry, "The son can do nothing by himself, he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the son does also" (John 5:19, see also 8:28; 12:49; 14:10).

Moshe and A’ha’ron comply and go to see Par’oh. In 5:4 we read: “And the king of Egypt said to them, Moses and Aaron, why do you keep the people from their work? Get to your burdens!” “Keep the people” is “tafri’ou,” from the root p.r.a., (pey, resh ayin), which we looked at in Parashat Miketz (Ge. 41-44:17), where we also noticed its (coincidental?) similarity with the name Par’oh.  The meaning of this root, being “unruliness” and “dishevelment” (of hair), is not incompatible with this king’s conduct toward his Hebrew subjects.

We noted above that, because of their lowly state the Hebrews were referred to in singular person. In 4:22 they are referred to once again in this manner; but this time for an entirely different reason. Here YHVH calls Yisrael, "My first born son." Later, when Moshe and A’haron address Par’oh, they say to him: "The Elohim of the Hebrews has met with us. Please, let us go three days' journey into the desert and sacrifice to YHVH our Elohim…” (5:3). However, the non-normative spelling of “has met with us” – nikra – can be read as “who is named”, rendering this excerpt as, “The Elohim of the Hebrews who is named after us [the “us” implying Avraham, Yitchak and Yaacov]…”

Even though by the end of the Parasha the lot of the Israelites is made (temporarily) even worse than it had been before Moshe's audience with Par'oh, the People, who at the beginning of Sh'mot are presented as a forgotten and maltreated mass, are now the object of YHVH's direct intervention. It is, therefore, with these words that our Parasha ends: "Then YHVH said to Moses, 'Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will let them go, and with a strong hand he will expel them out of his land'" (6:1).

In Parashat Sh’mot we see once again the sovereignty of YHVH over the schemes and intentions of the enemy. Just as in the case of Yoseph, whose destiny the enemy attempted to disrupt, yet YHVH used this very plan to catapult him into the place that He had designed for him, so is this principle also true in regards to Moshe (and in an even greater sense to Yeshua, see 1 Cor. 2:7, 8). The very man whose command should have brought about this infant’s death, ended being the one in whose palace the infant was protected, raised, and groomed for leading the Israelites out and away from under his despotic and tyrannical control and dominion.

 


1 New Studies in Shemot, by Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman,  
 Eliner Library, Jerusalem, 1995
2 Ibid
3 Ibid
4 The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon,  
ed. Francis Brown, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass.
5 Ibid
6 Ibid


Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use
                              
In Parashat Sh’mot there are some very useful words for simple usage in Modern Hebrew, such as “sh’mot” – “names”, “shem” – “name”; “taxes” – “missim”; “built” – “ba’nu”; “houses”, “homes” - “batim”; “worked” or “toiled” – “avdu”; “speaking” – “diber”, etc. Let’s try to put some of these to use. 

What is your name (masculine)?
Ma shim’cha?
What is your name (feminine)?
Ma sh’mech?

Many taxes
Harbeh missim

The builder built houses
Ha’ba’nai ba’na batim

The children of Yisrael worked hard
B’ney Yisrael avdu ka’sheh

Elohim spoke to Moshe in the wilderness
Elohim diber el Moshe bamid’bar









Thursday, January 9, 2020

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’ye’chi – B’resheet (Genesis): 47:28– 50:26 with Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use


Last week we noted that much of what is recounted in our weekly Parashot (plural for “Parasha”) bears direct relationship to present-day situations and circumstances, and even to our own lives. Parashat Va’ye'chi, which centers around Ya'acov's prophetic benedictions over his sons and grandsons, is a good example of this, as these ‘benedictions’ are much more than mere ‘well wishing’ or ‘hopes’ directed at the Patriarch’s progeny. The words pronounced by Jacob constitute the Word of YHVH embossed upon the destiny and life of His people.
              
The Parasha opens with the words, "And Jacob lived (va'ye’chi) in the land of Egypt seventeen years… when the time for Israel to die drew near, he called his son Joseph" (47:18 emphasis added). Back in Parashat Va’yeshev we noted that the "record of the generations of Jacob" was linked directly to "Joseph [who] when seventeen years of age was pasturing with his brothers… [and] Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons…" (37:2,3). These seemingly casual statements, tying Ya'acov's "record of generations" to Yoseph's life, as well as the reference to his attitude toward this son, are seen in a different light at the close of the cycle. From the present vantage point, those statements appear to have described the cause that yielded the results which are apparent in the present Parasha. The symmetry of two lots of "seventeen years," the first ones of Yoseph's life, and the last of Ya'acov's, along with the usage of the name "Yisrael" in both instances serves to enhance this impression of cause and effect, and of the cycle completed. In fact, the current situation constitutes only the first part of the "effect," with the rest (as for example the lot that is about to 'befall' the people of Yisrael in Egypt) still to follow for many generations to come.

The second part of verse 29 (Ch. 47), where Yaacov addresses his son, bidding him: "put your hand under my thigh…", takes us all the way back to Avraham and his servant, who was charged by his master in the same manner (ref. Gen. 24:2). The strength and power of life, represented by the thigh, is to be expressed through the hand of another – the one who promises to be faithful and loyal to his oath. Here it is Yoseph who promises his father to bury him with his ancestors, in the Land of Yisrael. 

Ya'acov's heart is thus set at rest, while in the next episode, sick and nearing death, he starts to confer his blessings. Yoseph, who is summoned to his bed, brings with him his two sons who end up being the first ones to receive the blessing. Hence the sequel of blessings of the sons of Yisrael starts out with his grandsons, Ephraim, the youngest, and then Menashe. Yeshua's familiar words concerning “the last being first” and vice versa (ref. Mt. 20:16), are certainly relevant in this instance! However, Ya'acov does not start blessing Yoseph's sons before he recounts, albeit in a somewhat modified version, what El Shaddai had said to him in Luz - Beit El: “... Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body.  The land which I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your descendants after you I give this land" (35:11-12 italics added). The words that Yaacov is about to utter now are based on that auspicious word of long ago. When blessing the boys, he includes the "fruitfulness" and the "numerousness", of the roots p.r.h - fruit - and r.b.h - much, great, plenty.  "A nation - goy - and a company – kahal - of nations – goyim", in the original blessing, become now "company - kahal again - of people” – “amim” (48:4a). We shall soon see how these two terms, "goy" and "am", are dispensed between the two grandsons. "Kings shall come forth from you" in the original is omitted entirely, and rightly so, because Yoseph's sons were not to be the recipients of the kingly portion. The final part of the original blessing had to do with the Land. In the episode at hand Ya'acov qualifies the original word “land” with the words "an everlasting possession” – “achuzat olam" (v. 4b). Achuza, (“possession”) is from the root a.ch.z (alef, chet, zayin), meaning “to grasp, take hold, possess”. Being in exile, Ya'acov chooses words that would be powerfully imprinted upon the minds of his listeners. Without repose, he adopts his two grandsons (ref. 48:5), in order to ensure that the promises just given will be fulfilled down through their successive generations. He then goes on to say to Yoseph, "but your offspring that have been born after them shall be yours" (48: 6). "Offspring" here is "moledet", of the root y.l.d  (yod, lamed, dalet) “to give birth or “beget”.  Hence, most times "moledet" is used in a sense of “biological family". This was the term employed when Avraham was told to leave his "family" (Gen. 12:1). In B’resheet 31:13, the angel of Elohim ordered Ya'acov to go back to the “land of his moledet". The citing of "moledet" may be one more reminder, given the circumstances, of what is no doubt an important issue with which he wishes to inculcate his posterity (that is, regarding their family origins and homeland).

It was after Ya’acov had been given the blessings and promises in Beit El-Luz that Rachel gave birth to Binyamin, in Ephrata, on the road to Beit Lechem. This was the place where she also died. Although engaged in matters of great import, pertaining to the future of the Nation, Ya’acov is clearly compelled to pause and allow the whole sad episode to engulf him all over again. And thus he makes mention of it. Incidentally, the literal meaning of "Ephratah" is "toward Ephrat". "Ephrat" shares the root of “fruitfulness” with “Ephraim”. According to Ya'acov's words here (48:7, and Micha 5:2), Ephrat and Beit Lechem are synonymous.

All during this time, while Ya'acov is pronouncing his adoption of Yoseph's two sons, he is not aware of their presence in the room (being extremely nearsighted). But once he realizes that the two are there, Yisrael says to Yoseph, "I never expected to see your face, and behold, Elohim has let me see your seed as well" (48:11 italics added). "Expected" here is "pilalti". The root is p.l.l (pey, lamed, lamed), with its primal meaning to “intervene, interpose, or arbitrate”, and by implication, “to judge”, gives rise to "hitpalel" which is “to pray” and to "tfila" – “prayer” (e.g. 1 Sam. 1:10, 12, 26, 27; 2:1). The usage of it here, as "expect", is the only one of its kind in the entire Tanach. Ya'acov had so completely given up any hope of seeing his son that, according to his own admission, he did not (dare to) intercede or pray on his behalf, since his only 'judgement' on the matter was that Yoseph had departed this life.

Ya'acov blesses the lads while crossing his arms over them (48:14). The verb used there – “sikel” - originates from the widely used root s.ch.l (sin, chaf, lamed) which means “to understand, succeed, instruction”, thus pointing to the far-reaching implications that this action was to have in the future. The essence of the blessing is put in a few words, "…may my name ("shem") and the name of my fathers… be named in them" (v. 16). Yisrael is conferring upon his ‘adopted sons’ the blessings and promises given to Avraham, Yitzchak, and to himself, which in this context are tantamount to the "name" he wishes to bestow upon them. The blessings, therefore, constitute an all-powerful 'stamp,' a "name" embossed, as it were, upon the lads and upon their posterity (cf. Numbers 6:27). The Patriarch goes on to pronounce the following: "And may they grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth" (48:16). The original wording for "grow into a multitude"- va'yidgu"- is a verb which appears nowhere else and means, "they will become fish", referring to this creature's rate of breeding. The usage of this unusual verb is designed to call attention to the blessing, and to this specific detail. When Yoseph expresses disapproval of his father's birth order ‘confusion’, the latter explains his action, telling his bewildered son that Menashe will be a "people" ("am"), echoing the terminology he used above; but that Ephraim, now making use of "goy", another of his above-mentioned terms, will become "the fullness of the gentiles" – or "m'lo ha'goyim" in Hebrew (ref. 48:17-19 italics added).

The Brit Chadasha (New or Renewed Covenant) interprets for us the meaning of "becoming fish", far beyond a mere numerical property. "Now as Yeshua was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers… casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, 'follow me, and I will make you fishers of men'" (Mat. 4:19). Ephraim and Menashe’s descendants had to become ‘fish’, so that when the fishermen would be ready to cast their 'gospel nets' there would be a catch out there (see also Jer. 16:16a). When enough fish fill up the quota (according to the number determined by their Creator, ref. also Deut. 32:8) - in other words, when they become "the fullness of the Gentiles" - then "all Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:25).

The "one portion (over his brothers)", which Ya'acov grants Yoseph at the end of this scene (48: 22), is signified by the word "sh'chem", meaning a “shoulder”, the specific reference being to the two ‘shoulders’ (mountains) on each side of the city by that name (i.e. Sh’chem). Thus, Ephraim's lot includes the 'shoulder' in the form of Grizim, the Mount of the Blessing, and Menahse's, the other 'shoulder,' Eival, the Mount of Curse.

It is now time for Ya'acov's twelve sons to receive a word from their father, or as put by Ya'acov, that which "will befall you in the latter days" (49:1). This is the first time the expression "latterend of - days" - "a'charit ha'yamim" - appears in the Bible. If compared to the usage of the same term in Isaiah 2:2, it may relate to a time in which Yisrael's calling as a Nation of Elohim's choosing will be fulfilled. [1] Let us pause to examine the root of “a’charit”, being a.ch.r (alef, chet, resh), from which are derived, “after, last, tomorrow, other, another”, and also… “achar”, “acharey” or “achoranit” - meaning “behind” or “backwords”. Thus, when reference is made to “acharit” (the “end”) there is also a “remez” (hint) to that which was “behind”, that which had already occurred “beforehand”, indicating a circulatory movement that links the past to the future – “worlds without end” (see also Yisha’ya’hu – Isaiah – 46:9, 10). (We noticed a similar concept In Parashat Lech Lecha – Beresheet 12-17 in 13:14, regarding the root k.d.m – east, antiquity and forward - that which is “ahead” being related to that which was.)  Just as “kedem” also stands for “east”, there are several references to “acharon” (literally “last”) meaning “west” (the “last” – “acharon” – sea is the western sea in Yisrael that is the Mediterranean, as compared to the eastern sea – the Dead Sea). In Eeyov (Job) 18:20 we read:  Those in the west – “achronim” last - are astonished at his day, as those in the east – “kadmonim” earliest ones - are frightened”.  

Thus acharit ha’yamim” – end of days – conveys to us movement from the east toward the west (remember “acharon” also meaning “west”), just as was the direction of entering the tabernacle/temple all the way to the holy of holies which was situated in its westernmost section. This directional movement is confirmed by Matthew 24:27: "For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (italics added).

The words given to the second and third sons (Shimon and Levi), predicting their dispersion among their brethren, have amazingly come to pass (ref. 49:7).  Following on the heels of that is the word given to Yehuda (Judah), which starts off with a word play on the meaning of his name, differing from the original meaning given to him by his mother (ref. Gen. 29:35). The root of the word and its meanings are not clear-cut. It appears to be yadah (of the root y.d.h., yod, dalet, hey), and is probably related to the word "yad" - “hand”, and thus means “to cast (such as in casting a stone or a lot), as well as to “confess or to praise”, again being connected to the imagery of raised hands.  “Your brothers shall praise you - yo'du'cha" - (v. 8), seems therefore to flow into the next expression, which is "your hand - yad'cha - shall be on the neck of your enemies" (who in the future will turn out many times to be the descendants of his own brothers!). And again, Yehuda's brothers, according to Ya'acov's prediction, are also destined to "bow down" before him”. Yes, this son is destined for the "scepter" (“shevet”), but also for the judicial position, as we see by "me'chokek" (v. 10), from “chok” – “law or decree”, the root being ch.k.k. (chet, kof, kof), stemming from a verb which means “to carve” (ref. Is. 22:16) and “engrave”, and by implication to “enact laws” and thus to “dispense justice”.

But the predictions concerning Yehuda’s destiny do not stop here! The above promises are to hold true "until Shilo comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples" (49:10). The term Shilo has been interpreted in a variety of ways; the most likely one is "to whom it belongs". Who truly is that one, and what is it that belongs to him? Ezekiel 21:27 helps us clarify what appears here as a mystery.[2]  There we find the expression "until He comes to whom belongs ("asher lo") judgment [or justice]".  If we were to read "shilo" as "sheh'lo", it would convey the same meaning as "asher lo" in the above, namely "to whom it belongs". In both cases what ‘belongs’ to this one is something which is related to judgment and justice, and of course, according to our present text also the position of leadership (see also Jeremiah 30:21a).

Already in verse 9, even before the Shilo-sheh’lo citation, the imagery of the lion’s whelp, the young lion and the (mature) lion already evokes the expression “the Lion of the Tribe of Judah” (ref. Revelation 5:5). The next part of the blessing (49:11, 12) contains metaphors of the “donkey” and the “donkey’s colt”, both mentioned in Zechariah’s 9:9 Messianic prophecy, later to come to its fulfillment by Yeshua (ref. Matt. 21:1ff; Mark 11:1ff; Luke 19:28-35; John 12:14). Not only is the donkey mentioned, but also the “vine”. Here is where Yeshua’s declaration “I am the vine…” comes to mind (ref. John 15:5). The repeated imagery of wine may be compared to Isaiah 63:1-3, where there are several references to wine, to its color, and to the winepress. Moreover, the connection of wine to blood also takes us of course to Yeshua’s analogy (ref. Matthew 26:27-29, etc.), and to the terrifying judgment scene of Revelation 19:12-15, where his eyes are also mentioned, and described as being “like flames of fire”. In verse 12 of our text, the Hebrew for the color of the eyes (“kach’lili”) is “red” (“redder than wine”), clarifying this analogy. Thusly Yehuda’s destined future is strongly interwoven with his  Messiah. 

The word given to Dan contains a reference to the meaning of his name, which is "judge" (49:16). When it comes to Gad, Ya’acov changes the meaning of his name. Whereas his mother related the name to "luck" (Gen. 30:11), here Ya'acov relates it to “raiding bands”, the verb being, g.d.d (gimel, dalet, dalet), the original meaning of which is “cutting and making inroads”. [3] It is said of Gad that “a troop shall raid him”, but that (literally) “he shall raid their heel” (49:19 italics added). And of his half brother, Dan, it says that he will “bite the horse’s heel, so that his rider falls backwards” (v. 17 italics added). Thus the sons of Yaacov, the one who held the heel at birth and who followed (also connected to the root a.k.v and hence to his name and to heel), are, or will be, displaying the same ‘a.k.v.’ trait.

Fruitfulness is alluded to in Yoseph's blessing, as he is twice named here "ben porat", literally "son of fruitfulness" (49: 22). The word to Yoseph is replete with blessings of plenty, fruitfulness, might, prowess, and honor; but also refers to the hatred which was and will be directed toward him. Yoseph is to be a "nah'zir" (v. 26) to his brothers (translated “separated from, or distinguished among his brothers”). A "nah'zir" is one especially consecrated and dedicated to YHVH. This title can refer to anyone with a special calling, such as Shimshon (Samson, Jud. 13:5), or to a person who takes upon himself a Nazarite vow (Num. 6:21). The noun of the same root is “neh’zer”, and means a “crown” and in that way is also connected to the priesthood (see Ex. 29:6 regarding the priest’s “miter of holiness”). Interestingly, “nah’zir” is mentioned here in the same breath as the “top of Joseph’s head” (49:26), which literally makes Yoseph the “crown” of his brothers.

If the word to Yehuda points so clearly to the Messiah, some of what is being said to Yoseph, and of him, may also be interpreted as referring to a greater figure. It is no wonder then that in Jewish tradition, alongside the victorious Messiah ben David (from Yehuda's house), there is also a Messiah ben Yoseph, who is in the image of the 'literal' Yoseph, who according to his prophetic blessing will be hated and experience agony (49:23), yet is also powerful (v. 24), fruitful, and distinguished.  

After Ya'acov's death, his sons express fear lest their brother Yoseph would take the opportunity to avenge himself of them. They therefore approach him with a statement, which their father had supposedly made before he died, asking Yoseph to forgive them. Not only is there no record of such a statement, there is also no record of Ya'acov ever finding out what his sons had committed. Upon hearing these words and the sentiment behind them, "Joseph wept" (ref. 50:17), recalling to mind Yeshua's reaction to the lack of faith and trust displayed by His closest friends (ref. John 11:35).

With Parashat Va'ye’chi ("and he lived"), the entire book of B’resheet comes to a close. "Va’ye'chi," "and he lived", is symbolic of Elohim’s sovereign intentions regarding the fulfillment of His covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'acov. Thus, not only do they live on in their seed, in the next phase of their ‘existence’ they also become numerous, multiplying in the land of their sojourning.

Notes:
1 Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit, Jerusalem, 1976, 1999
2 Ibid
3 The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
Francis Brown Hendrickson. Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 1979


Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

Above we encountered the term “moledet” for “giving birth”, but in Modern Hebrew that word is used as “native land”. We will learn this time about our “moledet”.  Yaacov’s expectations, which we encountered above, yield the verb and noun for “prayer”. Shilo, we associated above with “to whom it belongs” - “shelo”, and hence “shel” is “that which belongs”. “Fish” were also noted in our Parasha, as well as the common word “achar” or in its everyday use “acharey”, both of which we will be referencing below


The land of Yisrael is the native land of the people of Yisrael
Eretz Yisrael hee ha’mo’le’det shel am Yisrael

Ya’acov did not pray a prayer
Ya’acov lo hit’pa’lel tfila

The fish was his
Ha’dag haya shelo

The fish (plural) were hers
Ha’dagim hayu sheh’la

Binyamin came after (or behind) Yehuda
Binyamin ba acha’rey Yehuda

After the holidays
Acha’rey ha’chagim

If we were to say “my land” and “my native land”, respectively, it would be: “artzi , moladeti”.

To listen to a Hebrew song by that name go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BdwiYFVxuE