Thursday, September 25, 2008

Parashat Nitzavim - D'varim (Deuteronomy) 29:10-Ch. 39

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Nitzavim – D'varim (Deuteronomy) 29:10 – Ch. 30

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, it 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 operation 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 to “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), and thus next week we will read in Prashat Va'yelech 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 before 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.

[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, July 10, 2008

Parahat Masa’ey – Bamidbar (Numbers) 33 - 36

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Masa’ey – Bamidbar (Numbers) 33 - 36

Masa’ey - “these are the journeys of the sons of Israel… (33:1), “and Moses wrote their departures according to their journeys by the mouth of YHVH. And these are their journeys, according to their departures” (v. 2). Although Moshe is entirely familiar with the journeys and the name of each location that the people of Yisrael had gone through, and/or encamped at, the account, which will now follow (vv. 3- 49), is dictated to him “by the mouth of YHVH”. Wondering as to the importance of these technical details, some of the sages, including Rashi, have concluded that this list was to serve as a reminder to the people of YHVH’s watchfulness over them, and of His attention to each and every detail pertaining to their lives and destiny. Thus, the names of each of the places are used as a device to invoke in them the memory of YHVH’s care for them. According to Maimonides, the names of the places are a testimony intended to verify that they have indeed stayed at the locations mentioned; places where only YHVH Himself could have sustained them, thusly bringing to their minds the miracles which He wrought for them. Sforno adds to this: “’The Lord blessed be He desired that the stages of the Israelites’ journeyings be written down to make known their merit in their going after Him in a wilderness, in a land that was not sown [ref. Jer. 2:2] so that they eventually deserved to enter the land. ‘And Moses wrote’ – he wrote down their destination and place of departure. For sometimes that place for which they were headed was evil and the place of departure good… Sometime the reverse happened. He wrote down too the details of their journeyings because it involved leaving for a new destination without any previous notice, which was very trying. Despite all this, they kept to the schedule…’ In other words, according to Sforno the Torah shows us both sides of the coin. We have been shown an Israel composed of rebels and grumblers, having degenerated from the lofty spiritual plane of their religious experience at Mount Sinai… Now the Torah changes its note and shows us the other side of the picture, Israel loyal to their trust, following their God through the wilderness… They followed Him in spite of all the odds, through the wildernesses of Sinai, Etham, Paran and Zin… that was also a place of fiery serpents and scorpions and drought where there was no water, where our continued existence would have been impossible, were it not for the grace of God…”[2]

Chapter 34 details the extent of the territory of the inheritance. In an era when defined borders did not exist, this was a novelty which underscores, once again, the importance YHVH attaches to the land and to its occupation. It is here that He also appoints those “who will take possession of the land for you” (34:17). Following these instructions, the towns which are to be occupied by the Levites (among the other tribes’ territories), are listed. “Command the sons of Israel that they give to the Levites cities to live in, from the land of their possessions, and you shall give to the Levites open land for the cities” (35:2). “Open land” is “migrash”. One of the words for “inheritance” is “yerusha” (33:52, 53), in which is embedded the term to “impoverish” (being a reference to the party from whom one’s inheritance is wrested). “Migrash”, which the Levites were to be granted, is of the root (gimmel, resh, shin) and its primary meaning is to “cast or drive out”. Hebrew certainly does not conceal or embellish the hard-core ‘facts of life’, and does not make attempts at being ‘politically correct’. As a matter of fact, from Matthew 11:12 we learn that the Kingdom of Heaven is also “seized by force”. Thus, in taking hold of YHVH’s possession (and their inheritance), the Israelites had to “impoverish” and “cast out” the inhabitants of the land. When “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian… mocking, she said to Abraham, ‘Drive away [“ga’resh”] this slave-girl and her son, for the son of this slave-girl shall not inherit [“yirash” – will cause another to be impoverished] with my son, with Isaac’” (Gen. 21:9,10).

The next topic is that of the refuge cities and their respective guidelines, one of which states that if a person has slain someone unintentionally he is to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, and only then return to the “land of his possession [inheritance]” (35: 25, 28). Similarly, it is only through the death of our High Priest that we too have been released, and may now come out of our proverbial confinement into the freedom of our inheritance (ref. Acts 20:32; 26:18; Eph. 1:11; Col. 3:24; Heb. 9:15). This fact gains even more validity when we read the last part of the chapter: “And you shall take no ransom [kofer, of the root k.f/p.r – kippur] for the life of a murderer; he is punishable for death, for dying he shall die. And you shall take no ransom [kofer] for him to flee to the city of his refuge, to return to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest. And you shall not pollute the land in which you are, for blood pollutes the land. And no ransom [kofer] is to be taken for the land for blood which is shed in it, except for the blood of him who sheds it; and you shall not defile the land in which you are living. I dwell in its midst, for I, YHVH, am dwelling among the sons of Israel” (35:31-34). Thus, the blood of Yeshua our High Priest has purified both our earthly inheritance and ourselves, and at the same time has also gained for us a heavenly one (ref. 1Pet. 1:4). According to the English translation, the cities of refuge are to be “selected”. The Hebrew, on the other hand, reads: “You shall cause cities to occur (for yourselves)… “ve’hik’re’tem” – root k.r.h (kof, resh, hey) (35:11), an expression which is an oxymoron, as one’s will is either actively involved, or else things occur in a happenstance manner, or (more likely) by Providence beyond one’s control. Once again the Hebraic mentality presents a challenge, pointing to the place where Providence and man’s choice meet, defying human logic.

YHVH’s detailed attention to the place He has set apart is seen again in the last chapter of Parashat Masa’ey, where we learn that “no inheritance of the sons of Israel shall turn from tribe to tribe, for each one of the sons of Israel shall cling to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. And any daughter that possesses an inheritance from any tribe of the sons of Israel to one of the family of the tribe of her father is to become a wife of the family of the tribe of her father, so that the sons of Israel may each possess the inheritance of his father. And the inheritance shall not turn from one tribe to another tribe. For the tribes of the sons of Israel shall each one cling to its own inheritance, as YHVH commanded Moses” (36:7-10 emphasis added). The word for “turn” here, in future tense, is “tisov” of the root s.v.v (samech, vet, vet). “Savov” is to “turn about or go around”. It is indicative of mobility, unstableness and temporariness. The usage of this verb here lends extra emphasis to the issue at hand: “For the tribes of Israel shall each cling – yid’b’ku, adhere, cleave like glue - to its own inheritance, as YHVH commanded…” In B’resheet 3:24 we read: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother, and will cleave/adhere/cling to his wife and they will become one flesh.” YHVH declares above that He dwells in the midst of the land, among the sons of Yisrael (35:34); it is no wonder therefore that He is so very particular about the set up of His abode.

1. New Studies in Bamidbar, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman, Eliner Library,
Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, Hemed Books Inc.,
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Parashat Ma'tot - Bamidbar (Numbers) 30-32

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Ma’tot – Bamidbar (Numbers): 30-32

In the opening verse (30:1), Moshe is seen addressing the “heads of the tribes of the sons of Israel”. The word used here for tribes is “ma’tot” (plural, while singular is “ma’teh”). In Parashat Chu’kat we discovered that “ma’teh” is a rod or a staff (like the one Moshe used to hit the rock, Num. 20:8-11), and that this word is rooted in the verb to “stretch out” but also means to “incline, turn, or turn away”. Thus, by implication, “ma’teh” is used for “tribe”, emanating from the ‘rod of authority’ in the hand of the respective tribal leaders. (The other word for tribe, “shevet”, is also a “rod”.) In both of our Parashot, “mateh” is used solely for “tribe” or “tribes” (e.g. 31:4; 32:28). In Vayikra (Leviticus) 26:26 we encountered another “staff”, that is “ma’teh lechem” which is the “staff of bread”. Staff here is a metaphor for that which is leaned (or depended) upon, as indeed our bodies cannot do without bread (used here as a generic term for “food”).

The first part of Parashat Ma’tot deals with oaths and prohibitions and the abolition thereof (see Matt. 18:18, 19). In 30:3-5 we read: “And when a woman vows a vow to YHVH, and has bound a bond in the house of her father in her youth, and her father has heard her vow… and her father has remained silent… then all her vows shall stand... But if her father has prohibited her in the day he heard, none of her vows and her bond with which she has bound her soul shall stand. And YHVH will forgive her because her father prohibited her.” “Prohibited”, in both instances in this passage is “heh’nee”, of the root n.o.h (noon, vav, alef), meaning “hinder, restrain, or frustrate”. Similarly, in verse 8: “If in the day her husband hears, he prohibits her…” (emphasis added), the same verb is used. The latter part of Parashat Ma’tot presents the story of the sons of Re’uven and Gad who express to Moshe their desire to settle in the land of Gil’ad, on the eastern shore of the Yarden (Jordan). However, Moshe, being concerned that they may be separating themselves from their brethren and that their move could have a negative impact on the rest of the people, voices his misgivings and says: “And why do you discourage the heart of the sons of Israel from passing over to the land which YHVH has given to them? So your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea to see the land. And they went up to the valley of Eshcol and saw the land, and discouraged the hearts of the sons of Israel” (32:7-9). Here we find the verb n.o.h once again, but this time translated as “discourage or discouraged”. Moshe attributes the same motives that operated in the hearts of the ten spies (Parashat Sh’lach Lecha, Num. 12-14), to the two tribes wishing to settle on the Yarden’s eastern shore. He interprets their plan as being one that would frustrate YHVH’s will, while at the same time incurring frustration in his listeners, who are no doubt concerned lest their leader would frustrate their plans. Frustration and a feeling of being hindered must also be the lot of the woman, mentioned above, who takes a vow and/or restricts herself in some way for Godly reasons and in good conscious and is later prevented from going through with the commitments she had made.

The origin of the verb n.o.h, is “rise with difficulty” [1] illustrating what we have noticed time and again, namely that Hebrew is a very concrete language and thus most of its abstract terms are actually borrowed from the tangible world. Several other such terms in this Parasha are “bind” (e.g. 30:3,4,5,6 ff), which is “assor” (a.s.r., alef, samech, resh), literally meaning “imprison or imprisoned” (such as in Gen. 40:3; Jud. 15:11,13; 1Sam. 6:7 etc.); “annul or make void” – “ha’fer” (30:12), whose root is “porer” (p.r.r. pey, resh, resh) and means to “crumble, break, shatter or destroy” (although its common usage is the metaphorical one rather than the literal).

Returning to Moshe’s exhorting address in 32:14 to the two tribes; the aging leader expresses his concern lest their actions would give rise to a “brood of sinful men”. The word used there is “tarbut”, which is of the root “rav”, meaning “much, many, or great”, and is therefore simply a derivation of “increase”. Thus, Moshe is literally talking about an increase or spread of evil among them, without pointing to an existing grouping or a particular “brood”. In verses 14b, 15 he adjoins: “[Lest] you still [will] add more to the burning anger of YHVH against Israel. For if you turn away from Him, He will add more to His abandoning of them [i.e. Yisrael] in the desert…” (literal translation). Moshe is worried that the actions of the Reuvenites and Gaddaites would bring about an increase of evil and in this manner add to YHVH’s anger, adding disciplining measures, resulting in more suffering for the people as a whole.

Another issue dealt with in our Parasha is the command to “execute vengeance… against the Midianites, afterward you shall be gathered to your people” (31:2). In the preparations leading to this eventuality, Moshe calls out for men to be “prepared for the army” (31:3). However,
“he-chal’tzu” (with root, chet, lamed, tzadi), which is the command used here for “be prepared”, actually means to “draw, pull out, or remove” (such as “removing” one’s foot out of a shoe, Deut. 25:10). Thus, the literal rendering of 31:3 is: “Draw out from amongst yourselves men for the army…” Rabbi Mordechai Eilon, quoting Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, stresses that although the expression “draw out from amongst yourselves” is in reference to a select group, it actually points to the ‘whole’ from which this group is to be drawn, implying the involvement of the entire group. Thus, by virtue of being represented by the “cha’luztim” (plural for “cha’lutz”, “those who plod ahead”, see also 32:20, 21), the whole army will be participating in the battle. Aside from meaning “drawn out”, the root also speaks of being removed from one’s customary environment and comfort zone, indicating that these vanguards were willing to venture and forge the way ahead of everyone else. The verb “cha’letz”’s additional meaning, which is “to rescue and deliver” (used a number of times in the Psalms), is totally compatible with the readiness of the two tribes to help their brethren.

In view of this, when the Re’uvenites and Gaddites declare later (in 32:17): “We shall ourselves go armed” (which reads, “va’necha’letz”, again of the root, their intent appears much clearer. They are saying in fact that after they make basic provisions for their families and livestock, they will “remove” themselves from all that is familiar to them and will “hurry and go ahead of the sons of Israel until we bring them to the place which is theirs” (32:18, literal translation). In his response Moshe states that each of them is to be a “cha’lutz” for his brother, (while failing to do so, according to him, will be considered a sin “before YHVH”, vv. 20-24). Their response is again marked by the term “cha’lutz” (v. 27). Moshe repeats this condition; namely, that only if they will act as “chalutzim” will they be entitled to land on the Yarden’s eastern shore. In their reply, the Gaddaites and Re’uvenites confirm their readiness to “go over… as chalutzim… before YHVH into the land of Canaan, so that the land of our inheritance on that side of Jordan may be ours” (v. 32).

Interestingly, the first time the root shows up in Scripture is in Genesis 35:11, where the Almighty promises Abraham that “…A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come out of your loins”. The words for “loins” is “chalatza’yim” – the strong place. In the context of our story, the descendants of the promised “kingly” race find themselves having to take the lives of their enemies’ kings, while in the Word one of the terms used for royal or fine robes is “mach’la’tzot” (again of the root, such as the ones put on Yehoshua the High Priest, in exchange for his filthy ones (ref. Zech. 3:4).

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

Friday, May 2, 2008

Parashat Kdoshim - Vayikra (Leviticus): 19-20

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Kdoshim – Vayikra (Leviticus): 19-20

"And YHVH spoke to Moses, saying, 'Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: `You shall be holy [plural -kdoshim], for I YHVH your Elohim am holy'" (19:1-2 emphasis added). The rest of the Parasha, like the one which preceded it (Acharey Mot), constitutes a portrait of the 'holy’, or ‘set-apart’ Israelite, whose Elohim is Holy, a fact which could render him of the same status - as it says in Genesis 1:27: "So Elohim created man in His own image; in the image of Elohim He created him," (italics added).

In contrast to most of YHVH's addresses in the Parashot we have been studying, here the “entire congregation of the sons of Israel” – kol ah’dat b'ney Yisrael, is being addressed. We have here an assortment of directives, both of commission and omission. The penalties described (and mainly found in chapter 20), even if not exercised and carried out in our day and age, are indicators of the way YHVH views the transgressions that they are appended to.

The theme of Parashat Kdoshim is encapsulated in 20:25…"You shall therefore distinguish between clean animals and unclean, between unclean birds and clean, and you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast or by bird, or by any kind of living thing that creeps on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. And you shall be holy to Me, for I YHVH am Holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine." This clearly illustrates the contaminating effect, which the unclean has upon God's People; yet over and above that, it underscores the separateness of those who belong to Him and who are rendered set apart by this very fact.

Going back to chapter 19, we will notice that most of the injunctions or clusters thereof, end with "I am YHVH your Elohim". Thus, in chapter 19 we read about reverence for father and mother and keeping the Shabbat. This is followed by a command to reject idols. The issue of peace offerings, which follows, is succeeded by how one is to treat those less fortunate than oneself (the poor and the sojourner), by leaving for them the gleanings of the fields and vineyards, for… "I am YHVH your Elohim". Theft, deception, lying and swearing falsely in YHVH's name are enumerated next. All of these constitute "profaning" His Name, which is “chalel” (ch.l.l., chet, lamed, lamed) meaning, to “make hollow or burrow”, and is also the root for "casualty" (such as those killed in war). Dealing unjustly ( – ayin, shin, kof, oppressing and stealing) with one's fellow man, cursing the deaf and putting a stumbling block in front of the blind, diverting justice in court, tale bearing and not taking responsibility when a friend's life is in danger… all are sealed by "I am YHVH". Obviously we are moving here into more subtle matters that may not be necessarily noticed by society at large, but will be seen by Him whose "eyes run to and fro throughout the whole earth" (ref. 2nd Chr.16:9; Zech. 4:10). This takes us to even deeper issues of the heart, such as: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart".

"Brother", aside from its obvious meaning, could also relate to one's “fellowman”, just as do the following terms: "Associate" - amit (v. 11) and "re'ah", that is, “friend or fellowman” (more commonly rendered "neighbor" in the English translations) (ref. 19:16-18). The utilization of these terms clarifies that ‘others’ are equal to one’s self, and therefore should be treated accordingly. In verse 17 there is also an instruction of commission; that is, what one should do when the need arises, rather than accumulate hatred and bitterness, namely, "rebuke". If "open rebuke is better than love carefully concealed,” (Prov. 25:7), how much more does this apply when hate is the option? One is not to nurse vengeance nor bear a grudge against one's own people, logically leading to the highest dictum; that one is to love one's fellow man as one's self (v.18). Again, this is sealed by "I am YHVH".

The tending of trees in YHVH's Promised Land - which for the first three years were to be considered “uncircumcised” – “arelim”, and in the fourth are to be “praises to YHVH" - “hiluleem”, as well as prohibitions concerning all pagan idolatrous customs, ensue next. However, "I am YHVH" does not seal the passage before the mention of the honor due the elderly. The next cluster deals with the sojourner, because of the Israelites’ own experience in Egypt. Chapter 19 ends with the injunction for utilizing only honest and just measurements, as befitting a Nation of a just Elohim. "You shall observe all My statutes and all My judgments, and perform them…" forms the ending of chapter 19 (v. 37), to which we must append 18:5, where it says…”which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am YHVH.” It is no wonder, therefore, that the Renewed Covenant's mandate is to do just that – to enable His People to live out this Torah of Life (or life of Torah) through Him Who is the very Giver of Life.

Chapter 20 echoes chapter 18 (in Acharey Mot), in dealing largely with various forms of incest, forbidden forms of cohabitation, and abominable sexual practices, which are described by the phrase, “exposing the nakedness” (again, nakedness is tantamount to not having a “covering” – “kippur”). “Nakedness” here is “erva” of the root a.r.h. (ayin, resh, hey). A similar word, stemming from the root, a.r.r (ayin, resh, resh), that means “stripped” and also “childless”, is “ariri”, (e.g. Gen. 15:2; Is. 23:13) [1]. Thus, in verse 20 we read: “And if a man shall lie with his uncle's wife, he has uncovered his uncle's nakedness - erva. They shall bear their sin. They shall die bereft of children – arireem” (italics added). This makes evident the fruitlessness and lifelessness of sin, and symbolizes the fact that sin results only in death (childlessness).

It is interesting that the names of these two Parashot are often combined, along with next week's Emor ("say, speak out or express”). Strung together they form a phrase: "After the death of the holy ones, speak out…." Notably, it is only afterdeath” (to the old and carnal) that one may give expression to YHVH's Torah - written on one's heart, by which one might lead a holy life.

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