Monday, September 13, 2010

Hebrew insights into Parashat Ve’zot Habracha – D’varim (Deuteronomy) 33-34

Hebrew insights into Parashat Ve’zot Habracha – D’varim (Deuteronomy) 33-34

The Torah’s last Parasha, with its prophetic blessings upon the People of Yisrael and the individual tribes, is also the last curtain for Moshe who takes his leave off the stage of history. We have seen the Patriarchs bless their sons before their departure, and now we view Moshe blessing the people whom he had carried in his bosom like a father (sometimes in spite of himself, ref. Num, 11:12) for over forty years.

The opening statement, “ve’zot habracha” (“and this is the blessing”), indicates that the first and more general component of the blessing (33:2-5) is part and parcel of one singular blessing that Moshe delivers as YHVH’s spirit rests upon him. That is to say that the tribes’ blessings are not separate from the word bestowed upon the nation as a whole. The very usage of “b’racha”, singular, implies that YHVH is considering each individual tribe as part of a complete entity.

The glorious and majestic description of the giving of the Torah at Sinai is likened to an epiphany, if you will, of YHVH Himself, denoted by His “coming,” “rising” and “shinning forth” over physical and geographical locations (ref v. 2). An equivalent description, although underscored by a more specific prophecy, found in Chavakuk (Habakkuk) 3:3, will perhaps help us realize that this expose’ of YHVH may not be restricted only to the event which took place at Chorev, as YHVH is not bound to, or limited by Time, even when He intercepts our dimensionally-confined world. Thus, a wider scope of revelation of Yisrael’s Elohim is presented. Interestingly, in “He came with ten thousands of saints” (v. 2), it is not the usual “ba” (“came”), but rather the Aramaic “ata,” evoking the Aramaic “maranatha” – or “maran ata” (Revelation 22:20) - that is, “Master come” or “the Master has come.” The enigmatic meaning of verses 2 and 3 is matched by the very words and syntax used, all of which are difficult and extraordinary, and present a task for the commentators to grapple with. The literal rendering, for example, of “ten thousands of saints,”, mentioned in verse 2, is “ten thousands of holiness,” the word there being “kodesh.” Thus, if the text is referring to “ten thousands of saints” or “holy ones,” why are “His holy ones” in the next verse (v. 3) rendered as “k’doshav” (“kadosh” - “holy one”), plain and simple? If in both cases the meaning is “His holy ones” why are they not identical? Or, is it possible that “ten thousands of holiness” is not a reference to “saints” (or “angels” according to rabbinic interpretation) at all, but is a description of His abode being “abundant in holiness”?

The next expression in the same verse is no less problematic. That which is translated either “firey law” or “flashing lightning” is “eshdat” in Hebrew, being a term that appears nowhere else. If broken in two it is: “e’sh” – fire – and “dat” – meaning “law, edict” or “manner of things.” However, “dat” is found only in Esther, one time in Ezra and in the Aramaic sections of Daniel, making its usage here, at such an early stage, totally doubtful. According to the B.D.B Lexicon “eshdat” was originally “esh yokeh-dat,” that is “burning fire” (with the first two syllables now missing). [1] According to this viewpoint we should read, “On His right (-that is, the right hand side) is a burning fire.”

Verse 3 reads: “Indeed, He loves the people; all thy holy ones are in Thy hand, and they followed in Thy steps, carrying your words.” This presents several problems. It changes mid-sentence from third to second person. “He who loves the nations” or “peoples” is described as “chovev amim.” The root ch.v.v. - love - is also shared by one of the words for “bosom.” Chovav is also one of the names of Moshe’s father-in-law (ref. Num. 10:29). According to Daat Mikra, “even when He expresses love toward all peoples, ‘all His Holy ones’ are Yisrael and they are ‘in Your hand’”. Therefore the change to second person in the second part of the verse denotes YHVH’s closeness to His people. Daat Mikra adds that the rest of the verse should read: “And they will be smitten at Your feet, and receive Your Word,” [2] whereas according to BDB the verb “tuku,” (“smitten”) is of dubious meaning and should therefore be understood as: “will be assembled,” as it is more compatible with the context. [3]

Yisrael’s present and future destiny is defined in the next two verses. Since Moshe is mentioned here in third person, the question arises whether he is speaking of himself, or is the assembly intoning the following: “Moses charged us with Torah, an inheritance for the assembly of Jacob. And there was a king in Jeshurun” [remember last Parasha’s Yeshurun, “the one who has been straightened”, in contradistinction to Ya’acov who is “winding or crooked”?]; when the heads of the people were gathered, the tribes of Israel together” (vs. 4, 5). For the “assembly of Jacob” we have here the unusual form of “kehila” (of the root k.h.l), rather than the frequent “kahal” or “eda.” “Kehila” appears to refer to a more organized form of the congregation, or society, rather than to a random assembly of the multitudes. Thus, when the People of Yisrael is in unison YHVH rules in their midst as a King of a redeemed community whose inheritance is Torah, rendering them no longer a wayward Ya’acov, but a Yeshurun whose paths have been made straight.

At this point Moshe confers on each tribe its respective prophetic blessing.

The first three tribes to receive their blessings are the firstborn Reuven, who in spite of having lost the birthright (ref. 1st Chronicles 5:1, 2), symbolizes here this significant position; Secondly, Yehuda (Judah), who was to receive the kingly position, while Levi is third to be given his blessing and stands for the office of the priesthood. There is no mistake - this is the order of YHVH’s Kingdom: the birthright comes first, ideally consisting of kingship and priesthood. However, in the un-regenerated state the birthright had to be divided up into its two offices (namely the ‘kingly’ and the ‘priestly’), which were only brought together in Yeshua (ref. Zech. 6:13). But when YHVH’s kingdom will be fully manifested on earth, His people will form the long-awaited-for nation of priests (after the order of Malchitzedek) and kings (e.g. ref. 2nd Peter 2:9).

Since Yehuda, according to the blessing (v. 7), was destined to be “brought to his people,” it is apparent that he will be separated from them at some point. This prediction became fact when the ten northern tribes seceded from the united kingdom, as it had existed under Shaul (Saul), David and Shlomo (Solomon) his son, never to have been reunited with Yehuda.

Of Levi it says (v. 9): “who said to his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; and he has not acknowledged his brothers, nor knew his own son, for they have observed Your word and kept Your covenant.” The word for “acknowledge” is “hekir,” also meaning to “recognize” and stems from the root (noon, kaf/chaf, resh) used in “nochri,” “stranger,” and in the verb “hitnaker,” to be “estranged.” This term describes Yoseph’s initial treatment of his brothers in B’resheet (Genesis) 42:7. The Levites, who were also to assume the position of judges, could not be “partial” to anyone, including their own family members, or as the Hebrew has it, they could not “recognize or acknowledge" their relatives, but rather, had to become “estranged” from them. “Estrangement” and “recognition,” although appearing to be contradictory, are in fact not that far apart; at times it takes the former in order to achieve the latter (as was the case with Yoseph and his brothers).

The description enumerating Yoseph’s blessing (vs. 13 – 17) resembles a trail going up and down hills, descending into valleys and underground resources and climbing mountain tops; a journey, which while topographical and geographical, also crosses the boundaries of Time and is ‘intercepted’ by the human element as well as by heavenly bodies, such as the sun and the moon (recalling to mind Yoseph’s dreams). “Meged” - translated “precious - is the leitmotif of this passage, as it is repeated five times within a few verses. Its expanded meaning is “excellence, glory, and gifts of choice” in reference to nature.[4] In verse 15, Yoseph’s hills and mountains are termed “ancient” (“kedem” - “first, initial, primary”), and “everlasting” (the word being “olam,” which also means “futurity”). Both the heavens and the abyss are destined to contribute toward Yoseph’s well being. That which the ground will produce for him on a monthly basis will grow so fast, that it will seem as though “expelled” (‘”the best yield” is “geresh”,, to “expel, force out”) by the earth. On the one hand “he shall push out the peoples” (v. 17). His leadership position, however, is not likened to the prowess of a king or a military leader, nor even to that of a typical priest, but rather to that of the Nazarite (ref. end of v. 16 – “n’zir ehcav”, literally the “nazarite among his brothers” and translated as “the one who was separated from his brothers,” or “a prince among his brothers”). The title used here originates from “nezer,” a “crown or a miter,” which is made up of the nazarite’s uncut hair (as we saw in Parashat Nasso, Num. 6). The “nazarite” - or “nazir”- is one who takes upon himself an oath to abstain from worldly pleasures.

Z’vulun (Zebulun) is told to rejoice in his “going out” (v. 18). In Parashat Ki Tetze (Deut. 21:10) we already noted that “going out” many a time connotes going out to war (ref. 1st Ch. 12:33), and in Z’vulun’s case also going out to sea (ref. Ya’acov’s blessings to his sons, in Gen. 49:13). Yisas’char’s (Issachar) tent dwelling is the antidote to Z’vulun’s “going out,” and refers to homestead and attachment to the land (the tent dwelling here does not seem to suggest a nomadic life style; cf. Jacob’s blessings, Gen. 49:14), and perhaps also to the wisdom and discernment characteristic of this people (ref. 1st Chronicles 12:32). The mutual cooperation between these two neighboring tribes is captured by verse 19. Yisas’char “shall call the peoples to the mountain. There they shall offer sacrifices of righteousness,” while Z’vulun will make provisions of “the bounty of the seas and treasures hidden in the sand.”

Naphtali is “satisfied with favor,” which is “s’vah ratzon” (v. 23), while Asher, who is “favorable in the eyes of his brothers,” is “r’tzooy echav” (v. 24). Both these words emanate from the root, which is to “please, accept, favor.”

In verse 15 we read about the “ancient – kedem – mountains,” while in verse 27 Elohim, who is described as a “dwelling place” (“me’ona”), is called “Elohey kedem,” translated here as “eternal.” Thus, He who always was from the very beginning, is also the One who will ever be and it is He who will enable Yisrael to “dwell alone securely” (v. 28), as He Himself is her dwelling place while “underneath [her] are [His] everlasting arms” (v. 27).

Moshe’s last words constitute an exhilarating exclamation: “Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, O people saved by YHVH, the shield of your help, and who is the sword of your excellency! And your enemies shall be found liars to you, and you shall tread on their high places” (33:29). It is most likely that Moshe himself did not compose the last eight verses of D’varim (chapter 34, or even the entire chapter, consisting of 12 verses). About his body it is said, “He buried him…” (34:6), inferring the direct involvement of the Holy One of Yisrael in the task. And although in Sh’mot (Exodus) 33:20 YHVH said to Moshe: “You cannot see My face. For there no man can see Me and live,” here we read, in verse 10: “And never since has a prophet like Moses arisen in Israel, whom YHVH knew face to face.” Even if not to be taken literally, these words do point to Moshe’s intimate knowledge of the Almighty, since “panim el panim” (“face to face”) implies exposure before someone, as in Hebrew “face” is not only an external image, with the root p.n.h (which we have noted several times in the past) meaning “to turn.” Thus “face” is that which “turns” to look at another. And while “panim” is the “exterior,” or the “surface,” “p’nim” means “inner” (ref. Ezekiel 40:19,23 etc.). Thus “panim” - face - expresses also that which is on the inside. In 2nd Corinthians 3:18 this principle is applied in a powerful way to each individual believer: “We all, with our face having been unveiled, having beheld [‘turned toward’] the glory of YHVH as in a mirror, are being changed [on the inside] into the same image from glory to glory, even as by YHVH, the Spirit” (italics added).

[1] The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson. Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 1979
[2] Da’at Mikra, A’ahron Mirski, Rav Cook Inst., Jerusalem, 2001
[3] The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
[4] Ibid.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Ha’azinu – D'varim (Deuteronomy) 32

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Ha’azinu – D'varim (Deuteronomy) 32

Parashat Ha’azinu, which consists almost in its entirety of the so-called ”Song of Moshe” and called Shirat Ha’azinu in Hebrew, is the crescendo that the Dvarim (Deuteronomy) account has been building up to. It is a recitation which summarizes the Israelites’ history and predicts future situations, and continually revolves around a central pivot - YHVH, as the Almighty and as the loving father of His people. In the past two weeks we pointed out that Shirat Ha’azinu (the Ha’azinu song or poem) was to bear testimony for future generations (ref. 30:19). Last week, and the week before, heaven and earth were also summoned as “witnesses”, as they are, indeed, here too: “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth” (italics added). The imperative “ha’azinu” (“listen”) is a derivative of “ozen” – “ear,” and would therefore be best translated “give ear.” You will notice that many of the verses are made up of couplets, where the same point is stated once and then repeated with a slight variation. The first two verses of the poem serve as a good example of this poetic device, which is so typical of biblical poetry:

Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak;
And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.

My doctrine shall drop as the rain;
My speech shall drop down as the dew,

As the small rain on the tender plant,
And as the showers on the grass;

YHVH’s love and care for Yisrael form the backdrop against which Yisrael’s past and future are respectively described and cast. According to the poem, the people’s relationship with and toward YHVH appears to be a primary cause of the events (past, present and future) which befall them.

Verse 4 exclaims that YHVH is “the Rock whose work is perfect.” The word here for rock is “tzur.” This word is repeated a number of times in our song, and thus we read in verse 13, in reference to YHVH’s benevolence toward Yisrael, “He made him suck … oil out of the flinty rock.” In response, Yeshurun (Jeshurun) – rooted in “straight,” acts more like a Ya’acov (which is “crookedness”), and “scorned the Rock of their Salvation” (v. 15). Verse 18 reads thus: “You forgot the Rock who birthed you.” The verb used here for “forgot” is “teshi,” of the root (noon, shin, hey), which is also the root for the name Menashe (Manasseh). The imagery of the “rock,” a substance that one would not associate with tenderness, much less with motherhood, is juxtaposed with metaphors related to birthing and suckling. We encounter this type of unusual imagery also in 1st Corinthians 10:4, where we read: “Our fathers….all drank of the spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Messiah.”

In verses 30 and 31 there are several more references to “tzur,” while in verse 37 the “rock” is the one in whom “refuge is taken” (“chasayu”, ch.s.h., chet, samech, hey – to “take refuge”), being a more conventional usage of the rock metaphor. Because the idols of the peoples were many a time made of stone, or carved into a rock, “tzur” is also used here in relation to the gods of the pagans (e.g. verse 31). This is in contrast to Yisrael’s Elohim, who is totally detached from literal substance of the rock.

Other parts of our text appear to highlight different attributes of Elohim, one in particular is found in verse 27. In our reading let us include also verse 26. YHVH says about His treacherous people: “I will make an end of them, I will make their memory cease from among men: 27 Were it not that I dreaded the enemy’s provocation, lest their adversaries should misconstrue, lest they should say, ‘our hand is exalted and not YHVH has performed all this.’” “This verse [27] contains a very daring anthropomorphism [personification-humanization of YHVH] indeed, attributing to Him the sentiment of fear, as it were… and has no parallel in the Torah.” In this commentary Nechama Leibowitz includes other instances where Moshe expresses concern over the desecration of YHVH’s name among the nations and concludes: “This concern over desecrating the Divine name… assumes a much more intense and extreme form in our sidra [Parasha]. Here it is the Almighty Himself who is, as it were, “concerned” over the world being misled and diverted from the path leading mankind spiritually forward. He is filled with apprehension lest His name be brought into disrepute instead of sanctified and His sovereignty universally recognized and acknowledged, which is the ultimate goal of all creation.”[1]

I will make an end of them…” is couched here in a very unique term, which appears nowhere else in the Tanach (O.T.), “af’ey’em.” Several possible interpretations of this term have been extrapolated. Most “have traced its meaning to the word pe’ah – “corner,” others to af (“anger”).” Rashi breaks up the word into its three syllables, and comes up with: “af ey hem,” which is a question that reads as follows: “In anger (“af”, meaning YHVH’s anger), where are they?” Thus implying that YHVH’s anger has reduced them to non-existence.[2] Da’at Mikra offers another interpretation, with the same “pe’ah” – “corner, edge” in mind: “I will not leave of them as much as an edge.”[3]

Another verse that requires some attention is 5, where it says: “They have corrupted themselves: they are not His sons; it is their blemish; they are a crooked and perverse generation.” And although the Hebrew there is somewhat obscure, according to Da’at Mikra it should read, “His sons’ blemish is theirs” (literal translation), that is to say: “their perversion is of their own making, and therefore they are “lo-banav,” “not-His-sons”. This is similar to what was said of Ephraim “not-My-people” (“Lo-Ami”, Hos. 1:9). [4] In contradistinction, verse 6 names YHVH as “your father, the One who purchases you” – “kone’cha.” Quite often the term “koneh” (k.n.h, kof, noon, hey) – to “buy, or purchase” – is synonymous with redeeming, and lends the latter act its graphic meaning, as the role of the redeemer is primarily to pay for, and buy that which is lost (such as freedom or property). Many years later, in 1st Corinthians 6:20 and 7:23, Shaul (Paul) reminds the redeemed community: “You are bought with a price.” “Kone’cha,” with its similarity to “ken” (a “bird’s nest”), inspired Rashi to suggest that this is a reference to the nest that YHVH is making for Yisrael (see also verse 11).

At this point, starting with verse 6 and through 14, the poem expounds very tenderly on the establishing of the Israelite nation, and on the care and love bestowed on it by its Maker. Of the fact that Yisrael had a major role in global affairs, much before it even came into being, we learn from verse 8: “When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the people according to the number of the sons of Israel” (italics added). When one takes into consideration the fact that the above separation took place after the Flood, and more particularly that YHVH scattered the people during the Tower of Ba’vel (Babel) era (Gen. 10:25, 11:8), this statement becomes all the more momentous.

A string of verbs, which follow one another in progressive intensity and describe YHVH’s involvement with Yisrael, is introduced in verses 10 & 11. “He found him…He compassed him about … He cared for him…. Like an eagle that stirs up His nest… He hovers… He spreads his wings… He takes him… lifts him….” The “desert land,” the “waste” and the “howling wilderness” mentioned here (v. 10), conjure up in the mind a lost entity wondering around, and thus these verbs appear as the solution and answer to the dire condition of the people. These verbs are replete with activity: “vay’vone’nehu” (root b.n.h, bet/vet, noon, hey), translated “cared,” but in actual fact could relate to “bina” – “wisdom,” and thus may read: “endowed him with wisdom”; or to “hitbonen,” which is to “look closely, watch.” Another possibility is the connection to “boneh,” “build, build up, or edify.” “Guarded him” is a translation of “yitz’renhu,” which is of the root, (noon, tzadi, resh), meaning to “keep, guard, watch, hide, protect.” It is from this root that “netzer,” the “branch” of Yishayahu (Isaiah) 11:1 is derived, and the “watchmen” – “notzrim” – of Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 31:6. “Hovers” is particularly interesting, as it is “ye’ra’chef”, of the root (resh, chet, pey/fey), which is found in B’resheet (Genesis) 1:2 (in reference to the Spirit of Elohim). We also recall Parashat Va’era, in Shmot (Exodus) 6:7, 8 where we read YHVH’s promise: “And I will take you…. to the land concerning which I lifted up My hand…” (italics added). In Sh’mot (Exodus) 19:4, we also read YHVH’s address to Yisrael: “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.” Thus Parashat Ha’azinu echoes promises of the past, transferring them to the present day reality of the Israelite Nation on the threshold of the Promised Land.

Next is the enumeration of the goodness and plenty that Yisrael was endowed with, and with which she shall be blessed in the future (v. 13-14). Verse 15 witnesses a transition, and once again there is an inventory, if you will, of densely listed verbs. Unfortunately not all of them can be translated into verb form in English: “Yeshurun grew fat… kicked… put on weight… became thick… covered in layers… forsook Elohim his maker….” In Hebrew all these are in verb form and follow one another thus: “va’yishman… va’yiv’at… shamanta, avita, kasita, va’yitosh… va’y’na’bel,” almost as though stampeding over each other. Just as before, where YHVH’s intense activities around His people were depicted in verb form, so too here, the Israelites’ intent on turning away from Him is described in a chain reaction of fast moves.

The excerpt of verses 28-35 presents a controversy, which has been engaging the commentators for generations. Who is the subject of verses 28-29? Is it Yisrael, or is it the enemies? In verse 30, again, who is being chased, is it Yisrael, or the enemies? Verse 36: “For YHVH will bring His people justice; and He shall have compassion on His servants…” seems to indicate that the former section would have referred to the enemy. However, according to 30 and 31, it would appear that Yisrael is the subject of the section: “How shall one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, unless their Rock had sold them and YHVH had shut them up? For their rock is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges.” Who is it that YHVH is “selling”? (Remember verse 6, where He was depicted as the Father and the “buyer”?) Does He not sell that which belongs to Him? And in verse 31, in the references to “their rock” and to “our rock,” is there not a distinction made between Yisrael and the other nations? Verses 37 and 38 present a similar dilemma. Again, is it Yisrael or is it the nations that are the subject of this brief portion? Having just read that YHVH will have compassion on His people, this could possibly refer to the enemies, whose rock and god (the rock being the "god" and not a mere metaphor for strength, unlike the Elohim of Yisrael who is symbolized by the rock, but is not the rock itself) is unable to help them. Conversely, this could also be talking to Yisrael, who had been leaning on false gods whom they trusted to no avail. What do you think?

“And Moses made an end of speaking all these words to all Israel. And he said to them, ‘Set your hearts to all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your sons to observe and to do, all the words of this law; For it is not a vain thing for you, because it is your life. And by this word you shall prolong your days in the land where you go over Jordan, there to possess it’” (vs. 45-47). Thus Moshe seals these most solemn words of the testimonial poem. The words, “for it is not a vain thing for you, because it is your life” are rendered in Hebrew, “for it is not an empty word for you, because…” and here it is possible to read, “He is your life”… ”I am the way, the truth and the Life,” were Yeshua’s words in John 14:6. And just as Shirat Ha’azinu was to bear a testimony, so did the Word-made-flesh (John 1:14) bear a testimony in His very being, “so that all might believe…” (John 1:7).

[[1]] New Studies in Devarim, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner
Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc.,
Brooklyn, N.Y.
[2] Ibid
[3] Da’at Mikra, A’ahron Mirski, Rav Kook Inst., Jerusalem, 2001
[4] Ibid.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hebrew Insights into Parashot Nitzavim/Va’yelech – D’varim (Deuteronomy)

Hebrew Insights into Parashot Nitzavim/Va’yelech – D’varim (Deuteronomy)
29:10-30/Ch. 31

This week’s Parashat Nitzavim may be subtitled “The Hebrew People - A Testimony of the Covenant and of the Promises.” Although Nitzavim is translated, "You stand…," it actually means "standing in position, standing firmly, or taking a stand," the root being (yod, tzadi, bet/vet) and the definition is “set, establish or take a stand”.[1] According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, however, the root is tz.v.v (tzadi, vet, vet), and means “cover while moving.” [2] Embodied in this Parasha (as well as in the next, Parashat Va’yelech), is the definition of the nation as well as the ultimate promise of grace.

Two of the terms, which ‘pop up’ more than once, are the verb "avor" (which we have examined previously) and means “to pass, go through, go over, enter,” and the noun and verb forms of "witness or testimony” ("ed"). The Hebrew people, YHVH’s witnesses, are characterized, as we know, by ‘crossing’ or ‘passing over,’ with different aspects of this action being presented here.

First, the people are standing “in position” or “formation”. Why? "That you may enter ("la'avor") the covenant with YHVH your Elohim, and enter into His oath which YHVH your Elohim is making with you today, in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your Elohim, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of YHVH our Elohim and with those who are not with us here today" (29:12-15). Thus, being Hebrews, means first and foremost to "cross over," with the emphasis being on passing/crossing over into the covenant. Notice also the far reaching aspect of the covenant, to those “not with us today” (29:15), thus pointing to the continuity of the people of Yisrael and to generational unity within the boundaries of the covenant. “Covenant” – “brit” – is of the root b.r.t (bet, resh, tav), meaning to “cut." “Making a covenant” – “karot”- is another verb for “cut” (a tree, for example). Hence, in making the covenant there is a double cutting as it were, which is an emphatic separation, both naturally and spiritually (and signified by the physical circumcision). By the same token, transgression is also a “cutting (again, k.r.t, e.g. Lev. 7:20)… away” from the boundaries prescribed by the covenant.

This covenant, being two-sided, is therefore like a two-edged sword. Abba laid down the conditions, but knowing the heart of His children, which would turn away from Him, He also built into the covenant the promise of grace. In other words, ultimately it will be Him only who will make possible its fulfillment, as is seen so vividly in 30:3-10. All the verbs that YHVH uses in relationship to Himself, in these eight verses, are in the ‘active causative form,’ denoting that He is both the initiator and the ‘enactor.’ Not only does He take it upon Himself to make it possible for the covenant to be fulfilled by carrying all of our afflictions and sufferings (through His Son), here it also says that "YHVH your Elohim [is He] who will cross (la'avor) ahead of you" (31:3). YHVH is truly the Elohim of the Hebrews! He goes ahead of them by "crossing over" Himself! And indeed, we see Yeshua crossing - “over” – ahead of us, entering within the veil giving us a hope which is sure and steadfast – “yatziv” (ref. Heb. 6:19, 20, Hebrew translation of the Greek, being also of the root, which lends the name to our Parasha). Thus, with a “yatziv” (sure) hope, we are enabled to be “y’tzivim” (steadfast, standing firmly).

In the meantime, this drama of the covenant nation, its unfaithfulness and the grace granted it, is to unfold in front of the entire universe and creation. The testimony – witness -“ed” – is being established by calling upon heaven and earth (ref. 30:19). The Song of Moses (referred to in Parashat Va’yelech 31:21 and presented in chapter 32, and a different version in Ex. 15) is the written record which serves as a witness, as does the Torah too, which is to be kept in the ark in the Holy of Holies (31:26).

The desolate land (29:23-28) also bears witness to the unfaithfulness of the people, both before their own sons' eyes, and in front of the foreigners, as does their banishment from it. All this is with view toward the end that, the Hebrew people themselves will become a witness and a testimony nation. "You are my witness, declares YHVH" (Is. 43:10), to the fact that He is the Elohim of Yisrael, the Elohim of creation, and the Elohim of the universe.

The covenant here mentioned was made with us, of this generation (see 29: 14, 15), just as much as it was made with those who lived back then, and therefore we too are "standing in position" today to be a covenant people and a witness to the Elohim of the covenant, the Elohim of Yisrael, the Elohim of the Hebrews - the Elohim of grace.

The Parasha that we just looked at focused on the “crossing over” of the Hebrew people, while this next Parasha, “Va’yelech,” starts with… the “going” of Moshe: “va’yelech Moshe,” that is “and Moses went.” Although this Parasha commences with Moshe’s statement about his approaching death and with instating Yehoshua (Joshua) in his position, the rest of chapter 31 echoes some of what we just read in Parashat Nitzavim. And so “Moshe went and spoke these words to all Israel. And he said to them, I am a hundred twenty years old today. I can no more go out and come in. Also YHVH has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan’” (31:1, 2 italics added). Notice the elderly leader’s words, “I can no more go out and come in,” which in Hebrew is: “la’tzet ve-lavo” [literally “to go out” and “to come in”). The pervious Parashot, Ki Tetze, “when you go out,” and Ki Tavo,” - “when you come in,” seem to be related to these words of Moshe about “going out to war” (Deut. 21:10), and “coming into the land” (26:1). Thus, paraphrased, Moshe is implying the following: “I am not able to lead you in war, and neither am I able to enter the land with you.” But whereas Moshe will not be accompanying the people, he consoles them saying, as we saw last week, that “YHVH your Elohim will cross before you” – which is again the familiar “over” (a.v.r – the root of “Hebrew”). “He will destroy these nations before you,” and in addition Yehoshua will also “go – pass, cross - “over” - before you” (v. 3). Verses 6 and 8 summarize all of the above: “YHVH your Elohim is He who goes with you. He will not fail you nor forsake you.” The latter expression is, “lo yar’pecha, ve-lo ya’az’vecha,” “Yar’peh” – translated “fail” - is of the root r. p/f. h (resh, pey/fey, hey), meaning to “become weak, let go, be negligent, or remove.” In Tehilim (Psalms) 46:10 it says, “Be still and know that I am YHVH.” However, in Hebrew it says, “be still and harpu,” which literally means, “let go”, or “be made weak.” Because YHVH will not “let go” of His people, they are the ones who must do the “letting go” and become “weak” before Him, and in doing so they will know that He is the Elohim who alone can give them strength. Shaul (Paul) echoes this sentiment when he says: “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weakness, that the power of Messiah may overshadow me” (2ndv Corinthians 12:9 italics added). The next verb (of the above-mentioned expression, “lo yar’pecha ve-lo ya’av’vecha”) is azav (ayin, zayin, bet/vet), and means “leave, abandon or forsake.” It is also used elsewhere in our Parasha, although in a different connotation, as we shall see at once.

And so we read in verses 16 and 17: “And YHVH said to Moses, ‘Behold, you shall sleep with your fathers. And this people shall rise up and go lusting after the gods of the strangers of the land into which they are going, into their midst. And they will forsake Me – ve’azavani - and break My covenant which I made with them. Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them - ve’azavtim…’” (Italics added). Verse 5 reveals to us that there is a condition for being preserved by YHVH: “…do to them [the nations in Cna’an - Canaan) according to all the commandments which I have commanded you,” and not “go lusting after [their] gods,” thereby forsaking the true One.

In the above (v. 16), we also read that in conjunction with following idols: “This people shall rise up…” which is “ve’kam.” In Parashat Nitzavim we read in 29:13: “…that He may establish you today for a people to Himself…” which is literally “that He may raise you up… - hakim.” Thus, it is the very people which YHVH was raising up, that “shall rise up and go lusting after the gods of the strangers…” (italics added). In both the above examples (and in many similar ones throughout the Tanach, some of which we examined very recently), we see the usage of the very same word, or a derivative of the same root, for the purpose of conveying contrasting messages. This method highlights or enhances an idea, and at times also adds a touch of irony.

In verse 14, YHVH is commanding Moshe to call on Yehoshua and for both of them to “present” themselves in the Tabernacle; a command which is designated by the imperative
“(ve-hit)yatzvu”, of the root, which we encountered in the previous Parasha of “Nitzavim.” In presenting himself, therefore, Yehoshua is to make a “firm stand.” Further connection to Parashat Nitzavim is evident in the concept of “witness” – testimony “ – “ed,” masculine, and “eda,” feminine. Last week heaven and earth and life and death were all mentioned as witnesses (30:19). This week the “Song” (which constitutes the next Parasha), the book of the Torah, and heaven and earth (again) are mentioned in the capacity of witnesses. The “Song,” in particular, is mentioned as “testifying as a witness” against the people “when many evils and troubles have found them” (v. 21). “Testifying” is “an’ta” (of the root a.n.h – ayin, noon, hey), meaning to “respond or answer,” as according to verse 19 the “Song” will be, “in the mouths of the Children of Israel.” Thus their own words, when they recite this Song, shall “respond” to their evil actions and become a testimony against them. This brings to mind Parashat Nitzavim’s: “the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you may do it” (30:14 italics added), which is the other side of the proverbial coin. Another usage of “ta’aneh,” “respond”, in relationship to “witness,” is found in Sh’mot (Exodus) 20:16 and Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 5:20: “You shall not bear – “ta’aneh”- respond” - a false witness against your neighbor.” In view of this, are the things that we say and do but responses, or answers, to a ‘Primary Cause’?

In verses 10 and 11 we read: “And Moses commanded them, saying, ‘at the end of seven years, at the set time of the year of release, in the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel has come to appear before YHVH your Elohim in the place which He shall choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing.’” The word for “read” is “kara” (k.r.a, kof, resh, alef), meaning to "read, recite, call.” At the end of the Parasha, in verse 29, it says: “For I know that after my death you will become utterly corrupt, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you. And evil will happen to you in the latter end of the days…”. Moshe predicts that “evil” will “happen to you,” which is rendered here ve’karat, and shares the same root as the “kara” (“read”), that we have just looked at. However, as a rule the spelling for “happen”, albeit of the same sound as “read” or “recite,” is different and therefore has another root. Thus, the special rendering and spelling of “happen” in this particular case incorporates, as it were, the verb for “reading”, meaning that hearing the Torah read and turning away from it and from its Giver will result in evil befalling or happening to those who act in such manner.

[1] The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson.
Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 1979.

[2] Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, Rabbi Matityahu Clark, Feldheim
Publishers, Jerusalem, New York.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Ki Tavo – Deuteronomy 26 – 29:9

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Ki Tavo – Deuteronomy 26 – 29:9

When you have comeki tavo – into the land…” informs us that “living in Israel is the assumption behind the Torah itself”, to quote Nehemiah Gordon of the Karaite Korner Web Site. And whereas last week’s Parasha raised the issue of the firstborn son, this week the Parasha deals extensively with first fruit (both of which belong to YHVH, ref. Sh’mot - Exodus - 13:2; 22:29; 23:19, Bamidbar – Numbers – 18:13). Rendering to Adoni the first fruit that belong to Him can be done only in the land of Israel. The triune bond of the Heavenly Father, His people, and the land He is giving them is expressed here in a most poignant way. “And it shall be, when you have come into the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving to you as an inheritance, and you have possessed it, and live in it; then you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground which you shall bring in from your land which YHVH your Elohim is giving to you, and shall put it in a basket, and shall go to the place which YHVH your Elohim shall choose to cause His name to dwell there” (26:1,2 italics added). Once the Israelite person is well settled in the land that YHVH has caused him to inherit, and once that land yields its produce, that same Israelite is to render back to YHVH the first fruit of the produce, while doing so only in the place and in the manner prescribed by YHVH.

“And the priest shall take the basket out of your hand and place it before the altar of YHVH your Elohim. And you shall speak and say before YHVH your Elohim…” (26: 4, 5). Now the Israelite is bidden to recount before YHVH some of the history of his people, which of course highlights YHVH’s indispensable role in leading the said Israelite worshipper to thanksgiving, as well as enhancing his sense of oneness with his ancestors and with the future generations too. As we have seen many times before, place, time and people all come together under the sovereign rule of YHVH.

However, this declaration: “And you shall place it before YHVH your Elohim, and bow yourself before YHVH your Elohim”, along with the presentation of the fruit in the basket - does not bring this particular activity to a close. In 26:11 we read: “… and rejoice in all the good which YHVH your Elohim has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the alien who is in your midst”, immediately leading to: “When you have made an end of tithing all the tithes of your increase the third year, the year of tithing, and have given it to the Levite, the alien, the orphan, and the widow, that they may eat inside your gates, and be filled…” (v.12). Thus, the individual Israelite, who is responsible before his Elohim for handing over the initial yield of his land, for thanking Elohim and rejoicing before Him, is at the same time also to encompass the needy ones within his gates, since rendering to them their dues is as good as “lending to YHVH” Himself (ref. Prov.19:17).

Noticeably, the address made to the Israelites in chapter 26 is in the second person singular, which constitutes, as noted before, a means to emphasize the individual responsibility to be borne by each person. The confession, however, made by the Israelite worshipper is in first person plural, denoting the collective national identity in relationship to YHVH. In verse 10 there is an immediate change, again to first person, as the focus shifts back to the individual’s responsibility and relationship with his Elohim. Verses 17-19 sum up the ‘transaction’ which will thus take place: “You have today declared YHVH to be your Elohim, and to walk in His ways, and to keep His statutes and His commands, and His judgments, and to pay attention to His voice. And YHVH has declared you today to be His people, a special treasure as He has spoken to you, and to keep all His commands. And He will make you high above all nations that He has made, in praise, and in name, and in glory; and that you may be a holy people to YHVH your Elohim, as He has spoken” (italics added). The verb “declared” in both instances is “he’emir,” of the root a.m.r (alef, mem, resh), meaning to “say, utter, declare, speak.” However, because “he’emir” is an unusual conjugation, rather than the regular “amar,” some translate it “elevate,” from the root word “a’mir,” which is “top or summit” (for example, “uppermost branch” in Yishayahu - Isaiah 17:6). The wilderness journey had seen many incidents of rebellion, as Moshe states in Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 9:24: “You have been rebels against YHVH from the day that I knew you.” There, as in many of the other references to the Israelites’ rebelliousness, the word used is “ma’mrim”, of the root m.r.h. Thus, the sad fact, stated in alliteration form in Tehilim (Psalms) 107:11: “They defied Elohim’s words” – “himru ee’mrey El”, finds its ‘remedy’ in another alliteration - “he’emiru” - that is in the action of “saying and declaring” YHVH’s words, deeds and goodness toward His people.

The rest of the Parasha is mostly devoted to the blessings and the curses. Even the undertaking in the future, of writing the Torah on “large stones” after crossing the Yarden and of reading it to the people, is intended to illustrate vividly the extant dichotomy of “blessings” and “curses,” as this event was to take place between the “Mountain of Blessing” and the “Mountain of Curse.” And, as if to make sure that the people will understand the simple equation of ‘obedience equals blessings - rebellion equals curses’, it says: “And you shall write on the stones all the words of the law very plainly” (27:8). “Very plainly” is “ba’er heytev,” and while we have already examined once the verb “ba’er” (and its connection to “b’er,” “well”), here we encounter the additional “heytev,” of the root “tov” - well, good, pleasant.” “Ba’er hey’tev,” then, is plainly “do a good job of explaining and making the meaning clear and simple.”

Moving now to the blessings versus the curses, we take a look at 28:1 (regarding the blessings) and at verse 15 (the opening verse enumerating the curses), and read the following commentary: “Particularly remarkable is the difference between the emphatic double phrase of obedience used in the positive passage: ‘If thou shalt diligently hearken (shamo’a tishma)’ and the bare: ‘if thou shalt not hearken’ in the negative one. … Rashi, following Talmudic exegesis interprets the idiomatic doubling of the verb in a conditional sense: ‘And it shall be,’ im shamoa, ‘if thou shalt hearken,’ tishma, ‘then thou shalt continue to hearken.’ Though grammatically this is not the implication of the verb doubling, it nevertheless expresses a deep psychological truth that once man has started on the right path, his progress becomes easier, gathering momentum with each fresh good deed. As Maimonides observed: ‘The more man is drawn after the paths of wisdom and justice, the more he longs for them and desires them’”. [1]

The blessings and the curses are set side by side in chapter 28, and are parallel in content. But whereas it takes 14 verses to enumerate the blessings, it takes almost four times that to go through all the curses. It appears that both blessings and curses are all-encompassing. Being blessed, one is blessed everywhere one goes or happens to be, and likewise when one is cursed. The blessings and the curses are therefore all-pervasive. The more the blessings sound pleasant and appealing, the more horrendous and appalling are the curses, and using some of the same words in both underscores this fact all the more. The word fruit, for example, is used this way. In 28:4 and 11 we read: “The fruit of your body shall be blessed, and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, the offspring of your oxen, and the young ones of your flock. (italics added).” “And YHVH shall prosper you in goods, and in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land which YHVH swore to your fathers to give it to you. (italics added).” In the next section we read about a fierce nation, which “shall eat the fruit of your livestock, and the fruit of your land, until you are destroyed (italics added)” (v. 51). But what renders “fruit” and its usage much more macabre is verse 53: “And you shall eat the fruit of your body, the flesh of your sons and your daughters whom YHVH your Elohim has given to you… (italics added)”

Let us review several other similar examples (where the same term, or root, is used in widely differing contexts, highlighting the severity of the message). In 28:11 we read: “And YHVH will grant you plenty of goods…” (emphasis added), which is “ve’hotircha,” from the root y.t.r -“that which surpasses” and is therefore a “surplus.” But y.t.r. is also the root for “that which remains”. And so in 28:54 the root y.t.r is employed once more, though with a very different message: “The sensitive and very refined man among you will be hostile toward his brother, toward the wife of his bosom, and toward the rest – “yeter” - of his children whom he leaves behind – “yotir” - so that he will not give any of them the flesh of his children whom he will eat…” (emphasis added). These words, aside from highlighting the horrid situation, especially as juxtaposed against the blessings of y.t.r., also echo the same morbidity which characterized the passage we just read above (having had to do with “fruitfulness”). “Avod” - “work, labor, worship, serve” is another term which is used in this manner. “Because you did not serve/worship YHVH your Elohim with joyfulness and with gladness of heart for the abundance of all things, you shall serve your enemies whom YHVH shall send on you, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in lack of all things. And he shall put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you” (vv. 47, 48 italics added). Verse 64 takes us even further: “And YHVH shall scatter you among all people, from one end of the earth even to the other, and you shall serve other gods there, wood and stone, which you have not known, nor your fathers” (italics added).

Becoming “a proverb and a byword – ma’shal u’shneena - among all the peoples” (v. 37) is another outcome of not heeding YHVH’s voice, as opposed to “all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of YHVH, and they shall fear you” (v. 10). In Parashat Chayey Sarah we examined “ma’sha-l” extensively. We found that one of the verbs for “to rule” – mashol – shares its root ( with words such as “proverb, parable and example.” Thus, a ruler who represents his higher authority, as he is meant to in YHVH’s kingdom, becomes a fit example of the latter. Here Yisrael is warned against misrepresenting YHVH and becoming an object lesson exemplifying what happens to those who betray trust. In Yoel (Joel) 2:17 the prophet laments: “And do not give Your heritage to reproach, that the nations should rule (“lim’shol”) over them. Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their Elohim?'" “Sh’neena” stems from the root sh.n.n. (shin, noon, noon) and means to “sharpen or to whet,” and by implication “repeat.” Thus, if Yisrael should set a negative example, that fact will be told repeatedly, over and over, and in every place. However, if they obey the word, “vesheenantam… “teach repeatedly” YHVH’s Word to their children (Deut. 6:7), not only will they not become a “sh’neena” - “a byword”- among the nations, rather they will be at the “head” of all the nations (ref. 28:13).

The ultimate fulfillment of the curses is being scattered among the nations. This entails a situation which will be totally unbearable, “and among these nations you shall find no ease, nor shall the sole of your foot have rest – ma’no’ach…” (v. 65). In Parashat No’ach we read: “The dove was sent to see if the water had abated and, found no resting place – again ma’no’ach - for the sole of her foot….” (B’resheet, Genesis 8:8,9). But the suffering, anguish and dread only continue: “And your life shall hang in doubt before you, and you shall fear day and night, and shall have no assurance of your life. In the morning you shall say, Oh that it were evening! And in the evening you shall say, Oh that it were morning! For the fear of your heart with which you fear, and for the sight of your eyes which you shall see” (vv. 66, 67). Indeed, one Holocaust survivor chose to name the book he wrote about his experiences, Oh That It Were Evening. “Evening” as we noted several times already is “erev” of the root e.r.v (ayin, resh, bet/vet), with its numerous derivations, such as, mix, pleasant, raven and guarantee (the end of the day, “erev”, is a guarantee of the coming of the morning). The Guarantor of the coming day, in that case, can only be the One who is ‘mixed in’ (that is involved) with those to whom He is pledging His guarantee. Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) chapter 30, for example, contains tremendous (and guaranteed) promises to Yisrael. In verse 21 (of Jer. 30) we read the following: “Their leader [“moshel” which we just encountered above] shall be one of them and their ruler shall come forth from their midst [remember Parashat Shoftim and the leader who was to be raised from “among their brethren”?]. And I will bring him near and he shall approach Me; For who would dare to risk his life to approach Me?”. “Dare to risk (his life)” is once again from the same familiar e.r.v - “a’ra’v.” The answer to that question is quite clear, as no one else but the Son could risk His life, as indeed He has, by “sacrificing” (which is “to approach”) His own self!

Finally (in v. 68), “And YHVH shall bring you into Egypt again with ships, by the way of which I said to you, ‘you shall never see it again’” (remember, "For as you see the Egyptians today, you shall not continue to see them again forever” in Shmot – Exodus - 14:13?). The mention of ships is rather curious here, as it would not have been the normal passageway from Yisrael to Egypt. This imagery may be pointing to the sea which the Children of Yisrael crossed miraculously when coming out of their land of bondage. Returning to that same place would be very different from the supernatural and miraculous means they had once experienced; this time it would be more like “crossing the sea of distress” (ref. Zech. 10:11). There, in Egypt, the place where the Israelites had experienced deliverance from slavery, they will once again be in bondage. Should this happen, they will sell themselves as slaves, the word being “hit’makar’tem” from the root (mem, kaf/chaf, resh), which is a very unusual form of to “sell”, meaning “becoming sold by selling oneself.” However, while willing to sell themselves to slavery, “there shall be no buyer” (v. 68) willing to purchase them!

Verses 1-9 of chapter 29, which form the epilogue of our Parasha, serve to remind the future Israelites, once again, of the miracles that they had lived through in this Egypt, which just a moment ago was presented before them as a potential place of untold future sufferings. They are called to remember in the future the extent of YHVH’s past goodness toward them and His great mercy, love and power; a remembrance which will be essential for their conduct and wellbeing in the future, hence the exhortation: “Pay attention to the words of this covenant, and do them, that you may act wisely in all that you do”! (29:8).

[1] New Studies in Devarim, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman, Eliner Library,
Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, Hemed books Inc., Brooklyn,

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Ki Te’tzeh – Deuteronomy: 21:10 – 25:19

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Ki Te’tzeh – Deuteronomy: 21:10 – 25:19

Parashat Ki Te’tzeh – “when you go out”… consists of lists of commandments, some of which we have encountered earlier on in the Torah. Others are repeated in a modified form, while quite a few are mentioned here for the first time. It should be noted that even though at first glance the various injunctions seem to be placed randomly, a closer study reveals them to be organized in clusters wherein there is a common theme, or some other link which ties them together within each respective group. One such example, where the rulings almost form a story line, is right at the beginning of the Parasha. The first one deals with a case of a man desiring and marrying a foreign woman taken captive in war, but losing interest in her at a later stage. The next ruling focuses on the rights of the firstborn son of (again) an unloved wife, whose husband has another, favored, wife. From the firstborn son we are taken to an command regarding a rebellious son, whom some of the sages believe to be the offspring of the foreign wife mentioned above. This son’s behavior makes him a “candidate” for stoning. The next ruling deals with a criminal who is sentenced to hanging (ref. 21:10-23). At the very end of the Parasha (in 25:14-16), to mention another example, we read about unjust weights and measures which are detestable in YHVH’ sight. The concomitant ruling is a reference to the Amalekites, who are to be completely wiped out because of their ill treatment of Yisrael during the Exodus, which places them under the category of: “Anyone doing these things is hateful to YHVH your Elohim everyone acting evilly” (25:16), even though “these things” is actually in reference to using unjust weights. Parashat Ki Te’tzeh illustrates the extent of YHVH’s involvement in every aspect of the Israelites’ life - the individuals as well as the community. They, in turn, were therefore to live their lives and express themselves in a manner worthy of Him.

The stubborn and rebellious son, of 21:18, 20, according to his own parents’ admittance, “will not listen to his father's voice or his mother's voice; even though they discipline him, he will not listen to them.” “Stubborn and rebellious” is “sorer u’moreh”; “sorer” is of the root s.r.h (samech, resh, hey) and means “turn aside, defect, or withdraw”; “moreh” is of the root m.r.h (mem, resh, hey) meaning, “contentious, or rebellious.” This conduct issues forth from the heart, as we read in Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah): “To this people there is a revolting and a rebellioussorer u’moreh - heart” (5:23). This son is further described as “a gluten and a drunkard.” The latter noun is “soveh”, the root being s.v.a. (samech, bet/vet, alef), recalling, “sovah” (sin/shin, vet, ayin) which is not only close in sound but also in meaning (albeit employing a different spelling). In Parashat Vayera (see Gen. 21:27-31) we examined this root and found that “satisfaction,” or to “have had enough” (especially in reference to food), is “sovah,” relating to the number "seven" – “sheva.” By calling the week "shavua," the language points to the fullness and completeness of what Elohim has achieved. "In Your presence there is fullness ("sova") of joy; I will be satisfied ("es'be'ah") with Your likeness when I awake," (Ps. 16:11; 17:15). Thus, if one is not ‘satisfied’ with being “sa’veh’ah” and overindulges, he becomes a “soveh”. By making use of similar sounds Hebrew, typically, points to life’s fine demarcation lines. The rebellious son was to be executed by stoning (ref. V. 21), which is the verb “ragom.” Another stoning was to occur in the event of a young woman who upon marriage was found not to be a virgin (ref. 22:21), as well as when “a girl that is a virgin, betrothed to a man, and a man finds her in the city, and lies with her” (v. 23). In these cases the stoning is “sakol” (s.k.l, samech, kof, lamed), which means not only to “hurl rocks,” but also to “gather rocks,” such as in Yishayahu (Isaiah) 5:2: “My Beloved has a vineyard in a fruitful horn. And He dug it, and cleared it of stones” (italics added). This illustrates again the close proximity between apparent contradictions, of which we shall see another example later on. Following the prodigal son in 21:21, the text goes on (v. 22) to speak of “a man [who] has committed a sin worthy of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree” (v. 22), appending, “He who is hanged is accursed of Elohim” (v. 23). This, of course, is how Yeshua “redeemed us from the curse of [breaking] the Torah laws, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).

The next set of injunctions in chapter 22 focuses on concern for the property of one’s fellowman and his welfare, as well on sensitivity toward YHVH’s creation. “You shall not see your brother's ox or his sheep driven away, and hide yourself from them. You shall surely turn them back to your brother” (v. 1). “You shall hide” here is “hit’a’lamta,” of the root a.l.m (ayin, lamed, mem), and means “hidden or concealed,” and in this context also “disregard, neglect or pretend not to see.” It is from this root that we obtain “olam,” which in Biblical Hebrew speaks mostly of “eternity” (future but also past), that from the human point of view is indeed concealed and uncharted (e.g. Gen. 17:7; Ex. 12:24; Ps. 77:5, 7). “Young man, or young woman” are “elem” and “alma,” respectively, as their character is still unfolding and their future unknown. At the other end of this cluster of injunctions we read: “If a bird's nest happens to be before you in the way in any tree, or on the ground, with young ones, or eggs; and the mother is sitting on the young, or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. But in every case you shall let the mother go, and take the young for yourself, so that it may be well with you, and you may prolong your days” (22:6,7 italics added). This somewhat obscure command holds a great promise, like that of the 5th Commandment of the Decalogue, which says: “Honor your father and your mother, as YHVH your God has commanded you, so that your days may be prolonged” (Ex. 20:12, Deut. 5:16). The fact that this promise is common to both these injunctions has puzzled the sages, all the way back to Talmudic literature. Some of them concur that YHVH’s ways are higher than ours, and therefore various precepts are “passed finding out,” while others maintain that one should not even try and discover whether the Divine commands have reasons or not. On the other hand, Professor Yitzchak Heinemann contends that “it is incumbent on us to detect the finger of God in the wonders of nature and the events of our life, though they will still remain unsolved mysteries, so we must endeavor, as far as possible, to appreciate the wisdom and justice of His commands”. [1] The identical reward for honoring parents and for shooing the mother bird before taking her young, may serve as a clue to a principle which applies to every word spoken in the Torah: “kala k’cha’mura,” meaning that each precept (and/or word), whether insubstantial or weighty, is to be treated equally. Thus, all the way from the weightiest precept to the least esteemed, through those that are ‘in between’, obedience is equally required, with the result (of doing so) being the same. Our Parasha, to cite another such example, also exhorts us to “have a perfect and just ephah; so that they prolong your days in the land” (25:15 italcis added).

In 23:8-9 we read: “You shall not despise an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not despise an Egyptian, for you were an alien in his land, sons of the third generation that are born to them may enter into the assembly of YHVH.” This direction is in opposition to the one relating to the Ammonites and Moabites, who were not to enter the assembly of YHVH for ten generations. Da’at Mikra ponders: “Why is it that the Torah deals this way with the Edomites, not demanding from them what was demanded of the Moabites and Ammonites, which was to greet Israel with bread and water when they had passed by these peoples’ territories? Because Ya’acov tricked Esav and had wrested from him the birthright and the blessings; while for having chased Ya’acov, Esav and his progeny have already been punished by having been held off from the assembly of Israel for two generations. The Egyptians are also forgiven for their treatment of Israel, as [their reason for doing so was because] they were afraid lest Israel would join their enemies.” [2]

Several rulings are laid concerning the purity of Israel’s camp and assembly. One of them is: “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a cult prostitute” (23:17). The word used here for “female prostitute” (in pagan worship) is “k’desha,” while “male prostitute” is “kadesh.” This is one more example of contradictory terms being closely linked in the Hebrew language and mind, since the word for “holy” is “kadosh” (and in feminine gender – “kdosha”). In verse 18 we read: “You shall not bring the hire of a harlot or the wages of a dog into the house of YHVH your God for any vow, for both of these are an abomination to YHVH your Elohim.” This type of “wage” is “et’nan,” an unusual form of “natan” (noon, tav, noon) which is “to give,” or of t.n.h (tav, noon, hey) which is also “to give, or to offer.” Regret for betraying Yeshua led Yehuda of Krayot - Judas Iscariot – to give back to the priests the 30 pieces of silver he had been given for committing this act, and “the chief priests said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is the price of blood’. And taking counsel, they bought of them the potter's field, for burial for the strangers” (Mat. 27:6). The priests acted this way based on the above-mentioned ruling, to which they appended “price of blood.” Is it a coincidence that “wages of a dog”, which is included in this category, is followed by issues pertaining to usury (v. 19, 20), using “neshech” for “usury, or interest,” whose literal meaning is “to bite”?

Before examining the next cluster, let us pause and inspect a certain term which appears in 23:20: “…that YHVH your Elohim may bless you in all that you set your hand to in the land where you go to possess it” (emphasis added). “Set your hand to” is literally the “sending of your hand” – “mish’lach yadeh’cha.” In the past we saw that one’s work or occupation was called “m’la’cha” (of the root l.a’, - “to send”, and hence “messengers, angels, sent out ones”), which by its very definition conveys the idea that one’s work is a goal or an accomplishment that does not remain in confinement or within one’s own vicinity only. Rather, it is something rendered or performed for the community as a mission, and therefore was not to be considered incidental or self serving. The same idea is expressed in “mishlach yad,” of the root (shin, lamed, chet), which also means “to send.”

In Parashat R’eh we discussed the noun “makom” – “place” - and the verb “kum” – “to rise or go up,” which shares the same root. In our Parasha we encounter other derivatives of the same root (kof, vav, mem). In 23:25 we read: “When you come into your neighbor's standing grain, then you may pluck heads with your hand; but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor's standing grain.” The “standing grain” are the ripe sheaves ready for harvesting, called “kama” (also in Exodus 22:6). “Plucking heads” is “m’lilot,” the verb being “malol” (m.l.l. mem, lamed, lamed) and means “to scrape or to break into crumbs.” And so we read in Luke 6:1: “And it happened on the second chief Sabbath, He passed along through the sown fields. And His disciples plucked the heads and were eating, rubbing with the hands.” The rabbis’ discussion as to whose right it is to partake of the above-mentioned, is followed by a concluding comment by Nechama Leibowitz (spanning more than just this particular commandment): “From all the opinions we have surveyed it seems apparent that the Torah was not concerned with favoring one side or according privileges to the other. It does not underwrite the privileges of a particular class but is concerned with human welfare. It does not approve of man conducting his life on the principles of strict justice alone, but calls for consideration and lovingkindness in human relations”. [3]

Interestingly, the “wielding of the sickle” (which one is forbidden to do in a neighbor’s field (in 23:25 the verse we looked at above), recalls an act of “felling” or “cutting off,” which in Hebrew is “k’ritut.” Indeed “k’ritut” is what the next chapter (24) takes us to. “When a man has taken a wife and married her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found a thing of uncleanness in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.” “A bill of divorce” is “sefer k’ritut,” literally “a book of cutting off.” This bill, therefore, becomes an instrument of severing the relationship, much like a hatchet. “A thing of uncleanness” is “ervat davar,” literally “the exposing [erva] of something.” In a marriage relationship whatever has been covered up is naturally exposed and revealed just prior to the time of severance. The root of “erva” - nakedness, a.r.h (ayin, resh, hey) also lends itself to the verb “to pour out” and is used in Yishayahu (Isaiah) 53:12, when describing the Messiah: “And with the strong He shall divide the spoil; because He poured out [he’era] His soul to death” (italics added).

In 24:19 we come to a precept that has caused quite a stir in rabbinical polemics. “When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not turn back to take it. It shall be for the alien, for the orphan and for the widow; so that YHVH your Elohim shall bless you in all the work of your hand.” It would hardly seem plausible that this could be a source of relief and provision for the needy. Additionally, this injunction also raises another query. In the Tosefta, Peah tract] 3, 8 it says: …”The Omnipresent has given all the other precepts in the Torah to be observed consciously. But this one is to be unconsciously observed. Were we to observe this one of our own deliberate freewill before the Omnipresent, we would have no opportunity of observing it”. The conclusion is therefore that, “if a man has no deliberate intention of performing a good deed [and] it is nevertheless reckoned to him as one,” therefore “he who deliberately performs a good deed, how much more so [is it reckoned to him]!” [4] Verse 20 follows on the heels of 19 and is similar to the former: “When you beat your olive tree, you shall not search the bough behind you. It shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow.” The word for “bough” is “pu’ara,” of the root “p’er” (p.e.r, pey, alef, resh), which is also “beauty or glory.” Yishayahu (Isaiah) 60:21 is very appropriate in this connection, reading as it does: “And your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the earth forever, a branch of My planting, a work of My hands, to beautify [lehit’pa’er] Myself” (italics added). And although the boughs have been broken, yet the Olive Tree of Yisrael, when fully redeemed, is destined to be a glory unto YHVH (ref. Is. 44:23), especially if the people of Yisrael, with the Torah inscribed on their hearts, will follow the above injunction of generosity and kindness to the alien, orphan and widow. In contrast, and yet in connection to, verse 19, which featured forgetfulness are the commands in verses 17-18 and 21-22 (of chapter 24). In both these verses one is exhorted to remember having been a slave in Egypt and therefore consider the stranger, orphan and widow, for justice and provision. Thus, one’s memory, as well as one’s forgetfulness, is to be 'harnessed' for the purpose of manifesting YHVH’s nature.

Thus, when dried up and dead, as Yisrael’s stick/tree was, the collective outcry went forth: “Our bones are dried, and our hope is perished; we are cut off to ourselves” (Ez. 37:11). Yet through redemption Yisrael is to be resurrected. This principle is captured in the precept delineated in 25:5-10, where if a man dies leaving no offspring, his widow is to marry his brother and together they are to have a child who will be considered the firstborn of the dead brother, in order to raise up “… the dead brother's name, and his name shall not be wiped out of Israel” (v. 6). We have already studied (above and in other places) the word “kum” (also “makom”, place) - “to stand up, rise”. Here its usage, as the “raising up” of a name for the dead brother, connotes “resurrection” and thus in Modern Hebrew “t’kuma” (of the same root) is resurrection, while Vayikra (Leviticus) 26:13 says: “I am YHVH your Elohim, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, so that you should not be their slaves, and I broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect – “ko’me’mi’yoot” (once again of the same root). The following verse (Lev. 26:14) warns Yisrael lest they “reject My statutes.” Those engaged in such activities, that is rebelling and rising against YHVH, are called “te’komemin” (Psalms 139:21). Thus, those whom YHVH has caused to rise must do so in uprightness and in circumspection, lest they find themselves rising against Him.

[1] New Studies in Devarim, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner
Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc.,
Brooklyn, N.Y.
[2] Davrim with Daat Mikrah Commentary, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 2001.
[3] New Studies in Devarim
[4] Ibid.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Shoftim - Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 16:18-21:9

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Shoftim – Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 16:18 – 21:9

In Parashat Shoftim (“judges”) several institutions and their relevant supervisory regulations, are being set up for the future administration of Yisrael’s national life. To begin with, the appointment of judges and officers is provided for, leading to a number of ‘religious’ prohibitions and to the consequences resulting from breaking them. The institution of arbitrators and judges in all matters is followed by instructions concerning the monarchy, and the life of the Levites and priests. Cities of refuge and matters pertaining to witnessing crime, war regulations, and resolving cases of unknown murders seal off our Parasha.

The expression, which we encountered in last week’s Parashat R’eh, namely, “You shall put away [purge] – literally burn or consume - the evil from among you” (13:5), is repeated many times over, almost like a refrain (ref. 17:7,12; 19:13,19; 21:9) and thus subtly points to the results of incurring YHVH’s burning anger (as we also saw last week).

Right at the core of the account of these, mostly executive matters, there is a passage, which although at first glance may appear to be compatible with the others is nevertheless of an altogether different genre and purpose (18:13-22). It is, above all else, prophetic in nature, describing an individual who will appear on Yisrael’s horizon. This individual’s qualifying characteristics are specified to some extent in this passage, and are contrasted with potential false claimants or counterfeits (vs. 20 – 22, with more on the subject refer also to 13:2-8, in Parashat R’eh). The instructional aspect of this text is simply, “Whoever will not listen to My words which he [this prophet] shall speak in My name, I will require it at his hand” (18:19). Moshe says of Him: “YHVH your Elohim shall raise up to you a prophet from among you, of your brothers, One like me; you shall listen to Him” (v. 15), and again in verse 18 YHVH is speaking, addressing Moshe: “I shall raise up a prophet to them from among their brothers, one like you; and I will put My words in his mouth; and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him.” Mention is also made in verses 16 and 17 of the fact that before the giving of the Torah in Chorev (Horeb), the Israelites had asked Moshe to interpose between them and YHVH, a request that YHVH apparently looked favorably upon. This future prophet, like Moshe, will also have this characteristic of mediation. Some of his others attributes will be: granting deliverance from bondage, being mighty in word and deed, offering strong leadership yet being humble beyond any man who had ever lived, willingness to offer up his own life for the people, acting as a teacher and a judge and being raised from among the ranks of his own people. Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 34:10 appends, “And never has a prophet like Moses arisen in Israel, whom YHVH knew face to face,” thus adding another trait to the portrait of this (Moshe-like) individual.

Does the placing of this passage, amid the Torah’s civil and liturgical instructions, which flank it on both sides, point to the reason and end-all of these instructions themselves and to that which imbues them with life? In Romans 10:4 we read: “For the goal at which the Torah aims is the Messiah.” Shim’on Keyfa (Peter) also identifies this prophecy with the “One proclaimed to you before” (Acts 3:20), that is Messiah Yeshua.

In comparison with this passage, which portrays Yisrael’s supreme ruler, we read in 17:8 – 12 about the Levites and the priests who are to judge and instruct Yisrael: “If a matter is too hard for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between cause and cause, or between stroke and stroke, matters of strife within your gates… And you shall come in to the priest, of the Levites, and to the judge who is in those days, and shall inquire. And they shall declare the sentence of judgment to you” (v. 8-9). Summarizing the passage:

(1) The place where these arbitrations are to take place is “the place which YHVH your Elohim shall choose” (v. 9).
(2) The litigants’ response is to be obedient “to the word which they [the judges] declare to you,” and “you shall do according to the mouth of the law which they direct you, and according to the judgment which they deliver to you. You shall not turn aside from the word, which they declare to you right or left” (vv. 10, 11).
(3) The consequences of disobedience are: “And the man who acts with pride so as not to listen to the priest who is standing to serve YHVH your Elohim there, or to the judge, even that man shall die” (v. 12).

If we compare this set of conditions to those applied to the “prophet” of 18:15 – 21, we find that there are marked differences. Whereas obeying the above-mentioned priestly judges has to be preceded by some specific judicial matter, obeying the “prophet” is not subject to such prerequisites: “I will put My words in His mouth; and He shall speak to them all that I shall command Him” (18:18), says YHVH. And while it is YHVH who appoints this One, the judges are simply mentioned as: “the priest, of the Levites, and… the judge who is [that is, who happens to be officiating] in those days” (17, 9). Chapter 18 verse 19 points out: “And it shall be, whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I will require it at his hand.” And although the person who does not obey the priest or the judge is also subject to a death penalty, yet his proverbial hand is not being required by YHVH Himself. In addition, the priests and judges, unlike the “prophet,” are not mentioned as speaking in YHVH’s name, but rather as “standing to serve Him” (17:12).

Just prior to the passage about the “prophet like Moshe,” we read about the abominations of the people living in the land that Yisrael is about to enter. Yisrael is warned not to do as “these nations whom you shall expel [who] listen to observers of clouds and to diviners” (18:14). Rather, Yisrael is to be “perfect – “tamim” -whole, wholesome, innocent, without blemish - with YHVH” (v. 13 emphasis added). This calls to mind Avraham, who was told, “walk before Me and be ‘tamim’” (Gen. 17:1 italics added). It appears that “wholesomeness” in one’s walk before YHVH is connected to the passage we have just looked at, and to the Person at its center. It is He who enables us to walk this way, as Ephesians 1: 4-5 points out: “According as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, for us to be holy and without blemish before Him in love, predestinating us to adoption through Yeshua the Messiah to Himself” (Italics added).

We have seen that the “prophet” whose coming is predicted here, unlike the institution of the judging and teaching priests which is set up in response to the people’s needs, will be “raised up” by YHVH Himself. Unlike the priestly judges, He will not respond only to problem cases, but will represent YHVH in an overall manner. Another institution which is dealt with here is the monarchy (17:14-20), and it too will be set up in response to Yisrael’s request to have a king: “When you come into the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving to you, and have possessed it, and settled in it; and you shall say, ‘Let me set a king over me like all the nations around me’” (17:14). Once Yisrael decides to “place” (“sim” – “put”) a king over itself, this one is to be “from among your brothers” while YHVH will do the selecting. It will be incumbent upon the king to study the injunctions of the Torah. In fact, he is to make a copy of it in a book for his own use – termed here “mishneh Torah,” of the root sh.n.h, meaning to “repeat, or secondary.” The king is also to live modestly “so that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or to the left” (17:20).

Last week we examined the word “truma,” translated as “the offering of your hand”, and noted that its root “rah’m” means “lofty or high,” while here we encounter “lifted up” (in relation to the king’s heart) which is “rum” (or “room,” being again of the same root). The word for "king" in Hebrew is "melech." The root of (mem, lamed, final chaf) makes for a verb which means "consult, consider different views," such as we see, for example, in Nehmiah 5:7 where the verb is translated, "serious thought" or "consulted." Thus, the prime task of the king is to be consulting and considering different views; a very far cry from the common idea of kingship, certainly from the one that prevailed at the time.Chapter 18 verses 3, 4 present the “priest's due from the people, from those that offer a sacrifice, whether an ox or sheep, that they shall give to the priest the leg, and the two cheeks, and the stomach, the first of your grain, of your new wine, and of your oil, and the first of the fleece of your flock, you shall give to him.” Concerning “this order of giving the priests of the fruit of the land and the fruit of the flocks,” Daat Mikra observes that it was a way to ensure that the priests would not lack “even when there is shortage or famine in the land, because whatever the people have available will also be made available to the Levites. And moreover, since the gifts will be handed from one person to another, from lay people to priests, these individuals will be meeting one another as well as exchanging views and thus drawing closer together. The Israelite (that is the “non Levite”) will learn the priest’s lofty manners, and the priest will get to know the customs and way of life of the ordinary farmer, his talk and concerns, and thus together all of them will become one single holy people.” [1] In reference to “customs” (mentioned by the commentator above), the text (18:3) reads: “And this will be the priests’ due…”, with the word for “due” being “mishpat” – of the same root as the Parasha’s name, which aside from meaning “judge/judgment; litigation, govern” etc. also means “custom or manner” (e.g. Ex. 21:9).

Most of chapter 19 is devoted to the cities of refuge and to the “ancient boundaries.” The cities of refuge were set up in order to prevent blood avenging, in cases of unintentional killing. The blood avenger is called a “go’el dam,” literally “a blood redeemer.” The role of a redeemer is to mete out justice (within his family), and bring about the required cleansing from pollution created by the shedding of innocent blood (ref. 19:10). All three of these terms, that is “meting out justice,” “cleansing” and “pollution” are described by the one verb - whose root is g.a.l (gimmel, alef, lamed). In this way the term’s tri-fold meanings portray accurately the ultimate Go’el – Redeemer - whose death, whereby He has taken upon Himself sin’s ‘pollution, accomplished all of these and more.

As to the “ancient boundaries”; in 19:14 we read: “You may not remove your neighbor's landmark, which those formerly have set in your inheritance, which you shall inherit in the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you, to possess it.” The word for “remove” is “tasig,” of the root “sug” (samech, vav, gimmel), meaning to “move away” and therefore often accompanied by “achor” (“backwards”), hence “backsliding” (e.g. 2nd Sam.1:22: “the bow of Jonathan did not draw back” – “nasog achor”). According to Rashi, he who moves the marking of a property (in order to extend his own lot) is actually “backsliding,” or “retreating” away from the ones “formerly set” and from the way they were originally determined. The emphasis here on “the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you to possess it,” leads to the inference that it is He who set these boundaries in the first place, and therefore altering them would indeed constitute “backsliding.” In Proverbs we find the same verb, “sug”, used very similarly in 22:28: “Do not move the old landmark which your fathers have set.”

The war regulations (chapter 20) stipulate who will be exempt from the obligation to go to battle. In 20:5-8 four such cases are cited. The first is a man “who has not dedicated [or consecrated or inagugurated] his new house” (v. 5 emphasis added). The verb “chanach” (, chet, noon, chet) also means to “train” (e.g. Gen. 14:14, Avraham’s trained servants are called “chanee’chim”; see also, Prov. 22:6) as well and “consecrate and habituate.” The second person to be exempt from army service is he “who planted a vineyard and has not begun to use it” (v. 6 emphasis added). The verb in Hebrew is “chalel” (of the root ch.l.l, chet, lamed, lamed, which we examined at the end of Parashat Yitro, Ex. 20:25), and also means “profane, pollute, defile, begin, bore holes, entrust, release, dance and a dead body” (example of the latter is found in 21:1). In a typical Hebrew fashion, we find here that ‘ends meet’ and come full circle. “Profane” (as stated, of the same root, ch.l.l) is also “hollow” (void of real content), but “release” (once again, ch.l.l)[2] affords an opportunity for a “new beginning” – “hat’cha’la” (and for doing away with profanity). A dead body has certainly been “emptied out” of its content (soul and spirit), and is therefore “released” from obligations and duties, BUT at the same time, as our verb points out, this condition also constitutes a “new beginning”… albeit in another dimension. And so, like the term “chet,” “sin”, into which is built the means for reform (“cha’teh” – “cleansing”), here too, profanity and defilement are couched in a root which allows for transformation by way of a new beginning. The other two who are exempt from duty, are he who is betrothed but has not consummated the marriage, and whoever is fearful.

In last week’s Parashat R’eh we discussed the meaning of “male,” being “he who remembers,” and then pointed out the special reference there to those who belong to YHVH as “those who are being remembered” (16:16 italics added) – “z’churim.” Surprisingly, the same reference to males occurs here too (20:13), although applied to “all the men of a city which refuses to make peace” and who are to be “struck.” Thus, these men who are destined to be put to death are no less known and remembered by YHVH, who is indeed “over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6)!

Lastly, the Parasha deals with the “decapitated heifer” – “egla arufa” (21:1-9), in connection with the case of an unknown murderer: “And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to an ever-flowing stream, which is not plowed, nor sown. And they shall break the heifer's neck there by the stream” (v. 4). The word for the “nape of the neck” is “oref” (such as in “stiff necked” – “k’sheh oref”), hence the verb for “breaking the neck” is “arof.” Although the heifer is killed while the elders pray that their own sin be atoned for, its killing is not a sacrifice or an offering and therefore it is not slaughtered. For this reason, its carcass is buried rather than burnt. [3] The heifer symbolizes the restitution (atonement) of the blood of the dead person, as he cannot be fully avenged without his murderer being found. Additionally, the shedding of innocent blood defiles both people and land, thus this occasion renders the opportunity for the elders of the area to “wash their hands off the matter,” and to be counted innocent of the blood of the deceased (21:6, 7). The language’s usage of the “nape of the neck” for the action of decapitating the heifer also alludes to the Hebrew idiom of “turning the neck” which means “to turn away from.” In this way, the elders’ action becomes a declaration that they have rejected and renounced the evil deed which has been committed. This then applies to the People of Yisrael as a whole (ref. vv. 8, 9), as well as to the land (19:10).

[1] Da’at Mikra, Dvarim, Aha’ron Mirski, Rav Kook Inst., Jerusalem, 2001
[2[ Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebew, based on the commentaties of Samson Raphael Hirsch, Matityahu Clark, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, - New York, 1999.
[3] Da’at Mikra

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Hebrew Insights into Parashat R’eh – Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 11:26 – 16:17

Hebrew Insights into Parashat R’eh – Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 11:26 – 16:17

Behold! – “r’eh,” “see, look” - I set before you today a blessing and a curse…” (Deut.11: 26, emphasis added). The imperative form of the verb “to see, look or behold” is in singular person, while the “you” in this verse is in plural form, denoting that although that which is about to follows is a charge to the entire nation, each and every Israelite is to take a good look at what is being said, and is to be personally responsible to obey YHVH’s word. Contrary to the English rendering, that a blessing will result “if you hear the commandments of YHVH your Elohim which I command you today; and a curse, if you will not hear the commandments of YHVH your Elohim” (11:27 italics added), in Hebrew it is simply “behold I set before you today a blessing and curse; a blessing [of] hearing the commandments…” while the prepositional “if” is attached only to the curse. Thus, the keeping of YHVH’s word constitutes a blessing in itself, which is the very reason He gave Yisrael the Torah - instructions for life abundant - in the first place!

In order to maintain the blessings, the Israelites are commanded: “You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall possess serve their gods… and you shall obliterate their name from that place” (12:2a.3b italics added). The verb used for “utterly destroy” is the same as for “obliterate” - “abed” of the root a.b/v.d (alef, bet/vet, dalet). The first reference is a double rendering, “a’bed t’abdoon (singular),” while the second is “ve’eeba’de’tem (plural).” “Abed” forms a pun with “avod” (ayin, vet, dalet), which is “work” but also “worship and service rendered to Elohim or to idols,” and may be an intentional device employed in our text. Thus we read above, “The places where the nations… serve [av’du] their gods”, and in 13:6-8: “If your brother… or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend… entice you secretly, saying, ‘let us go and serve [na’avda] other gods…’ you shall not yield to him or listen to him…” (emphasis added), as serving other gods will indeed bring about utter destruction and obliteration upon those thus engaged (ref. 13:8-11; 13-16).

Having been nomads in the wilderness, the Israelites have not yet experienced the “rest and the inheritance” promised them by YHVH (12:9). It is precisely in order to obtain those two that they are to “not do according to all that [you] are doing here today, each doing all that is right in his own eyes.” “And you shall cross over the Jordan, and shall live in the land which YHVH your Elohim is causing you to inherit. And He shall give you rest from all your enemies all around; and you shall live securely” ((12: 8, 10, italics added). “Rest” is “menu’cha” (root – noon, vav, chet), and “inheritance” is “nachala” (root – noon, chet, lamed), with the first two consonants of “inheritance” - “nachala” - forming the word for “rest,” thusly making these two (inheritance and rest) an indivisible unit. In Yishayahu (Isaiah) 30:15 we read: “For so says the Lord YHVH the Holy One of Israel, ‘in returning and rest – nachat - you shall be saved [but you would not].” From Hebrews 4:2 we learn that “the word [of the promise to enter the rest and receive the inheritance] did not profit those hearing it, not having been mixed with faith in the ones who heard.”

Large portions of our Parasha deal with YHVH’s place of choice, where He is to be worshipped. As we saw in Parashat Va’ye’tze (Genesis 28: 10 – 32:3), “place” is “makom,” and originates with the verb “kum” which means “to rise, stand up, or go up.” This place is defined as: “The place which YHVH your Elohim shall choose out of all your tribes; for you shall seek His dwelling, to put His name there” (12:5). It is there that the Israelites will “go” (v. 5); it is there that they will “bring” their “offerings, sacrifices, tithes, contributions and oaths” (v. 11); it is there that they will “do” all that He commands them to do (v. 14). It is to be a place for both individual and corporate service to and worship of YHVH. The Pesach sacrifice will also be offered there (ref. 16:2, 6), as will the “rejoicing” during the Feast of Shavu’ot (Feast of Weeks ref. v. 11). Finally, “three times in a year shall all your males appear before YHVH your Elohim in the place which He shall choose” (16:16 emphasis added). The word here for “males” is not the usual “z’charim” (singular, “zachar”), but another version of the same root ( zayin, chaf, resh), “z’churim.” The root means to “remember,” and thus a “male” is “one who remembers.” But here, the changed form (“z’churim”) means “those who are remembered.” If the Israelites remember to obey YHVH’s word, He will definitely not forget them and will maintain His faithfulness to them (and to their households).

Among the things that the Israelites were to bring to this place of worship were the”burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the heave offering of your hand” (12:6). In Parashat Vayikra (Lev. 1 – 6:7) we saw that “burnt offerings” were, as they are here too, “olot,” of the verb “aloh” (ayin, lamed, hey) which is to “go up,” and in a different conjugation to “lift up or raise.” It is only natural that offerings to Him who is “high and lifted up” are to be “raised”! Similarly, the “offering of your hand” (v. 6) - “trumut” (singular – “truma”) - is of the root “rah’m,” meaning “lofty or high.” Yisrael, then, is not only to “rise” or “get up,” but is also to “lift up” their all to El Elyon (Most High God).

Whereas the sacrifices and offerings are not to be offered randomly (“take heed to yourself that you not offer your burnt offerings in every place that you see”, 12:13), the slaughtering and partaking of meat, once Yisrael enters the land, may be done at will. This will enable the people to eat the meat of undomesticated animals such as deer and ram, which although kosher, could not be eaten in the wilderness as they were not to be used for sacrifices. But in addition to this changed regulation, another change is now being enacted. Because meat eating in the wilderness always involved a sacrifice (“peace offering” for the laymen), those partaking of it had to be “tahor,” that is in a state of ritual cleanliness. However, with the changed conditions and requirements in the Land of Yisrael, he who is ritually unclean, the “tameh,” will also be able to partake of meat (except meat which is to be sacrificed in the place designated by YHVH). It is here that the prohibition of consuming blood is also repeated (12:16) and elaborated upon in verse 23, where it says: “Only, be strong not to eat the blood, for the life is in the blood, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh” (emphasis added). Rashi, quoting Rabbi Yehuda, comments that it took “strength” to restrain oneself and not partake of the blood. He further quotes Rabbi Shim’on ben Azay who says that this indicates that if fortitude was needed to stay away from blood, which naturally does not constitute a great temptation, how much more so regarding YHVH’s other injunctions![[1]] However, the blood that we are obligated to ‘drink’ is Yehsua’s, for He said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood you do not have life in yourselves. The one partaking of My flesh and drinking of My blood has everlasting life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53, 54).

The “life is in the blood,” of 12:23, is actually the “blood is [or constitutes] the soul,” as we see also in B’resheet (Genesis) 9:4. Soul - “nefesh” - stems from the root. meaning “rest” or “refreshing oneself.” Shmot (Exodus) 23:12 provides a good example and illustration of the usage and meaning of this verb: “Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor [in order] that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger may refresh themselves” (emphasis added). Thus, embedded in the very word for ‘soul’ is YHVH’s original intent and design for it, which is “rest, repose and refreshment.”

Chapter 13 begins with a challenge concerning false prophets or dreamers of dreams, which the Israelites are not to heed if they truly love YHVH their Elohim. Accordingly, we read the following in verse 3: “You shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for YHVH your Elohim is testing you to find out if you love YHVH your Elohim with all your heart and with all your soul.” The Hebrew for “you love…” is “ha’yesh’chem ohavim…” This is an unusual usage of “yesh,” which means “there is, substance, or existence” and is generally not attached to pronouns. The particular usage employed here indicates that the love the Israelites are supposed to have for YHVH is to be part and parcel of their very being, their make up and fiber. The rest of chapter 13 and the first part of 14 deal with idolatrous practices, about which it says: “You shall put away evil from among you” (13: 5). The verb for “put away” is “(u)ve’arta,” of the root (bet, ayin, resh) , which literally means to “burn.” In Bamidbar (Numbers) 11:1 we read: “And when the people complained, it displeased YHVH and YHVH heard it; and his anger was kindled, and the fire of YHVH burnt among them.” That fire of YHVH, which burnt among them, was also denoted by the same verb. And thu, we may infer that here (in 13:5) they are not only to “burn” the articles which are “evil,” but that failing to depart from evil they will be incurring YHVH’s burning anger. Moreover, another word that is spelt the same, means “brutish or ignorant,” and by inference also “beasts and cattle” (e.g. Gen. 45:17). The fools are addressed in Tehilim (Psalms) 94: 8 – 11 in this way: “Understand you beastly ones [“bo’arim”] among the people; you fools, when will you be wise? He who planted the ear, shall He not hear? He who formed the eye, shall He not see? He who chastises the nations, shall He not punish, He who teaches man knowledge? YHVH knows the thoughts of man, that they are vain.” It appears that (“burning”) is applied to those who have incurred YHVH’s anger (or are likely to do so).

The laws of tithing are also repeated in our Parasha: “You shall surely tithe all the increase of your seed that the field yields year by year” (14:22). “Aser te’aser,” you shall surely tithe,” is emphatic, whilst the letters ayin, sin and resh which are the root of “eser” - “ten” (the tithe of course being the tenth part of the whole and is called “ma’aser”), also form the root of “rich” - “ashir” (with a slight modification in the letter “sin”, placing dot on the upper right hand side which turns it to “shin”). Are we to surmise from this that he who pays his tithes is guaranteed riches? The reason given here for the tithes (and for having to be faithful to eat it in the place chosen by YHVH), is for the purpose of teaching “to fear YHVH” (14:23). The commentator Alshikh asks, “How can eating, drinking and abundance of rejoicing teach people to be God fearing? … Perhaps the Holy One blessed Be He commanded them to take a tithe of all their possessions to Jerusalem, to deter them from repudiating the source of their bounty and that they should realize that this wealth did not originate with the power of their own hands. It was as if they were giving the king his portion. This tithe is ‘holy to the Lord’, and from the table of the Most High. They were partaking of the table of the Most High (this tithe was regarded as their own personal goods…) … The ‘living would take this to heart’ that he was a slave of the king of the universe, partaking of His bounty, and in this way never stop fearing the Lord continually.”[[2]]

The principle of the release of debts comes next. “Every seven years you shall make a release”… a “sh’mita” (15:1) of the verb sh.m.t. (shin, mem, tet), which means to “drop, release, or let go” (as we saw in Parashat Mishpatim – Ex. 21-24). The lesson learnt thereby is not only the remission of debts, but also the remission of sins granted us by YHVH, who in forgiveness and grace “lets go” of our transgressions. The results of an attitude denoted by the expression “an open and free hand” (15:8), and by the deeds accompanying it, is such that there will be: “…no one in need among you, for YHVH will greatly bless you in the land that YHVH your Elohim is giving you for an inheritance, to possess it” (15:4). But should the poor nevertheless remain in the land, “sh’mita” will afford an opportunity to “give freely” (ref. vv. 8, 10, 11) and, further, to be blessed in return. Even Yeshua made the comment that “the poor are always with you” (John 12:8). The word used in this text for “poor” (15:8, 11) is “ev’yon,” of the root a.v.h (alef, bet/vet, hey) which is “submit to exiting demand” [3], thereby describing the lot of the less fortunate member of society. Two other verbs with similar meaning are found within the same context in chapter 15. In verse 2 we read: “… every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor…”, while “loaned” here is “yasheh” (root, mem, shin, hey) and means “obligate, give up rights.” In verse 6 we read again: “For YHVH shall bless you as He has promised you, and you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow…”. “Lend” is “avot” (a.v.t. ayin, vet, tet), meaning “obligate, to be indebted”. [4] In face of full graciousness and generosity comes full freedom, with none having to “submit to the demands of others” to whom they are “indebted,” but, as mentioned above, when that is not the case, YHVH makes provision for those who fall under this category, thus giving an opportunity to the rest of society to be exercised in goodness and care toward the needy.

In the latter part of chapter 15 we encounter instructions concerning Hebrew slaves, who are to be released on the seventh year: “And when you send him out free from you, you shall not let him go away empty. You shall richly bestow on him from your flock, and from your threshing floor, and from your winepress…” (v. 14, emphasis added). The Hebrew reads: “bestowing you shall bestow,” while the verb for “bestow” is “ha’anik” (the root is a.n.k, ayin, noon, kof). According to Daat Mikra commentary [5] the usage here of this verb which is connected to “anak,” a necklace, is in order to point out that rather than ‘hang burdens on the neck’ (as the idiom goes) of the former slave, the (former) master is to ‘hang on his neck’ gifts of every kind.

Still on the same theme, in 16:11, we read concerning the Feast of Shavu’ot: “And you shall rejoice before YHVH your Elohim, you and your son, and your daughter, and your male slave, and your slave-girl, and the Levite that is inside your gates, and the alien, and the fatherless, and the widow that are among you…” According to Rashi, the first four form a list that parallels the last four. The first lot belongs to man, while the second lot belongs to YHVH, who says to man: “If you will treat well those who belong to Me, I shall likewise be kind [literally, ‘cause to rejoice’] to those who belong to you”. [6]

[1] Dvarim with Daat Mikrah Commentary, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 2001.
[2] New Studies in Devarim, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner
Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books nc.,
Brooklyn, N.Y.
[3] Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebew, based on the commentaties of
Samson Raphael Hirsch, Matityahu Clark, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, - New
York, 1999.
[4] Ibid
[5] Dvarim with Daat Mikrah Commentary, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 2001.
[6] Ibid