Thursday, October 3, 2019

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’yelech – Deuteronomy 31 With Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

While last week’s Parashat Nitzavim (“standing” as compared to “and he went/walked”) focuses on the “crossing over” of the Hebrew people, Parashat “Va’yelech” starts with “going”… this time of Moshe:  va’yelech Moshe,” that is  “and Moses went”, and continues with: “and spoke these words to all Israel” (31:1). These words of introduction, “Moses went” regarding the statements that the elderly leader was about to make to his compatriots is quite curious. Was it a hint of his impending departure, and that he was ready to proclaim this fact to all Yisrael? Indeed Moshe continues: “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’” (31:2, 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 [plural for Parasha], Ki Tetze, “when you go out,” and Ki Tavo,” “when you come in”, seem to be related (respectively) 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 and lead you into the land”.

But whereas Moshe will not be accompanying the people, he consoles them saying that “YHVH your Elohim will cross before you” – which is once more 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, 7 and 8, spoken to Yisrael and to Yehoshua summarize all of the above: "’Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them [the people of the land]; for YHVH your Elohim is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.’  Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, ‘Be strong and of good courage, for you will be the one to go with this people to the land which YHVH has sworn to their fathers to give them and you shall cause them to inherit it.  And YHVH is the One who goes before you. He will be with you; He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.’" Notice the repetition of “be strong and of good courage”, and of “YHVH is the One who goes with/before you”. YHVH is with His people, He is also with their leader, and at the same time is also going before/ahead of both.  This echoes the opening words of the Parasha, regarding Moshe’s “going”, but with a consoling element of YHVH’s “going” (present tense) with His people and being with them.

The third expression which is repeated in the above passage: “He will not fail you nor forsake you” is, “lo yar’pecha, ve-lo ya’azovcha”. “Yar’peh” – translated “fail” - is rooted in r. p/f. h (resh, pey/fey, hey), meaning to “become weaklet gobe negligent, or remove”. In Tehilim (Psalms) 46:10 it says, “Be still and know that I am YHVH.” However, in Hebrew the rendering is “harpu”, which literally means “let go”, or “become 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 so doing they will know that He is the Elohim who alone can give them strength. Shaul (Paul) echoes this 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” (2nd Corinthians 12:9 italics added). The next verb (of the above-mentioned expression, “lo yar’pecha ve-lo ya’az’vecha”);;is azav (ayin,zayin,bet/vet),’’andmeans, leave, abandon or forsake.” It is also used elsewhere in our Parasha, although in a different connotation, as we shall see at once.

Thus verses 16 and 17 of Dvarim 31 record: “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”, to not “go lusting after [their] gods”, thereby forsaking the true One. Nevertheless, in verse 16 we read that, “This people shall rise up…” which is “ve’kam.” In  Parashat Nitzavim, (Deut. 29:13) it said: “…that He may establish you today for a people to Himself…” which is literally “that He may raise you up… - hakim”. Hence, it is the very people, whom YHVH was raising up – establishing - who “shall rise up and go lusting after the gods of the strangers…” (italics added), while the people themselves will own to the fact that, “have not these evils come upon us because our Elohim is not among us?” (v.17b italics added). Clearly, while the people are ‘engaging’ with false deities YHVH, Yisrael’s Elohim, cannot be present among them!

In the two examples above (and in many similar ones throughout the Tanach, some of which we examined very recently), we see the usage of identical words, or derivatives of the same root, for the purpose of conveying contrasting messages. This method highlights or enhances an idea, and at times adds a touch of irony and a moral to the story or the description at hand.

YHVH is commanding Moshe to call on Yehoshua in order for both to “present” themselves in the Tent of Meeting (31:14); a command which is designated by the imperative “(ve-hit)yatzvu”, of the root that we encountered in Parashat “Nitzavim”. In presenting himself, therefore, Yehoshua is to make a “firm stand” and a commitment.

Further connection to Parashat Nitzavim is evident in the concept of “witness” – testimony  – “ed” masculine, and “eda” – feminine. In the previous Parasha, heaven and earth were mentioned as witnesses (30:19). Now the “Song” (which constitutes the following Parasha), the book of the Torah, and heaven and earth (again) are singled out as witnesses. The “Song”, in particular, is to “testify as a witness” against the people, “when many evils and troubles have found them” (31:21). “Testifying” in this particular case 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”. Therefore when they recite this Song, their own words shall “respond” to, or echo, 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 same 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, where it says: “You shall not bear – “ta’aneh”- respond” - a false witness against your neighbor”. In view of this, we may ask: are the things that we say and do, most times inadvertently, but mere responses, or answers bearing testimony to a ‘Primary Moving Cause’ (be it YHVH or the adversary)?

In verses 10-11 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 "readrecitecall”. 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 aforementioned “kara” (“read”). 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”. Hearing the Torah read, while turning away from it and from its Giver will result in evil befalling or happening to those who know better yet choose to rebel against its Giver (and against their own better judgment).

Finally, the ironic vein makes its appearance again, in verses 28, 29, if compared to verse 12, by the usage of the verb “gather” in its imperative form. In the first instance it is the command to gather all the “people, men and women, and little ones, and the stranger… that they may hear and that they may learn to fear YHVH your Elohim and carefully observe the words of this Torah” (that is in the 7th year gathering at Succot). In the second instance, “all the elders of your tribes, and your officers” are to be gathered “that I may speak these words in their hearing and call heaven and earth to witness against them”. The object of this present gathering is in order to predict that after Moshe’s death “You will become utterly corrupt, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days, because you will do evil in the sight of YHVH, to provoke Him to anger through the work of your hands" (verse 29). Whereas the first gathering is of the entire people, the second is addressing only the ones with leadership responsibilities. Thus, if the first “gathering” does yield the desired results it will become necessary for the second one to take place. 

 “Over” is pronounced like “overt,” minus the “t” sound.

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

From Parashat Va’yelech we will glean several useful verbs. “Going” (or “walking”) and “leaving” are the first obvious ones, being used in the Parasha in the same way. From the unique usage above of the verb “to testify” we will ‘borrow’ its other meaning, as we saw above, which is “to answer”. In the same way, we will ‘take advantage’ of the unusual spelling of “happen” with its connection to “read” or “call”.

He called: “Don’t go!”
Hu kara: “Al tel’chi!” (feminine, i.e. he is addressing a female)

She called: ”Don’t go!”
He kar’a: ”Al telech!” (masculine, i.e. she is addressing a male)

We (masculine) are reading Hebrew
Anach’nu kor’eem Ivrit
We (feminine) are reading Hebrew
Anach’nu kor’ot Ivrit

There are Israelis that leave the land
Yesh Yisre’elim sheh’ozvim et ha’a’retz
(“sheh” – that – is part of the word. Ha – the – is also part of the word)

Leave (singular)
ozev (m.)
ozevet (feminine)

Leave (plural)
ozveem (m.)
ozvot (f.)