Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Lech Lecha – Genesis, 12 – 17

Avram, whom we met at the end of last week's Parasha, is singled out now from the rest of his kin and community. He is commanded to go forth and leave behind him his native country, heritage, culture, and above all his relatives (12:1). The expression "lech [“go”] lecha" (“for yourself") can best be rendered in English as the emphatic: "go forth" or, even better, "get yourself going." The alliteration makes it especially forceful and commanding as those two words, in spite of vowel difference, are written the same. Avraham will hear another “lech lecha” when, in the future, YHVH will charge him to “Take now your son, your only one,  Isaac, whom you love, and “lech lecha” to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you" (22:2). His obedient response to the first “lech lecha,” with its ensuing results, will enable Avraham to respond similarly when the familiar voice will call him again.  At the time when “the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grapes give a good smell,” then the Bridegroom says to the Bride: “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and lechi – feminine of lech” - lach – feminine of lecha – ‘go forth for yourself’” (Song of Solomon 2:11-13, 10). Total and implicit faith and trust, and obedient abandonment appear to be the path leading to the season of fruitfulness and serenity, as described in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs – Song of Solomon). 

Avram is promised many descendants and a great blessing that will also be extended to those who will bless his progeny. In fact, his seed is destined to be a blessing to "all the families of the earth" (12:3). “Family” is “mishpacha,” of the root sh.f.ch (shin, pey/fey, chet), which is also the root for a word found in 16:1 of our Parasha, “shifcha” – “handmaiden” (in reference to Hagar). The root sh.f.ch (shin, pey/fey, chet) means to “join a family,” illustrating the fact that one’s servants (in this case the female servant) were to be treated and looked upon as an extension of one’s kin. 

In 12:2 and 3 “blessing,” which is "bracha," appears five times in several forms. The consonants b.r.ch (bet, resh, kaf) also make up the root for “knee” ("berech"). Bowing the knee is always associated with humility ("to Me every knee shall bow…" Is. 45:23). Thus, experiencing a blessing humbles its recipient, stirring him to bend or bow the knee in gracious thankfulness. However, he who “curses you, I will curse.” The first “curse” is “m’kalelecha,” k.l.l. pertaining to “weightless, light,” and hence of ‘light esteem.’ The second reference to “curse” – a’or – of the root a.r.r (alef, resh, resh) first appeared in Beresheet 3:14 and 17, in reference to the curse upon the serpent, who was to crawl on its belly and eat the soil, and then upon ground, whose fruitfulness was to be obtained with great toil. These earlier pronouncements portray the condition, which will befall upon those who would lightly esteem the nation/people (“goy”) that was to come out of Avram’s loins.

After these promises of blessings and of a nation, in verse 7 the promise of land is declared. Upon hearing this word, Avram builds an altar and moves on, only to erect another altar in the next location. In the following two verses (8,9) mention is made of three of the four directions of the wind: “east, west, and south.” In Biblical Hebrew there are several words for each of those, the ones used here being "kedem," "yam," and "negev." In YHVH's promises to Avram, in 13:14, mention is made of all of those, with the addition of “north,” which is "tzafon."

The root of “east” - “kedem” - is k.d.m (kof, dalet, mem), with its primal meaning being "before" or "in front of." Thus, its derivatives are to “greet” or “meet" (Deut. 23:4; Mic. 6:6), "early” and "first," Words such as "old" and "ancient" also stem from "kedem," as we see in Micah 5:2 in reference to the Messiah’s ‘origins’ (another example being the “everlasting hills” promised to Yoseph, in Deut. 33:15, as well as the term "kadmoni" – “ancient” - in 1st Sam. 24:13). The root k.d.m therefore reveals an interesting approach to the dimensions of time and space. That which is "in front" is also that which is "early," from “antiquity” and of the “past.” Thus, “kedem - the “eastern” - denotes what is “ahead” and at the same time that which was. Kohelet (Ecclesiastics) 1:9 says: “That which has been is that which shall be,” a fact that is certainly true of our Elohim, “who is, and who was, and who is coming” (Rev. 11:17), “d
eclaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times [kedem] things that are not yet done (Isaiah 46:10).  "Kadim" is the east wind which many times spells blight and dryness (e.g. Job 27:21; Ps. 48:7), while the prophet Y’chezkel (Ezekiel) saw the glory of the Elohim of Yisrael coming from the same direction ("kadim," i.e. the “east,” in 43:1,2). One of the best known usages of "kedem" is found in B'resheet (Genesis) 3:24, referring to the place where Elohim expelled our renegade ancestors: "east of Eden."

West” here is "yam." Yam means “sea,” and since the "Great Sea" (the Mediterranean) shore runs the entire length of Israel's western side, it has become synonymous with that direction.

Negev” is the word here for “south,” and is used to denote wilderness and dryness, but a reference to the "forest land of the negev" is made in Y’chezkel 20:47. It is in the same prophecy that the fires that were to consume every tree there (as indeed they have) are mentioned, making for that region’s dryness, bareness and desolation.

The last direction is "north" - “tzafon” - the root of which is tz.f.n (tzadi, pe/fe, noon), and means to “conceal or hide." The same word is used when Moshe (Moses) was hidden for the first three months after his birth (Ex. 2:2). In T’hilim/Psalms 27:5 we read about being hidden by YHVH in His succah (booth), and in 83:3 about YHVH’s “hidden ones.” The north also conceals evil, and it is from there that "evil will break forth," according to Y’rmiyahu’s (Jeremiah) prophecy (1: 14). The proud king of Babylon declares his position to be "on the mount of the assembly in the far north" (Is. 14:13), words that are countered by the Elohim of Israel in T’hilim 48:1,2, proclaiming that His holy mountain, Mount Tziyon (Zion), is in the far north.

After receiving the promise of a land extending in every direction, and a seed so numerous (rendering it) too great to count (13:14-16), Avram builds another altar, this time in Alonei Mamreh, which is Chevron (Hebron). It is from that location that he set forth to rescue his nephew Lot. It is here (14:13) that we first encounter the term "Hebrew," "ivri," attached to Avram's name, after his ancestor Ever, whom we mentioned last week. Indeed, Avram is now entitled to this ‘label’ as he ‘crossed over,’ both physically and spiritually! When he returns, after having accomplished his mission successfully, he is greeted by the king of S’dom (Sodom) in the Valley of Shaveh. “Shaveh” is “equality, agreement, or resemblance,” and in this case probably an “even plain.” “I have set YHVH always before me” (Ps. 16:8), reads in Hebrew: “I have envisioned [or imagined] YHVH before me… " - "shiviti" - indicating that one sees Him at one’s own eye level (as He is near to those who call upon Him). The valley of “shaveh” is also called here the “King’s Valley” (singular) and is (apparently) the place where Avram meets another king. His encounter with the king of S’dom, in this 'valley or plain of evenness,' is being interrupted by the appearance (at ‘eye level’) of another monarch, Malchitzedek king of Shalem (Salem).

The root of “shalem” (sh.l.m - shin, lamed, mem), is “perfection, wholeness, completeness, and requital.” This king, whose name means "king of righteousness," is also a priest of the Most High God (“El Elyon”). Thus, in his persona are met the two offices of king and priest (ref. Zec. 6:13). In his blessing to Avram, whom he serves with bread and wine, Malchitzedek invokes “El Elyon” (“Most High God”), calling Him "possessor of heaven and earth." "Possessor" here is "koneh," meaning "buyer" or “purchaser,” thus connoting “redeemer (of heaven and earth).” When Chava (Eve) gave birth to Kayin (Cain), she exclaimed: "I have purchased (‘kaniti’) a man from YHVH" (Gen. 4:1, deeming that the pain and sorrow of giving birth was the price she paid Adonai for her firstborn). Malchitzedek gives thanks once again to "El Elyon," who has "delivered Avram's enemies into his hand" (ref. 14: 20), using “migen” for "delivered," which stems from the root  g.n.n. (gimmel, noon, noon) meaning "shield or protection," and also used for “gan” – “garden” - such as in Gan Eden (YHVH’s protected area of delight).

Avram gives his newly-met acquaintance "a tenth (‘ma'aser’) of all," an act which concludes this encounter. At this point, the text recaptures Avram's tryst with the king of S’dom, but the language of the next few verses seems to be colored by what had just taken place in the encounter with the king of Shalem. Upon being offered the spoils of the war, Avram answers the king of S’dom by mentioning the name of YHVH, repeating the expression "El Elyon - Most High God - the purchaser of heaven and earth" (v. 22). He then refuses the king’s offer, on the grounds that it should not be said that he had been made rich by the latter. The word for "rich" is "ashir," of the same root as "eser"- "ten" (the consonant for "sh" and "s" being one and the same, differentiated by a slight vowel change when used as an “s” or a “sh”), from which we get the “tenth part” or the “tithe” – “ma’aser” - that Avram had just paid Malchitzedek.

As this scene with the king of S’dom fades, another one comes into view – the description of a vision in which YHVH speaks to Avram: "Fear not Avram, I am your shield…" (15:1). The word used here for "shield" is "mah’gen," a different form of which we saw in Malchizedek's blessing of Avram a few verses above. Thus, the echo of that dramatic meeting continues to accompany the events that follow it.

When Avram wonders what it is that “Adonai YHVH,” who promised him a great reward, will give him "seeing that [he is] childless…" (v.2), he is granted a promise of a son. Once again he is told that his progeny will be numerous. It says, literally, that Avram "believed in YHVH." The root for "believe" is "a.m.n," from which we get the term "amen." It is also the root word for “trust, steady, faithful,” and nurse” (Num. 11:12), “guardian” (2 Kings 10:1), and for “bringing up and training” (Esther 2:7). Proverbs/Mishley 8 cites the call of Wisdom-personified. In verses 29-30 Wisdom says, "When He marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was the craftsman at His side…" The word here for "craftsman" is "amon," once again, stemming from the root a.m.n. Faith, therefore, is the act of believing which involves
1) training, and 2) action - in other words, practice. Putting convictions into practice is guaranteed many a time by a covenant. Thus, in N’chem’ya (Nehemiah) 9:38 we see the people making “a sure covenant,” which in that particular text depicts the root a.m.n again and is therefore termed “amana.” Based on this understanding, the Apostle Ya'acov (James) writes: "Do not merely listen to the Word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says…  “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (1:22; 2:17).

Avram experiences an awe-inspiring vision, in which the Covenant is confirmed. In Hebrew the experience and the Covenant are called “habrit ben habtarim” - "the covenant between the cut up pieces". The infinitive of “cut up” - "ba'ter" - also means to “dissect or “dismember” (15:10). In 15:17 those pieces are called "gzarim," from the verb “gazor," meaning, once again, "cut up." Verse 18 says, "on that day YHVH cut [literally] a Covenant with Avram…" This time the word for "cut" is "ka’rot" (which is also used frequently for cutting down trees). These powerful verbs point to the irrevocability and depth of this Covenant. It is no wonder that the very sign of the Covenant itself involves a cutting - a removal of the foreskin - which is recorded in 17:10-14, after Yishamel's birth and Avram's name change, augmented by the words: “The uncircumcised male whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off [stemming from “ka’rot”] from his people…” (17:14 italics added).

Yishmael’s birth came as a result of Sarah resorting to a common custom of surrogate parenthood (such as Rachel and Leah did when giving their maids to their husband, and Joseph, who had his grandson’s wife give birth “on his knees,” as it were, for the purpose of making the great grand-children his own). This is how Sarah approached her husband“’See now, YHVH has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2). The literal rendition of obtain children by her” is “I will be builte’ba’neh’ – by/through her.”  Above we examined the word “mishpacha” – family. “Family” may be likened to a building, which grows tier by tier, floor by floor. No wonder the apostles referred to the body of believers as to a building, and used the imagery of stones to describe it (see 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 5:1; Eph. 2:21; 1 Pet. 2:5). Sarah too had the same idea in mind when she said, “I will be built by her [Hagar the maid].” In the root word  b.n.a (bet, noon, hey), “build,” is hidden, not surprisingly, the word “ben” – son.  Thus, when Sarah was expecting the maid to help her out, she was thinking of “being built up by having a son.” However, the matriarch soon discovered that Hagar was not about to merely “lend” her womb. She had other notions. When Sarah discerned Hagar’s ambitions, she was forced to send her away.

In 17:4,5 Elohim declares that He was changing Av’ram’s name from “exalted father”  to Avra'ham, because he is to become “a father to multitudes” of nations. Technically, this name change involves adding only the letter - "hey" - (comparable to "h"), which stands for the word "hamon," meaning a multitude or multitudes. Hamon is of the root verb "hama," which is “boisterous, noisy, roaring.” Thus the promised multitude was to become a teeming one, and rather loud at that! This "hamon" was to be made up of nations or peoples (“goyim”). Interestingly, all these lofty promises, along with the institution of circumcision, are couched in very brief but concise terms. Thus, our text provides a good example of the compactness and conciseness so characteristic of Biblical Hebrew.

Sarai's destiny also changes with a single letter (v. 15). The last letter of her name, being "yod" (comparable to “y”), is exchanged for a "hey," making her Sarah, "a princess," who will not only mother a son, but “nations and kings of nations” are also to come from her (17:16).

In the course of dealing with the patriarchs' names, YHVH does not forget the offspring. Since Avraham laughs at the prospect of having a child, seeing that he and is wife are so old, he is told to name this future son Yitzchak, meaning, "he will laugh." No doubt, in the end, the One who will have the last laugh in this story is the One responsible for giving this name, the One who “sits in the heavens and laughs” (Ps. 2:4). And as we shall see next week, there is more laughter to come…