Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Ha’azinu – D'varim (Deuteronomy) Chapter 32 With Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

Parashat Ha’azinu, which consists almost entirely of the ”Song of Moses” - Shirat Ha’azinu in Hebrew - is the crescendo that has been building up in the Dvarim (Deuteronomy) account. It is a recitation which summarizes the Israelites’ history, projecting future situations, while at the same time continually revolving around a central pivot - YHVH as the Almighty and as the loving Father of His people. Shirat Ha’azinu (the Ha’azinu song or poem) was to bear testimony for future generations. Last week 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” (32:1, italics added). The imperative “ha’azinu” (“listen”) is a derivative of “ozen” – “ear,” and would therefore be best translated “give ear.”  Psalm 80 also opens up with:Give ear- ha’azina - O Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock; You who dwell between the cherubim, shine forth!...” Perhaps if we “give ear” to the Shepherd of Yisrael, He will also give ear to our cry.

The common Hebrew word for “scales” is “moz’na’yim”. The ancients must have known that it is the ear which is responsible for balance, thus connecting the two words which stem from the root a.z.n (alef, zayin, noon). With that said, the picture depicted before us is of the heaven and earth acting as scales which are to weigh Israel in the balance.

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.aslthe;showerslon;the;grass((vs.1-2).                                          

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 used 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 honey from the rock and oil out of the flinty rock” (italics added). In response, Yeshurun (Jeshurun) – rooted in     “straight,”?acts?more?like?apYa’acovt(derived?from “crookedness”),land;“scorned9the?Rockbofftheir 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 n.sh.h (noon, shin, hey), which is also the root for the name Menashe (Manasseh). The imagery of the “rock,” a substance that is definitely not associated with tenderness, much less with motherhood, is juxtaposed with metaphors related to birthing and suckling. This type of unusual imagery is echoed somewhat in 1st Corinthians 10:1 and 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 often 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), contrasting the term with Yisrael’s Elohim, who is totally detached from the 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, but let us also include verse 26. YHVH says about His treacherous people:  “I will make an end of them, I will make their memory cease from among men. 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’” (italics added). This last verse (27) contains a very daring anthropomorphism [personification-humanization of YHVH], “indeed attributing to Him the sentiment of fear, as it were… 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…” (back to verse 26) 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’attMikra4offersyanother 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 verse 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 the name that will be given at a much later date to Ephraim - “not-My-people”0(“Lo-Ami,”oHos.1:9).rIn?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). 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) [4].

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. That Yisrael, even in its nascent state, had a major role in global affairs is made apparent 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 (see Gen. 10:25, 11:8), this statement becomes all the more significant and points to a future (for Yisrael) that is even greater.

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), bring to mind a lost entity wandering around, and thus these verbs appear as the solution and response to the people’s dire condition. The usage of these verbs is fraught with activity: “vay’vone’nehu” (root b.n.h, bet/vet, noon, hey), translated “cared,” in actual fact could relate to “bina” – “wisdom” and thus may read: “endowed him with wisdom.” Another possibility is that the above verb stems from “hitbonen,” which is to “look closely, watch,” or to “boneh,” “build, build up, or edify.” “Guarded him” is a translation of “yitz’renhu,” which is of the root n.tz.r, (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 r.ch.f (resh, chet, pey/fey), which is found in B’resheet (Genesis) 1:2 in reference to the Spirit of Elohim. We recall the idea of being protected from above as well as being airborne in 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 YHVH addressed Yisrael: “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.” Parashat Ha’azinu, therefore, echoes and captures promises of the past, transferring them to the Israelites’ present reality on the threshold of the Promised Land.

Next is the enumeration of the goodness and plenty that was conferred upon Yisrael, and with which she shall be blessed in the future (vs. 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… became fat… became thick… covered in layers… forsook Elohim his maker….” In Hebrew all these are in verb form and follow one another thusly: “va’yishman… va’yiv’at… shamanta, avita, kasita, va’yitosh… vay’na’bel,” almost in stampede fashion. Just as before, where YHVH’s intense activities around His people were depicted in verb form, action-laden, so too here - the Israelites’ intent on turning away from their Creator 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 verses 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 italics added). 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) who bore a testimony in His very being, “so that all may 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.

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

Without a doubt the first word we want to examine and learn this week is the word for “ear” – “ozen”. That takes us to the obscure term we examined above - af’ey’em, which may (or may not) be in reference to “af” (“anger” – literally the “snorting of the nose” - in Biblical Hebrew), and hence to “nose” (both in Biblical and Modern Hebrew).  Recently we learned to use “mocher”, being to “sell” and a “vendor”. Here too this verb appears, but also the verb for “buying” (and noun “buyer”) – “koneh”. Like the term referred to above, there is another ambiguous term in this Parasha, which is “vay’vone’nehu”, with the root of bet, noon, hey. As we noted above, it may take us in several directions. Out of the several possibilities mentioned, we will pick the verb “to build”, “livnot” – and “boneh” – “builds”, as well as the noun “builder”.
With this said, let’s go for it…


Everyone has two ears and one nose
Le’chol echad yesh sh’tey oznayim ve’af echad
(lit. to every one there are two ears and nose one)

One ear, two noses
Ozen achat, sh’ney apim

I buy in the market/I am buying in the market (masculine)
Ani koneh ba’shuk
I buy in the market/I am buying in the market (feminine)
Ani konah ba’shuk

The builder is building a building
Ha’ba’nay boneh bin’yan

The builder built a building
Ha’ba’nay banah bin’yan

The builders are building
Ha’bana’eem bonim

The buyer bought a building
Ha’koneh kanah bin’yan


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