Monday, August 21, 2017

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Ki Tavo – D’varim (Deuteronomy) 26 – 29:9 with Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

 “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. 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. Ex. 13:2; 22:29; 23:19, Num. 18:13). Rendering to YHVH the first fruit that belong to Him can be done only in the land of Yisrael. The triune bond of the Heavenly Father, His people, and the land 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” (Deut. 26:1,2 italics added). Once the Israelite person is well established 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 Him.

“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). Now the Israelite is bidden to recount before YHVH some of the history of his people (v. 5ff), which of course highlights YHVH’s indispensable role, generating thanksgiving in the said Israelite worshipper, as well as a greater sense of oneness with his ancestors and with the future generations. And so (as we have noticed in many other instances), place, time and people all come together under the sovereign rule of YHVH.

However, the declaration: “… And you shall place it before YHVH your Elohim, and bow yourself before YHVH your Elohim” (26:2), along with the presentation of the fruit in the basket, does not end this particular activity. In verse 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).

In Parashot R’eh and Shoftim (2 and 3 weeks ago, respectively) we encountered the root (bet, ayin, resh), used in reference to YHVH’s burning anger, and also in regards to removing any and all impurities from Yisrael’s camp, and hence means “to burn, purge or consume.” Last week’s Parashat Ki Te’tzeh also made mention several times of this term in regards to sexual impurity (22:13-24), with one more reference to kidnapping (24:7).  Here this term is used once more, but surprisingly in a very different context: “When you have finished laying aside all the tithe of your increase in the third year -- the year of tithing -- and have given to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your gates and be filled, then you shall say before YHVH your Elohim: 'I have removed the holy tithe from my house… I have not eaten any of it when in mourning...‘” (Deuteronomy 26:12-13, 14 italics added).  In Hebrew both “I removed” and “I have [not] eaten” are rendered as “bi’ar’ti.” This further emphasizes the potential for YHVH’s burning anger if one were not to fulfill the above-mentioned requirement of rendering that which is set-apart (kadosh) for those to whom it is due (i.e. the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow).  

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 doing so is as good as “lending to YHVH” Himself (ref. Prov.19:17).

The afore-mentioned address made to the Israelites (in chapter 26) is in second person singular, which constitutes, as noted before, a means to underscore the individual responsibility to be borne by each person (as well as the oneness of the people – one and all). The confession, however, that the Israelite worshiper is to make is in first person plural, denoting the collective national identity in relationship to YHVH (vs. 6-9). 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 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 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 “mam’rim,” of the root m.r.h. This sad fact, which is stated in alliteration form in Tehilim (Psalms) 107:11: “They defied Elohim’s words” – “himru ee’mrey El,” finds its ‘remedy’ (tikkun) in the present term - “he’emiru” -  that is in the definitive action of the Israelites “saying and declaring” YHVH’s “elevating” words, deeds and goodness toward them.

The rest of the Parasha is mostly devoted to the blessings and the curses (chapter 28). Even the undertaking in the future, of writing the Torah on “large stones” after crossing the Yarden and 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 “be’er,” “well” – in Deut. Ch. 1), 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 of the passage 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. Maimonides also observed: ‘The more man is drawn after the paths of wisdom and justice, the more he longs for them and desires them’”. [2]

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 spell out 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” (v. 51, italics added. In the English translation “increase” and “produce” replace “fruit”). 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 it says: “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 (yod, tav, resh) 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” (vs. 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 [of the root a.v.d again] 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” (28:37) 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 (Gen. 23-25:18, in reference to 24:2), we examined the noun “ma’shal” 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 do 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?'"

The second term used in the above “proverb and byword” - “sh’neena” - stems from the root sh.n.n. (shin, noon, noon) and means to “sharpen, 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 last phase of the fulfillment of the curses is a scattering among the nations. This entails unbearable conditions: “And among these nations you shall find no ease, nor shall the sole of your foot have rest – ma’no’ach…” (28:65). 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….” (Gen. 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” (28:66-67). 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 (at the end of the day “erev” is a guarantee of the coming morning). In the present case, the Guarantor of the ‘coming day’ is involved in the circumstances of those to whom He has pledged His guarantee. Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) chapter 30, for example, contains tremendous (and guaranteed) promises to Yisrael. In verse 21 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 the question is quite clear, as no one else but Elohim’s Son could risk His life, as indeed He has, by “sacrificing” (which is identical to “approach” above) Himself!

Finally (in 28:68), “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’” (see 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 (literally and proverbially), 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)!

Verses 1-9 of chapter 29, which form the epilogue of our Parasha, serve to remind the Israelites, once again, of the miracles that they had experienced 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, hence the exhortation: “Pay attention to the words of this covenant, and do them, that you may act wisely in all that you do”! (29:9)

[1] Karaite Korner
[2] 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.

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

Our Hebrew Tools this week will not echo the Parasha’s extremely sober tone. Rather, we will look at some of the words we encountered above, but in their most simple and common form, which should be useful. The verb for selling (masculine gender) – mocher – in Hebrew is identical to the noun for “seller” or “vendor” (masculine), which is also “mocher” (this is also true for the feminine gender, “mocheret”). Also notice that in Hebrew the verb for ‘to love’ is used in instances where in English “like” would be used instead.  The verb for “like” is “me’cha’bev” (infinite form - “le’cha’bev), but can only be used in relationship to people and not to anything or anyone else.

Good Morning
Boker Tov (lit. morning good)

Good Evening
Erev Tov (lit. evening good)

What do you (masculine) sell? I sell good things
Ma ata mocher? Ani mocher dvarim tovim (lit. things good)

What do you (feminine) sell?
Ma at mocheret?

In the morning the vendor hears better
Ba’boker ha’mocher sho’me’ah tov yoter

I like (masculine) the morning
Ani ohev et ha’boker

I like (feminine) the evening
Ani ohevet et ha’erev

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