Thursday, February 20, 2020

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Mishpatim – Sh’mot (Exodus): 21- 24 with Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

"This Parasha is extraordinarily rich in variety of themes, and multiplicity of laws, judgments and statutes governing every facet of human existence. This comprehensive legislation covers relations of man to their society, between members of the same community, between peoples, between man and man, man and his enemy, and even between man and the flora and fauna of his environment, not to mention the relationship with man to his Creator. The Torah therein regulates the life of the Hebrew person at work and at leisure, on Shabbat and festivals."[1] We will examine some of Parashat Mishpatim’s terms against the backdrop of this summary. Last week we noted that, the Ten Words were presented in a progression, from the more general themes and gradually breaking down into particulars. This week the trend seems to go the other way. Thus, before the ‘national’ commandments regarding the times and seasons (in the land) – 23:10-19 - and the ‘big picture’ as described in 23:20-33, the people of Yisrael are presented with very detailed and specific instructions as to what is expected of a set apart nation.

"And these are the judgments which you shall put before them…" are the opening words of our Parasha.  The singular form of “mishpatim” (“judgments”) is “mishpat”, the root letters being sh.p/f.t (shin, pey, tet). Last week we saw that YHVH's instructions to His People are not to be defined simplistically as a set of rules of 'do's' and 'don'ts.'  “Mishpat” may be compared to last week's “chock” -  "law" - which is also to “engrave", and to “pikudim” - "precepts" (a glimpse of which we had in Parashat Shmot,  in 3:16, where it appeared as the verb to “visit"). Likewise, “mishpat” also has a variety of meanings such as "just" (Deut. 32:4), and "justice" (Is. 16:5). In this Parasha “mishpat” is used several times as "arbitration" and "decision making" (21:31), as well as "legal right" (23:6) and "custom" (21:9). According to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, this “word [which is] of broad meaning, is also to be understood as to “govern or rule". [2] Thus, although some of the “mishpatim” could be termed as "judgments" or “ordinances” in the stricter sense of the word, this judicial term is couched in a much larger social and spiritual framework, a framework that is rooted in YHVH's Torah, the latter being anything but a strictly official and legal codex.

Let us go back to our opening verse:  "And these are the judgments which you shall put before them".  Notice that Moshe is told to “put" or "place" the judgments before the Israelites. "Put", as used here, appears to be almost out of place, unless it is tied to some image such as we encounter in Ya’acov (James) 1:22-25: “…Become doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  Because if anyone is a hearer of the Word, and not a doer, this one is like a man studying his natural face in a mirror; for he studied himself, and has gone away, and immediately he forgot of what kind he was. But the one looking into the perfect Torah of liberty, and continuing in it, this one not having become a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in his doing” (italics added).

Thus the Torah, which is to reflect the new nature of the “am s'gula” (the “treasured People” as mentioned in last week’s Parashat Yitro), is likened to a mirror. "Placing the mishpatim before the people" becomes clear, therefore, especially when considering the Israelites' response last week: "All which YHVH has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8) and this week too (ref. 24:3). ). Incidentally the same verb, put (“sim”) is also used in Bamidbar (Numbers) 6:27, regarding the placing of the Priestly Blessing upon the Children of Yisrael (as well as in 6:26, where YHVH is said to “put” or “place” His peace on the recipients of this blessing).

These “mishpatim”, therefore, constitute one of the aspects reflecting and revealing the ‘new nature’ (and also ‘flesh’ and sin) of YHVH's special and holy people (ref. 22:31), which they see each time they look "into the prefect Torah of liberty". And what is it that they first see there? "When you buy a Hebrew slave  (“eved” – “one who works”), he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing" (21:2). What could be more appropriate for the newly released slaves than to act with consideration and kindness toward their own brethren who have met with this predicament? Is it any wonder then that, this is the first ruling they encounter as they look into the “mirror” which has been “placed before” them? Various dimensions of this topic are dealt with all the way through to 21:11. A variety of regulations ensue, mostly dealing with acts of violence, followed next by rules regarding damages caused specifically by one's livestock (chiefly oxen) to others.

Reparations for these damages proceed (chapter 22:1-17), leading to various moral and ethical issues, as well as to the treatment of the defenseless. But before we get to this point, let’s examine verses 5 and 6. The translation reads as follows: "If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed, and lets loose his animal, and it feeds in another man's field... If fire breaks out and catches in thorns, so that stacked grain, standing grain, or the field is consumed, he who kindled the fire shall surely make restitution” (emphases added). Notice the words: causing (a field) to be grazed, animal, feeds, he who kindles fire. In Hebrew all these verbs and nouns stem from a single root, (bet, ayin, resh) with its primary meaning being “to burn, destroy”. But as is illustrated in our text, this term is ‘stretched’ further to include grazing (in a sense of “removal”) and even animals, from which it morphs into “brutishness”.  The latter meaning is then applied to the “fools” and ones “without sense” or “knowledge” (e.g. Ps. 94:6a; Pro. 32:2a; Jer. 10:21a, being just a few examples). “Removal” (mostly of evil) is another usage of this term (e.g. Deut. 17:12; 19:13). This is a typical illustration of the associative Hebraic thinking. Let us now return to the “treatment of the defenseless”. In 22:21 we read: "You shall not torment an alien. You shall not oppress him, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt". The word here for "alien" is “ger”, from the root “gur” (g.u.r, gimmel, vav, resh), to “live, reside somewhere, dwell, or sojourn”. According to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, "this root means to live among people who are not blood relatives… thus, the ‘ger’ was dependent on the hospitality that played an important role in the ancient Near East”. [2] Some examples of the way this word is used are as follows:

· Avraham sojourned in Egypt during the famine in the Land of Yisrael (Gen. 12:10).
· Lot was scornfully called a sojourner by the people of Sdom (ref. Gen. 19:9).
· Ya'acov described his stay with Lavan as that of a sojourner (ref. Gen. 32:4).
· Ya’acov’s sons defined their status in Egypt as that of sojourners (ref. Gen. 47:4).
· Hebrews 11:9,13 characterizes the Patriarchs as those who considered themselves pilgrims and aliens (not regarding themselves as members of this sin-ridden world).
· The Elohim of Yisrael is termed this way, when not welcome among His people (ref. Jer. 14:8).
· Finally, in the age to come the wolf will be the "protected citizen" of the lamb (Is. 11:6). [3]

The Torah’s cautions regarding all behavior towards the ‘stranger’ number no less than 36; more times than it deals with any other command![4] This fact powerfully speaks for itself. In 22:21 Yisrael is told to not “wrong or oppress“ him, with the latter verb being “lo’chetz” ( lamed, chet tzadi) - literally “to restrict, squeeze”. YHVH used this very term when He was responding to Yisrael’s cry in Egypt: “I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them” (Ex. 3:9 italics added). This kind of repetition puts Yisrael ‘on the spot’ as to their treatment of the alien/stranger.  A similar theme is reiterated in 23:9, with the addition, “…you know [understand] the soul of an alien, since you were aliens in the land of Egypt". The Israelites are most emphatically expected to empathize with the alien, having once been in that humbling station themselves. Remembering at all times that they have “come out of Egypt” leaves the people without an excuse as to forgetting the conditions of the less fortunate and for lording it over them!    Interestingly, “gur” also means “dread, fear”. This illustrates the fact that the stranger was placed in a vulnerable position, requiring protection by the local inhabitants. Moreover, if the many repeated lessons of sojourning will not have been sufficiently learned, the Israelites may find themselves aliens all over again (e.g. Deut. 28: 63ff.), as YHVH would judge them for unrighteousness as He did the Egyptians, and even more strictly, because of the higher standards expected from them.

Our text continues in verses 22:22-24 as follows: "You shall not afflict an orphan or a widow.  If you afflict him, if he at all cries to Me, I will surely hear his cry, and My anger shall glow, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall become widows, and your sons orphans." Once again we turn in the Brit Chadashah (New Testament) to the Epistle of Ya'acov (James), where we read, “Pure and undefiled religion before Elohim and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions" (1:27). In the same vein, Sh’mot 23:3 and 6 read, respectively, "And you shall not favor the lowlydah’l - in his lawsuit" and, "You shall not pervert the judgment of your needy one – “evyon” in his lawsuit". And although “favor” and “pervert” are certainly not synonymous, according to the commentator Cassuto the way these two verbs are presented here makes for similarity between the two ideas. He therefore tried to reconcile these two passages, which he deemed to be redundant if not explained in some other way. Cassuto therefore attaches to “ev'yon” (here) a meaning other than "needy", and connects it to the word “oyev” - “enemy” - thus making this a prohibition corresponding to the two preceding admonitions (23:4-5), that is, to meting out justice to the enemy. [5] However, it makes perfect sense that YHVH would forbid favoring the needy in judgment, as a lowly social status, obviously, does not necessarily equal righteousness. At the same time, perverting the needy’s case in court is also a very severe violation of YHVH’s righteousness.

YHVH’s expectation from the redeemed community’s attitudes is also illustrated in another way. In 22:25 we read: "If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest.” The preposition “if” (that the Torah presents here, rather than “when”), intrigued the Jewish commentators, since in their opinion there was no question that lending to the needy was a definite command. They resolved this by stating that if one does something compulsorily, it is not necessarily done as graciously as when doing it out of one’s own free will. Thus, YHVH expects His people to act as if given an option; that is from a heart that is generous and has elected to act, even if in reality there is no choice in the matter. Put differently, we are to delight in obedience and generosity.

Let us return now to 22:26-27 briefly, there to find included in the ordinance a reasoned appeal: "If you ever take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets,  for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am gracious” (italics added). This “neighbor” is possibly so poor that his cloak serves him as “his covering” – a sheet – “cloak for his body” – sleeping garment, and “for sleeping in” – it is his very mattress. YHVH is concerned with every detail, “for I am gracious”, and expects as much from His own.  

Verse 29 in our chapter (22) is unique in its (Hebrew) vocabulary. It is generally translated: “You shall not delay [to offer] the first of your ripe produce and your juices. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me.” But “the first of your ripe produce and your juices”, are rendered in Hebrew: “your fullness – “m’le’at’cha” - and your tear/drop – “dim’a’cha”. Psalm 126:5 refers to those who “sow in tears” (“tear” singular – “dim’ah”). Interestingly, within “demah” or “dim’ah” is included the word for blood, “dam”. This gives an added meaning to Luke 22:44, where we read about Yeshua’s sweat that was like “drops of blood”. But what about the “fullness”? John 19:29 mentions the “full” jar of vinegar into which a sponge was dipped and held up to Yeshua’s thirsting lips. In the second part of verse 29 (in our chapter) YHVH continues, saying in the same breath with the “fullness” and the “tear/blood” concept: “the firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me”. As we know, bloody sweat and the fullness of the cup of sorrows were both experienced by YHVH’s Firstborn, whom He gave “that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).     

"And you shall sow your land six years, and you shall gather its produce. And the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow" (23:10). After the seventh year release of the slaves (referred to above), we encounter again a ‘seventh year’ principle, this time regarding the land. "Let it rest and lie fallow" is designated by two verbs, “shamot” (sh.m.t. shin, mem, tet), and “natosh” ( noon, tet, shin); the first meaning to “let go", and the other to “forsake". This "letting go" and "forsaking" of the land and its husbandry is designed so that "the needy of your people shall eat. [Whatever] they leave behind, the animals of the field shall eat. So you shall do to your vineyard, and to your olive grove" (v. 11). A similar theme is seen in the following verse, which speaks of seven days of labor, and of a seventh day in which "you shall rest, so that your ox and your ass may rest, and the son of your slave-girl and your alien may be refreshed". It is significant that the care of the poor, slaves, and livestock is related to "resting" and "letting go", all of which point to trust, faith and reliance on YHVH. Similarly, we read in T’hilim (Psalms) 46:10 (literal translation): “Let go and know that I am Elohim”.

Coming next in chapter 23 verses 14-17 is a reference to the calendar, and its feasts (or rather, “pilgrimages” – “regalim”). But whereas the month of Aviv, mentioned in verse 15, is to be the first of months (ref. Sh’mot 12:2), speaking of the “Feast of Ingathering”, in verse 16, as being at the “end of the year” appears to be problematic. Hence let us take a close look at the words used in verse 16. In Hebrew the “end of the year” is rendered “tzet ha’shana” – literally, the “going out of the year”. However, can this term “tzet” have a different meaning? In D’varim 14:22 there is mention of “the grain that the field produces year by year”. In Hebrew it says:  the produce of your seed that comes out – yotzeh - year by year”. Thus the verb yotzeh – comes out – in its noun form - “tzet” - may be understood as the “produce” of a given year. Going back to our verse, 23, we may read therefore: “The Feast of Ingathering at [the time of] the year’s produce…” Verse 18 deals with the blood and the fat of the sacrifices, and their proper handling. Some of the translations read: “nor shall the fat of My sacrifice remain until morning” for the second part of the verse (italics added). The Hebrew word used there for “sacrifice” is “chag, which literally means feast with the idea of circularity imbedded in it (both in terms of the repetition or reoccurrence of the feast, and may also refer to the actual physical marching and/or procession connected with it. See Is. 40:22).

In 23:19 (v. 18 in Hebrew) we encounter 10 words (5 in Hebrew) upon which rest most of the elaborate Jewish dietary laws: "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk". It follows, "You shall bring the first of the fruit of your soil to the house of YHVH your Elohim". The word used for "boil" (“bashel” -, bet.shin.lamed) or "cook" also means "ripe" (e.g. Joel 3:13). Could this be a reminder, therefore, not to let the kid become too mature before offering it up to YHVH, especially if the context of the entire verse is taken into consideration, along with 22:30 (where mention is made of bringing to YHVH the firstlings of the sheep on the eighth day)?

According to the above-examination of the term “mishpatim,” translated “judgments”, it is not to be defined strictly by the letter of the law but more broadly as YHVH’s just arbitrations, which are to become standard and customary within the redeemed community of Yisrael (the italicized terms are all rendered “mishpat” or “mishpatim” in Hebrew). As a provision for making this lifestyle feasible, we read: “Behold, I send an Angel/Messenger before you, to keep you on the way and to bring you to a place which I have prepared” (Ex. 23:20 ff). Thus protection is already provided, and the destination has also been prepared. “If you obey his voice and do as I say…” tells us that the Messenger’s voice and YHVH’s are synonymous. “And I will be an enemy to your enemies and I will be an adversary to your adversaries”. In the Hebrew “I will be an enemy”-  ve’a’ya’vti (le’oy’vecha”- “to your enemies”) appears here in verb form (to be found nowhere else in the Hebrew bible), as it does too with “I will be an adversary” - “ve’tza’rarti (le’tza’re’cha” –  “to your adversaries”, v. 22). The usage of the verb form (and especially in the case where a verb is literally made up for the purpose of conveying this idea) underscores YHVH’s total identity with His People. It illustrates more vividly His active participation in their experiences. The presence of the Angel/Messenger, in whom abides YHVH’s name, in their midst adds to the closeness that YHVH is establishing with His people.

Leaving YHVH’s Messenger, we continue on and climb new heights, but not before the act of sprinkling the atonement blood (24:6), in the course of which the “young men of Israel” offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings (v. 5), while the seventy elders, “went up… and saw the Elohim of  Israel… and did eat and drink” (24:9,10,11). In this way the covenant is seen to encompass the people as a whole; from the young men at the foot of the mountain (the foundations), to the elders at the top and in close proximity to YHVH, with the sprinkling of the atonement blood being at the heart of the event and literally over the ‘body’ of the nation. The twelve pillars and the altar, in 24:4, provide a graphic and physical illustration, again, of the total inclusion of every member of the household of Yisrael. In addition, in Hebrew the word for “pillars” is actually conveyed here in singular form, thus adding a unifying factor to the all-inclusive nature of the covenant and oneness of the people. The scene climaxes with Moshe being called up to YHVH on the seventh day of this season, during which YHVH’s glory appeared on the Mountain:  “And to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of YHVH was like a consuming fire on the mountain top” (24:17).  

YHVH summoned Moshe to come up to the Mountain, where he was to stay for forty days, as he was about to give “the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the commandment which [YHVH] has written to teach them" (24:12). The word for "teach them" is “(le)horotam”, of the root y.r.h (yod, resh, hey) - meaning to “shoot" or to “fling" and by implication to “teach" and forms the root of “Torah” (as mentioned last week).  This one verse makes quite clear the connection of Torah to "teaching".  Here we see again, as we observed in the beginning that, "the Torah is anything but a strictly official and legal codex”.

[1] New Studies in Shmot Part 2, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
[2] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris,    Moody  Press, Chicago, 1980.
[3] Ibid.
[4] New Studies
[5] Ibid.

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

This time we will use the root shin, pey/fey, tet (which is the root of the Parasha’s name – Mishpatim) in noun and verb form. We will see how the verb “le’horot”, to teach, is employed in Modern Hebrew, not only in this sense but also forms the noun for “parent” and “parents”. We will conclude with “cooking” and with the addition of a new word (not in our Parasha text) – sweat, which is “yeza” (with a more common word for “sweat” being “ze’ah”) and hence “blood, sweat and tears”.

The judge judged the enemy
Hashofet shafat et ha’o’yev

What did the parent cook?
Ma bishel ha’hore? (lit. what cooked the parent?)

The parents cooked a dish for the sons/daughters
Ha’horim bishlu tavshil la’banim/la’banot

Blood, sweat and tears
Dam, ye’za  u’dma’ot

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Yitro – Sh’mot (Exodus): 18 – 20 with Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

This week we arrive at the foot of Mount Sinai to participate in a glorious and “epiphanic” scene of colossal scope, but not before attending to some personal and administrative matters. The touching and even intimate episode of Moshe's meeting with his father in law, Yitro (Jethro), eventually evolves into a strategic plan proffered by the latter (18:13-26).  However, to begin with, Yitro’s purpose for coming to his son in law was for another reason altogether, as is evidenced in 18:2-6. Yitro did not come alone. He brought with him his daughter, Tzipora and her two sons, “after he [Moses] had sent her back”. Apparently, before Moshe could embark on the great task ahead of him, he had to take care of the wellbeing of his own family, because a nation, a people, especially a unique one such as Yisrael, is dependent on the soundness of its components, the families (see 1st Timothy 3:2-5).  Rather than be rid of his family, in order to be able to devote himself wholly to his duties, Moshe had to do quite the opposite.  After attending to these family matters, Yisrael’s leader was free to receive some instructions from his father in law in order to improve his organizational skills prior to the revelation of YHVH and His Torah.

Moshe tells Yitro that he has been busy “making known the statutes of Elohim and His laws” to the people (18:16). These "statues and laws" are "chukot and torot" (plural of "chok" and "torah"). This is not the first time that these legal terms are used before the official 'giving of the Torah'. Their usage, as seen here, as well as in B’resheet (Gen.) 26:5 and in Sh’mot (Ex.) 16:4, may help lend these terms a more comprehensive meaning. Thus, instead of being strictly perceived as a set of rules of 'do's' and 'don'ts,’ YHVH's instructions to His People may be viewed as just that… instructions for life, for abundant life. "Chok" - "law" - is from the root ch.k.k (chet, kof, kof), meaning "to engrave or imprint" (and by implication "to decree, inscribe and enact"). With this understanding, the "law" may be viewed as an "imprint", rather than only an imposition from without. YHVH desires to impress upon the hearts of His people His way of life and His character (with the "renewed covenant" being the final seal of that objective. See Jer. 31:33). At the same time, the act of inscribing is mutual. It is not only YHVH who is embossing His imprint upon those who belong to Him, for He says: “I have inscribed you (“cha'ko'tich”, using the same root of ch.k.k) on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:16 italics added). The root of Torah is y.r.h (yod, resh, hey) and means to “shoot”, as in “hitting the mark”.  Since “sin” – chet – means “missing the mark”, the “Torah” is to help us all become “sharp shooters”.
In the course of instructing Moshe, Yitro uses, in 18:20,21, two interesting verbs which are translated, respectively, “teach” (v. 20) and “select” (v. 21). However, “vehiz’harta” (the first of those, i.e. “teach”) originates from the root z.h.r. (zayin, hey, resh) which means “radiate”, (for more examples on the usage of this word see Ps. 19:11; Dan. 12:13). Thus Moshe is told to cast light upon, or illumine the “chukim” and “torot”. His teaching, therefore, has to originate with the Source of Light – the “Elohim [who] is light and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). While the light is thus being “cast” Moshe can now not merely “choose” or “select”, as your translation would have it, but actually “see far ahead and envision the unseen - te’che’zeh” (root ch.z.hey – chet, zayin, hey, e.g. Ps. 58:10, and in next week’s Parasah in Ex. 24:11 etc.), as the original text states. A seer is called “chozeh” (ref.1 Sam. 9:9).

With some practice in godly nationhood now accomplished, “the House of Jacob" and the "Sons of Israel” (ref. 19:3) appear to be in a slightly better position to hear directly from YHVH. Shlomo Ostrovski1 delineates these two, seemingly synonymous terms that are used here for the Nation, with  the "House of Ya'acov" being the title for the “natural” entity with its “natural” free will, in contradistinction to the "spiritual entity" – that is the "Sons of Yisrael" – who are to employ their will and capacity to make choices on the spiritual level. The next verse continues: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself” (19:4 italics added). This kind of imagery demonstrates the tenderness of a parent, as well as that of a husband, who, in Biblical terminology "brings" his bride to himself (e.g. Gen. 24:67). If we think of the episode of the Sinai Covenant as a betrothal, the above verb is very appropriate. According to Nehama Leibowitz, this verse (4) describes "the road from Egypt to Sinai [and] represents a momentous spiritual and physical transition".2 

The message Moshe is to convey to the People continues: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine” (19:5). This "special treasure" is "s'gula", and means "personal property", as Psalm 135:4 affirms: For YHVH has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His special treasure [s'gulato]” (italics added). (Notice the Psalm’s parallel usage of “Jacob” and “Israel”, just as in 19:3 above.)

At this juncture Yisrael is seemingly being fast transformed into a well-administered group of people, but above that “Israel is chosen to reflect God's holiness and live out his commandments, reflecting His standards in a life of wholehearted compliance with the terms of the covenant”.3 With this in mind, YHVH further defines His people: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:6). Thus, Yisrael will be equipped and prepared for this (ultimate) ideal goal of reflecting Elohim’s image by becoming a holy covenant community of priests who are to minister to a royal Sovereign.  "Holiness", is a totally new concept for the fledgling Nation, hence the cleansing and separating measures which are imposed on them. If noted in list form, the people are to: "consecrate", by "washing clothes", "setting bounds”, “being careful not to go up to the mountain”, nor “touch its base" and "not to come near [their] wives" (19:10, 12, 15). Being an “am s'gula” they are not only YHVH's possession, but, as mentioned, also a reflection of their Owner, marked by a distinction of status and nature. "Kadosh" - “holy” - primarily denotes separation and devotion to the service of YHVH. In the quick transition that they are making, the acts of “consecration” serve as an external illustration of what has hitherto been a completely strange notion. Likewise, the loftiness, holiness, and sublime stature of YHVH will be expressed in an outward fashion, as we shall soon see.

As part of YHVH's instructions, which precede His descent from the Mountain, He says to Moshe “When the shofar sounds long, they shall come near the mountain” (19:13b); and (literally), “when the yovel is drawn out…" (referring to a prolonged sound of the shofar, which is mentioned here for the very first time in Scripture, 19:16,19). The current reference is to the type of sound, and not to the instrument producing that sound. The root of yovel (y.v.l - yod, bet/vet, lamed) means to “lead” (e.g. Jer. 31:9 – “And with supplications I will lead them”), as it was undoubtedly the ram that supplied the horn for blowing, and was used to lead ceremonial processions. Blowing the horn (shofar) also became the signal for the year of “Jubilee” - hence “yovel” for the 50th year. The English word ‘Jubilee’ is therefore a derivative of the Hebrew “yovel”. The usage of the “yovel” in this context may also allude to Yisrael’s impending “year of release” from their bondage and into the “liberty of the sons of Elohim” (see Rom. 8:21).

The greatest sound and light spectacle is about to unfold with the following ‘pyrotechnical effects’: Thundering and lightning, a thick cloud, loud sound of a shofar, smoke (which envelops the mountain completely), and fire. The smoke is like the smoke of a furnace; the mountain is found quaking greatly, with the long blast of the shofar - becoming louder and louder (ref. 19:16-19, cf. Revelation 8:1-9:3; 10:7).

The first part of chapter 20 (1-17) is devoted to the Decalogue, the ‘Ten Commandments’, or literally the d'varim – “words”, of the root d.v.r (which we have previously discussed as being the root for “desert, plague, to drive, thing, flock, holy of holies” and more). It is YHVH’s voice, which utters these “d’varim” - “words”. (Incidentally, in the text itself the number ‘ten’ is not mentioned in connection with these declarations of YHVH.) The seventeen verses of these “d'varim” constitute for the Israelites the foundation, or basis, of their Covenant relationship with Elohim and with one another, helping to form this “am sgula” into what they are, who they are to become, and are in fact Yisrael's very raison d'etre (reason for existence).  Notice that even though at that time the Levitical priesthood had not yet come into being, mention is made of priests in 19:22. Some of the sages, as well as Rashi (the renowned Middle-Ages commentator), attribute this position to the firstborn, presumably because the latter belonged to YHVH (ref. Parashat Bo, Ex. 13:2). The existence of this early priesthood is a precursor pointing to a future reality (of a "nation of priests") yet to be fulfilled (even beyond the era of the exclusively Levitical priesthood).

The first seven verses of Chapter 20 deal specifically with Yisrael's relationship with YHVH. The text opens up (v. 2) with "I am" – “anochi (and not “ani”, which is a simpler form of "I am"), denoting YHVH's inextricable link to His People, its circumstances ("who brought you out of Egypt"), and destiny.  “You shall have no other gods over my face (v. 3, literal translation, italics added), is next. The word "face" utilized in this way refers to direct defiance and spite, implying, according to the Mekhilta (2nd century commentary on Exodus) and Rashi, that this prohibition is for all times, not just for that generation. "Face" ("panim") connotes Presence (e.g. Ex. 33:14-15 “My face shall go before you”). And as YHVH's Presence 'automatically' includes place or location, this singular prohibition applies to all places.4  YHVH's jealousy over His People (v. 5) may be likened to the response of a jealous husband, thus making the Covenant of Elohim with Yisrael much like that of a marriage contract,5 as mentioned above.

This is followed by the declarations concerning the Shabbat. Although the Shabbat is to be an expression of the People's relationship with YHVH, its observance instructions ‘overflow’ into the community, and affect inter-personal associations. Shabbat stems from the root “to sit”,shevet” (sh.v.t. shin, bet/vet, tav). Sitting implies rest and bringing activity to a halt, ceasing, such as YHVH did when “He ceased from all His work” of creation in B’resheet (Gen. 2:2 italics added). Whereas all other “calendarian” divisions (such as days, months and years) are dictated by natural phenomena, the seven-day week is purely a spiritual ‘divide.’

Since the first One to celebrate the Shabbat was Elohim Himself, after He had completed His work of Creation, it follows suit that this is a universal declaration that He and He alone is the Creator! In Sh’mot (Exodus) 31:12-17 we are told that the Shabbat is an "eternal covenant" and a sign between YHVH and the sons of Yisrael. In D’varim (Deut.) 5:14-15 the reason given for celebrating the Shabbat's rest, together with one's entire household, is in order to remember the slavery in Egypt, and the freedom realized upon being brought out of there "by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm". Here is an acknowledgement of the miracle of ceasing to be a ‘slave’ (one who never rests), and of becoming free. Similarly, we are no longer “slaves to sin, but have been set free” from it (Rom. 6:6, 18). Hebrews 4:1-11 tells us that the Shabbat rest is the reward bestowed on the one who believes and obeys; Hence Shabbat also speaks powerfully of one's faith and obedience. The cessation from manual labor and from financial worries is a proclamation of trust and faith in the Heavenly Father for all provisions - not only during Shabbat, but also at all other times. We noted above that Shabbat is rooted in the verb "to sit". Yeshua, after having completed His task of offering the sacrifice for all times, “sat down at the right hand of Elohim” (ref. Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3, 10:12 italics added).

Following the Shabbat's injunctions is the command concerning honoring of parents; "honoring" is esteeming them “weighty” ("kabed", k.b/v.d, as we observed in last week’s Parasha), with its promise of long life "upon the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you" (v. 12). Thus, there is a gradual and progressive transition from the "heavenly" precepts to the Shabbat, being a link between the heavenly bond and its earthly expression, through to injunctions concerning one's nuclear family which is to reflect the relationship with the Heavenly Father, all the way down to one's conduct within the community (v. 13-16), and finally to the hidden motives of one’s heart (v. 17). Immediately after YHVH declares the above, we are told that “… all the people witnessed the thundering, the lightning flashes, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking…” (20:18). As to the “witnessing”, The Hebrew says “ro’eem”, that is, present tense “seeing” – “and all people – “am” – is seeing the voices, and the lightning flashes and the sound of the shofar…” (italics added).

The present tense, as well as the “seeing of the voices”, transports us from a naturally perceived scene to one that is beyond the natural faculties and senses. Almost as if the dramatic spectacle was outside the realm of Time, and beyond simple and direct visibility.  More than once mention is made of the fact that YHVH was in the “cloud”, or “smoke” (19:9-10, 16, 18; 20:18). But in 20:21 we encounter a reference to a new term - “arafel” – translated, “thick darkness”, or “gloom”. The root of “arafel” is the verb “arof” (ayin, resh, pey/fey), meaning “to drip”, hence employing a figure of speech related to precipitation, such as the cloud. This is a description of the “veiled glory” of YHVH, so many times made deliberately vague in order to protect His people from His awesome presence that cannot dwell alongside sin. Thus everyday life situations which may appear dark, uncertain, bleak or foggy are not always to be perceived as negative. Rather, they may point to the “arafel”, that is “the thick darkness where Elohim is” (emphasis added).    

YHVH continues to elaborate on His instructions, speaking through Moshe (20:22-26). In contradiction to the prohibition against the making of images and glorifying precious metals (v. 23), comes the statement: “An altar of earth you shall make for Me” (v. 24). “Altar” is “miz'be'ach”, of the root (zayin, bet/vet, chet) - "to sacrifice". The altar is to be made of earth - adama - the substance that makes up man’s material being and after which he is named (Adam). If the “miz'be'ach” should be made of stones, they are not to be embellished by any of man's efforts, or by tools and implements that are made by his hand (v. 25), lest the altar be desecrated. “Profane or desecrate is "chalel" (ch.l.l., chet, lamed, lamed), meaning also "pierced through" or "hollow", and hence, "flute" and "slain." In Yishayahu (Isaiah) 53:5 we read, “He was pierced through – mecholal (of the same root) - for our transgressions”. However, as we have just seen, “mecholal” does not only mean “hollow” (and hence “pierced through”), it is also “desecrated”, as indeed Yeshua was, having borne our Sin. Last to be mentioned is the prohibition concerning steps leading up to the altar, so that one's nakedness would not be exposed. “Nakedness” here (v. 26) is "erva" (a.r.h, ayin, resh, hey), "to lay bear, uncover", and "shame". It can also means "to pour out" or "to empty one's self", such as Yeshua did when He poured out (heh'e'ra) His soul unto death” (Is. 53: 12), so that our ‘nakedness’ would be covered, and our shame removed.

1 Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit,  Jerusalem, 1976, 1999.

2 New Studies in Shmot Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y. 

3 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago,  1980.

4 New Studies in Shmot, Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y. 

5 The Chumash Shmot With The Commentary Daat Mikrah, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 1991.

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

Above we examined the root of Torah, which we discovered was “to shoot”. Then we examined an unusual usage of the root z.h.r as “to teach” while its literal meaning is “to shine”. Modern Hebrew employs this root for “warning”, “caution” and for “being careful”. Another term we dealt with was “face” (“panim”), YHVH’s face. “Internal” (“p’nim”), is almost an identical word, revealing that a facial expression is the outcome of one’s inward thoughts and feelings. Let’s see how we can apply that notion to a statement in ‘basic’ Hebrew. For this purpose we will use another verb that appears in our Parasha, and that is “seeing”, “roeem” (present tense, masculine, plural, and that is because “panim” is a plural noun and the verb changes according to the noun it is attached to, whether masculine or feminine, as well as if it is singular or plural). We have already encountered the verb “to see” in the past. Now we will see how “seeing” and “showing” are connected. In fact they are both from the same root of r.a.h (resh, alef, hey). And finally, we will “sit down”…  on Shabbat.

Shoot with caution!
Lirot bi’zheerut! (lit. “to shoot with caution”)

The face shows what is inside
Ha’panim mar’eem ma yesh bi’fnim

On Shabbat we will sit (down)
BeShabbat neshev

Hebrew Insights into Parashat B’shalach – Sh’mot (Exodus): 13:17 – 17 with Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

The peculiarities characterizing the relationship of a graceful, sustaining and forgiving Elohim with a people, who are marked by vacillation and unbelief, are very evident in Parashat B’shalach. This makes the current Parasha a most suitable introduction to this relationship, foreshadowing that which will continue to transpire for many generations to come. The opening words, referring to Par’oh's release of the Israelites, without attributing it to YHVH, have been called into question. However, since in the process of negotiating with Par’oh the term "let go" ("", literally to “send or send off") is used time and again (seven, to be exact) and to no avail, the opening words of this Parasha point out that (ultimately) the ruling king is compelled, "willy nilly," to do just that.1. This is especially so, since we noticed last week that it was incumbent (legally) for Par’oh to let the Hebrews go, in an act which signified a divorce-like separation. Right after the "sending" it says that, "Elohim did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines" (13:17 emphasis added). "Lead" here is "nacham", of the root (noon, chet, hey). The same verb is used again, in verse 21, where it says that, "YHVH was going before them, in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them ["lan'chotam"] on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night". In Moshe’s Song (15:13) he specifies further, saying (literally), "by Your grace you led the people…" (using the same verb). This root is also used in “satisfaction” or “peace” (e.g. Pro. 29:9), while the root, which is a related root, means “rest”. Thus YHVH’s guidance and leading of His people during the entire wilderness journey, including the events described here, promises to be marked by these qualities. Interestingly, a potential encounter with the Philistines caused YHVH to take Yisrael in a round about way, even though they “came up from the land of Egypt prepared for action [or] in martial arraychamushim” (14:18b italics added). The root (chet, mem, shin) also serves the figure “five” – “chamesh” - which is thought to be the minimal number required for taking action.

The next phase wherein the Children of Yisrael find themselves 'between a rock and a hard place' (14:2, 3) forms an inseparable part of YHVH's plan for them. YHVH intends to be "honored – ve’eka’veda’ - through Pharaoh" (ref. 14:4). "Honor" (and "glory" too) here, and in most other places is "kavod", meaning "weightiness" or "heaviness". In verses 17 and 18, YHVH repeats the principle, "…then the Egyptians will know that I am YHVH, when I am honored - ve’eka’veda - through Pharaoh, through his chariots and his horsemen" (emphasis added). A little later YHVH "caused their chariot wheels to swerve, and He made them drive with difficulty…" literally "with heaviness" - "bich'vedoot" (v. 25, emphasis added). This is indeed an intriguing usage of the figurative and literal manifestation of the "glory" and "honor" of the Elohim of Yisrael, who is to be honored even through the heaviness of His enemies’ chariots! But the divine irony does not end there… In the past two Parashot we encountered quite a few times the term “Pharaoh hardened his heart”. Occasionally the verb used was “hach’bed” – made heavy (i.e. harden), such as in Sh’mot (Exodus) 8:28. Thus, it was the very “heaviness” of Par’oh’s heart (and also, proverbially, of his chariots) which brought about “high esteem” – kavod – to the Elohim who used the enemy’s ploys for the sake of His name. If we look back at the time when Moshe was first commissioned by YHVH, we discover that his initial response was that he “was slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10), which in Hebrew is (having) a “heavy mouth” and a “heavy tongue”.

Much of the description of the scene of the mighty deliverance (chapter 14) is echoed in chapter 15, by what is typically known as the "Song of Moses", or in Hebrew “Shirat Ha’Yam” – the Song of the Sea, rendering this Shabbat’s title, the Shabbat of the Song - Shabbat Shira. The "six hundred select chariots" and the "officers in command" of 14:7 become in 15:4 "the choicest of his officers" (when describing their drowning). "Select" and "choicest" are denoted by the same word, the root being (bet, chet, resh), and the "officers" (in both references) are "shalishim", which is of the root "three" – shalosh - making them (possibly) "third in command". In 14:8 we are told that "the sons of Israel came out with a lofty arm" (literal translation), and in 15:1, "the horse and its rider was lifted into the sea" (literal translation, emphasis added). In both instances, the word is "rah'ma", which also means "high, exalted, lifted, lofty". This type of repetition lends a dual dimension to the description; thus it is YHVH's "high and lifted arm" (ref. 14:8, emphasis added) which in this case raised high the waves and lifted off the riders and horses, casting them into the sea.

When the Israelites saw the Egyptians drawing close, they became very fearful ("vayir'u", root y.r.a – yod, resh, alef), and cried out to YHVH (ref. 14:10).  Moshe exhorts them: "Do not fear ("tir'oo", again y.r.a), stand and watch (literally: "see", "look at", “observe”) the salvation of YHVH" (v. 13). Moreover, while it is only the "midbar" (desert, v. 3) and the Egyptians that their eyes were looking at and seeing (v. 10), Moshe assured them that they would “never see the Egyptians again" (v. 13, emphasis added). "YHVH will fight for you while you keep silent" (v. 14 italics added) is stated in contradistinction to their "crying out" (v. 10, italics added). And thus YHVH responds to Moshe: "Why are you crying out to Me?" (v. 15, italics and emphasis added). Finally, after crossing the sea and walking on dry land, the "seeing" and the "fear" are transformed - "Israel saw the great power which YHVH had used against the Egyptians, and the people feared YHVH, and they believed in YHVH and in His servant Moses" (14:31, emphases added).

When Moshe addressed the people in 14:13, he referred to "the salvation – ‘yeshu-ah’ - of YHVH", whereas in his song YHVH Himself is the (epitome of) salvation, as well as the very strength and the song itself, while the “song” is called zimrah (15:2). The latter reference to the song is reminiscent of the word used by Ya'acov in B’resheet (Genesis) 43:11, where the "produce of the land" was described. Although "zemer" is “song” and the verb "le'za'mer" is to sing, another form of this verb is "lizmor", denoting "cutting" or "pruning" (ref. Lev. 25:3). This led some of the commentators to explain that "zimrah" is used here not as a song, but rather as a "cutting off" (of the enemy).2

The Song does not only employ words which echo and amplify the narrative that precedes it, some terms are also repeated, or contrasted within the poem itself, and thus underscoring them as for example, in "this is my Elohim and I will glorify Him…" (15:2), "I will glorify" is "an'vehu" of the root n.v.h. (noon, vav, hey), which means "beautiful" or "adorn". In verse 13 we read "…You guided them [the People] to Your holy abode" - "n'veh kodshecha". This is seen as either a reference to Mount Sinai, the land of Yisrael, the future Temple in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) - or to possibly all three of them together – the principal resting places of His Shekina Glory. 3 Thus, the combined usage of the root n.v.h in the poem creates a picture of the present presence of the Presence and the indwelling of the One Who is also guiding and leading His People as a Shepherd to a resting place where He will continue to reside (among them). In 15:17 there is also a reference to the settling of the Nation in Elohim's dwelling place and sanctuary, "mikdash", echoing “neveh kodshecha” of verse 13 (“Your holy habitation”).

The enemies of Yisrael, Egypt, as well as Philistia, the "chiefs of Edom", "heads of Mo'ab", and the “inhabitants of Canaan” are likened to "lead" and "stone" sinking into the depths, and also to a "still stone" (15: 5, 10, 16). In verse 10, “they [sink] like lead in the mighty waters”. “Mighty” is “adirim” (plural for “adir”) of the root a.d.r (alef, dalet, resh) which also stands for "majestic". It is repeated two more times here, both of them in connection with YHVH: "Your right hand YHVH is majestic in power" (v. 6), and "who is like You, majestic in holiness" (v.11). It is the majesty and might of YHVH which lends these very properties to the “waters” (of the sea) when used by Him for His purposes. 

In 15:1 Moshe and Yisrael sing, "I will sing to YHVH because He is exaltedga'o - ga'a". Verse 7 also mentions "Your exaltedness” - ge'on'cha”, again of the root g.a.h (gimel, alef, hey).  Verse 7 continues: "You send forth Your wrath and it consumes them [the enemy] like stubble" (emphasis added). YHVH's wrath is compared to a consuming fire, while the next verse says: "With the blast of your nostrils the waters were heaped up… the depths froze up" (emphasis added). According to the Daat Mikrah commentary, this text may be interpreted as two opposite actions performed by the wind at YHVH’s command: burning on one hand, and freezing on the other.4

In the course of the brief time covered by our Parasha, the Children of Yisrael find four occasions to complain. We are told that at Mara (“mahr” is “bitter”), after the act of causing the water to become sweet by casting a tree or a stick, which YHVH pointed out to Moshe, "He made a statute and an ordinance and there He tried them" (15: 25b). But whereas the Israelites are tried at Mara, in Refidim they "try YHVH" and are also quarreling with Him, when "there was no water" (17:7). Hence the place is named Masa (of "nisayon" - "to try"), and Meriva (from "riv" which is "quarrel"). In between these two episodes, they demand food and thus obtain the quail meat for the evening meal and "manna" for the morning (ref. chapter 16). Since the shape and texture of the manna was unfamiliar to them, "they asked each other: 'mah'n hu?'" or "what is it?" (16:15). Mah'n is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew "mah", meaning "what".

Although at the beginning of the Parasha YHVH averts the Israelites from the path of war, by the end of the narrative they find themselves in a battle with Amalek, a descendant of Esav (Gen. 36:12). Again, YHVH's miraculous intervention on their behalf is evident, coupled with faith (ref. Hebrews 4:2), symbolized by Moshe's "steadily" held arms. The Hebrew word for steady here is "emuna", literally "faith" (17:12), thus causing Yehoshua (Joshua) to "weaken Amalek" (v. 13). Moshe’s arms are denoted by the word “yad” (also “hand”). In the final verse of our Parasha, Moshe makes a proclamation about another “yad” - a “yad” which is “on Yah’s throne”, pointing to YHVH’s oath regarding His “war with Amalek from generation to generation” (17:16).5. We have just encountered the “yad” of YHVH (“hand” as distinct from “arm” – z’roah – and from “right hand or arm” – yamin) in the process of emerging from Egypt (e.g. 14:8, “yad ramah” – a lifted up hand; 14:31 – “yad g’dola” – “great/mighty hand”; 15:17 “kone’nu yade’cha” – “your hands have established us”). If YHVH places His hand on His throne (as in a gesture of making an oath), He will surely carry out that which He set out to perform.

Our Parasha is characterized by the contrast between the manifest Presence and Glory of YHVH and the Israelites' total focus on their immediate needs and fears, blinding them to the greatness and might displayed before them - so much so that even at the end (just before the battle with Amalek) they dare ponder, “Is YHVH among us, or not?" (17:7b).

1. New Studies in Shmot Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans.
Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah
Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc.,
Brooklyn, N.Y.
2. The Chumash Shmot With The Commentary Daat Mikrah,
Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 1991.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

The act of sending sets off this Parasha, so let’s look at the verb for “send”. From loftiness, glory, honor (and heaviness) we will be brought down to earth by a Modern Hebrew usage of rahm and k.v.d . The “heavenly bread” – mana (or “mahn”) will connect us to the very common “what”, but not without some “bitter flavoring”.

Elohim sent Moshe
Elohim shalach et Moshe

Noach sent the dove
Noach shalach et ha’yonah

Moshe was the envoy of Elohim
Moshe haya ha-shali’ach shel Elohim

He lifted the heavy thing (lit. “the thing the heavy”)
Hu herim et ha’davar ha’kaved

She lifted the heavy thing (lit. “the thing the heavy”)
He herima et ha’davar ha’kaved

Well Done!
Kol HaKavod! (lit. “all the honor”)

What is bitter?
Ma mahr?