Thursday, November 26, 2009

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va'ye'tze - B'resheet (Genesis) 28:10 - 32:2

Hebrew Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’ye’tze – Bresheet (Genesis): 28:10 – 32:2

Parashat Va'ye'tze (“and he departed”) starts out with Ya'acov the fugitive making his way from the land of Yisrael to Cha'ran (Haran). No sooner does he leave Be'er Sheva, “and he comes upon a place" (Gen. 28:2). The verb “vayifga” indicates that "he happened," or even "stumbles upon" this location, as the sun was setting. That night Ya’acov has a dream of “angels” – “mal'a'chim” (ref. v. 12) - ascending and descending a ladder. At the end of the Parasha (and twenty years later), while by himself (although far from being alone), Ya'acov once again "happened, or "chanced" to come across “mal'a'chim” (translated here "messengers"), with the same verb that we encountered above (“va'yif'ge'u”, ref. 32:1, translated in English as "met") used here too. "Chance" and "messengers of YHVH" are therefore the two elements framing the time capsule of Ya'acov's Diaspora experience. The verb “paga” (root p.g.a., pey, gimmel, ayin) that is used in these two instances, seems to point out that from Ya'acov's point of view, or experience, the circumstances and the messengers were just "chance occurrences," which he did not otherwise plan for nor anticipate. The ‘master planner’ and ‘conniver’ is no longer in command! In fact, he is more like a pawn, or an actor who is taking part in a great dramatic scheme directed by someone other than himself.

In the opening verse we meet Ya'acov at the point of departure, having in mind a set destiny. But just then, his path takes him to a less defined and (quite likely) less desired place. We read that "he came upon a place, and he stopped over for the night, because the sun had set" (v. 11). External circumstances are being imposed upon him, and so he stops at what is a mere "place" (only later, in verse 19, do we find out that there was a town there). As Ya'acov lies down, using a stone for a pillow, he has the aforementioned dream, during which Elohim promises to give him the “a’retz” (“ground, land”) that he is lying upon (v. 13), and to bring him back to this very “adama” (“soil”, v. 15; see Parashot* B’resheet and Toldot). But as if to suggest that there is a greater dimension (a ‘heavenly’ one) attached to this 'piece of real estate', the promise is given in a most awesome manner, with YHVH being described as standing above a ladder that connected heaven and earth (while the angels were ascending and descending, as mentioned, ref. ve.12, 13). Ya'acov therefore deems this place to be the "house of Elohim and the gate of heaven" (v. 17).

But our forefather does not only "happen" by this "place," he also uses one of the stones of the "place" for a pillow. He lies down in this "place" and discovers that YHVH is in the "place," and that this "place" is truly awesome! Finally, he names the "place" Bet-El - the "house of Elohim." The Hebrew word for the much-mentioned "place" here is “ma'kom,” of the root k.o.m (kof, vav, mem), meaning to "rise up." This particular “makom” is indeed a location where Ya'acov's call to rise up is starting to resound! We cannot leave Yaacov and “makom” without mentioning “y’kum,” which is translated “all living things,” and is found in B’resheet (Genesis) 7:4 and 23, in reference to that which YHVH has created, and was then also about to destroy.

Needing something tangible to mark his experience, Ya’acov picks up the stone he had rested his head on, stands it up as a column and pours oil on top of it (v. 18). After naming the place, he makes an oath promising to make YHVH his Elohim (providing his conditions are met), and adds, "this stone… shall become Elohim's house" (ref. 18-22).

Next, the Patriarch-to-be reaches his desired destination. Upon seeing his beautiful cousin, he musters up an inordinate amount of vigor, which enables him to roll a large stone off the "mouth of the well," a feat that ordinarily required several people to accomplish (ref. 29: 8-10). In chapter 31:45-47, toward the end of the Parasha, the covenant made between Ya'acov and his father-in-law, Lah'van (Laban), is also marked by a stone, which he again places uprightly, as well as by a heap of stones which he names "gal'ed," "a witness heap." It seems that during this time period "e'vehn" (“stone”) becomes a marker for significant events in his life (‘milestones’).

Many years later, when the elderly Ya'acov pronounces on his deathbed blessings upon his sons, he gives his favorite one, Yosef (Joseph), the longest and most complex of the blessings. In the course of his pronouncement, Ya'acov makes mention of the Mighty One of Ya'acov, the Shepherd and Stone of Yisrael - E'vehn Yisrael, all these being titles of YHVH (Gen. 49:24). This is the only time that specific mention is made of the "Stone of Yirael" in the entire Holy Writ, not surprisingly, as it was uttered by the mouth of the one who walked a path made up of many stepping-stones. Later on in the Word, more stones are being uncovered: "the stone which the builders rejected, [and which] has become the chief corner stone" (Ps. 118:22), as well as the "stone to strike and a rock to stumble over" for "both houses of Israel" (Ya'acov's progeny – Yishayahu/Isaiah 8:14). Finally, the stone that was laid in Zion, "a tried stone, a tested stone, a costly corner stone for the foundation…" about which it is said that "he who believes in it [Him] will not be disturbed" (Is. 28:16). Interestingly, the word "e'vehn," which is spelt alef, b/vet, noon, if read without vowels can be broken into two words: "av-ben," that is: "father-son."

Being a member of the family of Be'tu'el (Bethuel) and Lah'van, Ra’chel's name, not unlike that of her aunt Rivka, is associated with the family business, as “Ra’chel” means a "ewe." Ya’acov mentions Lah'van's ewes and female goats in 31:38, when he lodges his complaint about the life style and conditions that were imposed upon him by his father-in-law during their twenty-year association. Ewes as “ra'chel” (plural “r'che'lim”) are mentioned rather rarely in the Tanach, one of those few instances being Yishayahu 53:7, where the Messiah is described as "an ewe - 'ra'chel' - before its shearers".

Eleven of Ya'acov's twelve sons are born in Cha'ran. Leh'ah gives birth to the first four, whose names express her attempts to appease her husband. The firstborn's name - Re’u’ven - means, appropriately, "behold, a son." Next is Shim'on, whose name stems from the verb "to hear." Following him is Leh'vi, of the root "to accompany." Leh'ah's fourth son is Yehuda, whose name is related to "giving thanks" or to "praise." Next to give birth is Rachel's maid, Bil’ha, whom the former gave to her husband so that she could be (literally) built through her. She uses the same words that Sarah did in relationship to Hagar (ref. Gen. 16;2). Rachel’s anguish about being barren comes to the fore in the names she gives to the sons that her maid bears to Ya’acov. This time Dan is born, whose name means "judgment," or "dispensing justice/vindication." Bilha's second son is Naphtali, which is "writhing" or "twisting," and by implication "struggle" (denoting Ra’chel's struggle with her sister). However, Leh'ah was not going to stand by and allow her sister to be "built up" through her maid (30:3; cf. Genesis 16:2). Thus, she too gave her maid, Zilpah, to her husband, hoping to have more sons through her. Zilpah gives birth to Gad, meaning "fortune" (as in "luck"), and to Asher, whose name is of the root "happiness." Leh'ah's words… "I am blessed [or happy], for the daughters shall call me blessed" (30:13), recall the words of Miriam (Mary), Yeshua's mother, upon the birth of her Son (ref. Luke 1:48). Leh’ah herself births the next one, and she names him Yisas'char, from the root to "hire," since she became pregnant with him upon "hiring" Ya'acov from Ra’chel for a 'fee,' in the form of a mandrake plant that was picked by Re'uven. But once the baby is born, Leh'ah recalls the other meaning of the name, which is "wages," and says… "Elohim has given me my wages, because I gave my maid to my husband" (30:18). Leh'ah's sixth son is Z'vulun, from the rare “zeved,” which means "endowment or gift."

After Dina's birth (whose name, like Dan’s, means "judgment" or "justice"), Ra’chel's desire is granted her, and she too has a son. "Elohim has taken away (a'saf) my reproach, [and] she named him Yosef, saying, 'may YHVH add (yosef) to me another son'" (v. 23, 24 emphasis added). While Ra’chel is contemplating how her shame and disgrace are being removed by giving birth, she is also expressing hope that this one, who opened up her womb, will serve as a signal for more sons to follow. The two words, “asaf” (a.s.f., alef, samech, fey), here "take away" while literally "to gather," and “yasaf” (y.s.f., yod, samech, fey) "to add" and "to repeat" are related both in sound and meaning; and when looking down the road of history these two words also become prophetically significant. Yosef certainly was "added to" by his brother Binyamin (Benjamin), and also by receiving a double portion among the tribes of Yisrael when each of his sons became a tribe in his own right. Lastly, prophecy predicts the ingathering of the House of Yosef (and "his companions") at a future day, thus fulfilling the second meaning of his name.

The future two 'camps' of Ya'acov's descendants are alluded to at the end of the Parasha. In 32:1, Ya'acov, as we pointed out before, meets the angels or messengers of YHVH, upon whose sight he exclaims: "This is the camp [or encampment] of Elohim,’ and he named the place Ma'cha'na'yim." “Ma'cha'na'yim” is a plural form of “ma'cha'neh,” meaning “camp.” The particular ending, as attached here to the noun, renders the camp a "multiple" one, or a "double camp." What did Ya'acov see when he looked at this ‘band of angels’? What was it about them that caused him to refer to a "camp" or to an "encampment," and why a double, or a multiple, one?

In next week's Parasha we will see how, for strategic reasons, Ya'acov divides up his family into two companies (literally “camps”), before going to meet his brother Esav. Was the idea already brewing in his mind when he saw the angels/messengers, and thus he projected duality onto their "camp"? Or are the messengers from YHVH the ones who advised him to so divide up his family before the crucial meeting? Perhaps, through something they said or did, he learned about the two camps that his family was destined to be divided into sometime in the future. Is there a direct connection between the angels who were ascending and descending the ladder, when he first departed from the land of Yisrael, and these particular “mal'achim” here, who greet him upon his return? Was YHVH thus reminding him of His promises? As we shall see in the opening verses of the next Parasha, there are still more “mal'a'chim” to come…

*Parashot, plural of “Parasha”

Parashat Toldot - B'resheet (Genesis) 25:19-28:9

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Toldot – B’resheet (Genesis): 25:19 - 28:9

Last week's Parashat Cha’yey Sarah ended with the chronicles of Yishma'el's descendants. This week’s portion opens up with the chronicles of his brother, Yitzchak. But while “toldot” means "begetting" (root y.l.d “to give birth”), these “toldot” start out with barrenness. Yet, Rivka’s condition is inserted in an almost parenthetical manner, and is couched between Yitchak's intercession on her behalf and YHVH's response to the plea (ref. 25:21).

In 25:21 Yitzchak is seen “entreating” - “vaya'a'tor” (a.t.r. - ayin, tav, resh) – YHVH. And "YHVH was entreated “(vaye'ater) of him" (italics added). This wording points to YHVH’s response coming from a place of close identification with the “entreater”

When the request is granted it takes the form of not one, but two - boys, the first of whom comes out red all over (ref. 25: 25). The word for “red” is “adom”, and as we saw in Parashat B’resheet (Genesis 1-4), “adom” is connected to “dam” (“blood”), “adama” (“earth”), and thence to Adam, "the first man" who is "earthy" (ref.1 Cor. 15:47). Esav, representing the first born illustrates, therefore, the principle that the natural precedes the spiritual (ref 1 Cor. 15:46), despite the fact that his brother turns out to be, for a considerable time period, not much less 'earthy' than ‘Hairy the Red'.

The second boy to emerge out of Rivka's womb does so while holding on to the “heel” – “ah'kev” - of his brother, and is therefore named “Ya'acov” (ref. 25:26). Coming in the footsteps of his sibling, his name, which also means "to follow", perfectly matches the order of the births. In Scripture, the image of ‘heel-holding’ or ‘heel-grabbing’ refers to hindering or trapping someone, as we see in the following examples:

“Dan shall be a serpent... that bites the horse's heels” (Gen. 49:17); “The trap shall take him by the heel” (Job 18:9); “They mark my steps” (literally “heels” in Ps. 56:6). The following words of T’hilim (Psalms) 41:9 hint at Messiah’s destiny: “My own familiar friend, which did eat of my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” This type of friend and follower typically steals quietly behind the one whom he follows, with a “crafty” intent (as indeed was the case with Messiah’s “familiar friend”). Indeed, from the same root of “heel” and “to follow”, (a.k.v. - ayin, kof, vet) stem words like “crafty, cunning and deceptive,” as we see, for instance, in the alliteration in Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 9:4: “surely every brother deals craftily (ah'kov ya'akov).”

In the first scene that brings the two siblings together, Ya'acov is seen cooking lentil broth, while his brother happens to be returning, famished and exhausted, from the field. Esav is sorely tempted when his glance strikes what he calls “ha'adom, ha'adom ha'zeh” - "this red, red stuff… therefore his name was called Edom" (25:30) - again from the root “adom” – “red”. The area of Edom, which later was inhabited by Esav's descendants, is indeed noted for its red soil. Everything about this hunter speaks of adom-adama - earth, earthiness. Whether Ya'acov anticipated his brother's famished condition or not, we do not know. Nevertheless, while in English it says that "Jacob cooked a stew," in Hebrew it says: “va'ya'zed Ya'acov na'zid,” which, aside from cooking stew can also be read as: "Ya'acov devised an evil plot" (25:29). After all, 'cooking up' such a plan was only consistent with his name! The word “nah'zid” - “broth” - stems from the root z.y.d. (zayin, yod, dalet) which is shared by the verb “to cook,” and more specifically, to “boil up and seethe.” This verb also lends itself to “evil-doing” and “malice” – such as “zed” and “zadon” (e.g. Ex. 21:14, where “a man schemes” is “yazed”).

Ya’acov does not waste any time. He proposes right away (ref. v. 31) an exchange: broth for birthright. And while in English these words form an alliteration, in Hebrew the verb "sell" – “michra,” and "birthright" – “b'chora” sound alike. (Perhaps this association is what gave Ya'acov the idea in the first place…?) Ya'acov, however, does not provide the goods until he makes his brother swear to him that he will not renege on his “sh'vu'ah” (“oath,” connected, as we have learned, to being “full and satisfied”). After the deal is struck, the two depart and until further notice both seem to be fully satisfied.

However, when the time comes for Esav to claim his birthright (that is the right hand blessing of the father before death), startled by his brother’s cunning, he “cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry: ... ‘Is not he rightly named, Ya'acov? For he has supplanted (akav) me...?’” (Gen. 27:34, 36). The prophet Hoshe'ah (Hosea), many centuries later, traces the waywardness of the nation of Israel (who in this prophecy is called “Ya'acov”) to their progenitor: “In the womb he took his brother by the heel- akav” (Ho. 12:3). In the wake of their birthmark, Ya'acov (the man and the nation) remain true (individually and collectively) to this nature, and will do so until the transformation comes from above.

In the wake of,” or “as a result of,” or the short “because,” is the Biblical word “ekev “(again from the root a.k.v). In 26:4-5 of our Parasha, YHVH says to Yitzchak: “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because (“ekev”) Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws” (italics added). Following Avraham’s implicit obedience the latter is told: “And in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because – ekev - you have obeyed My voice ” (22:18). Other examples of the usage of “ekev” are: “So you shall perish because you would not listen” (Deut. 8:20 italics added). David self-implicating answer to the prophet Nah'tan (Nathan), who challenges him with a parable following his sin with Bat’sheva (Bathsheba), is: “He must make restitution for the lamb, because he did this thing and had no compassion (2nd Sam.12:6, italics added). Thus, this little “ekev” - “because” – becomes the fulcrum on which the balance of justice hangs.

Ya'acov, too, because of (“ekev”) his actions (particularly that of deceiving his father), has to endure the consequences. By the end of the Parasha he becomes a fugitive, running for his life from his brother, and later (in the next Parasha), to be deceived by his father-in-law, Lah'van (Laban). The “heart” of the ‘proverbial’ Ya'acov is well described by Yirmiyahu, who says that it is “more deceitful (akov) than all else” (17:9).

In a few weeks time, in Parashat Vayishlach, we shall see how Ya'acov, while on the road back from Padan Aram to Kna’an (Canaan), plans once again to use some cunning by walking behind – which again suggests ‘following’ - his entourage that was to go ahead of him to greet Esav. At this point he is met face to face, as he himself testifies in B’resheet (Genesis) 32:31, by YHVH Elohim. Yisrael, as he is named after this encounter at Penniel, is made to turn around on his heels, as it were (and becomes lame in the process), never to be the same again. Thus when the “crooked” (“akov”) places become “mishor” – that is “straight” (ref. Is. 40:4) - Ya'acov will become “Yeshurun” (“yashar” - straight” again), true to his name “Yisra’el,” which can also be read, “yashar-el” (“El is upright”). As such, Adonai addresses His people with lofty words: “But now listen, O Ya'acov, My servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen; thus says YHVH who made you, and formed you from the womb [as ‘crooked’ Ya'acov], and Who will help you: do not fear, O Ya'acov My servant; and you Yeshurun [who was ‘straightened’ in life by God] whom I have chosen”(Is. 44:1,2). Lastly, Ya'acov was to become one of the forefathers of Messiah, of Whom it is prophesied that His heel would be “bruised” by the serpent. However, as we know, this “Seed of the woman” was destined to triumph by crushing and trampling down the serpent’s head with His heel (ref. Gen. 3:15; cf. Luke 10:19; Heb.1:13b).

Back to our narrative: Following closely on the heels of the oath that Ya'akov persuades his brother to commit (25:31-33), YHVH reminds Yitzchak of His oath to his father Avraham, and at the same time cautions him not to go down to Egypt, in spite of the famine in the land (ref. 26:1-5), saying: “Do not go down into Egypt. Dwell in the land which I shall tell you” (v. 2). The imperative “dwell,” “sh’chan” (, shin, chaf, noon), is also “settle and abide” and it is from this root that “mishkan,” the “tabernacle” in the wilderness, derives its title. On this very issue, David makes an emphatic statement: “Trust in YHVH, and do good; you shall dwell in the land, and you shall be fed on truth” (Ps. 37:3 italics added). At this point in time Yitzchak and Rivka happen to reside in Grar (Gerar), and when being asked about his wife the Patriarch does not resort to truth. Like his father before him, fear for his life causes him to present his wife as his sister. But what finds Yitzchak out is his act of (literally) "laughing with his wife" (26:8), translated in English "caressing his wife" (or some other equivalent expression). Yitzchak remains… at least… true to his name…

It is in this year of drought that we find Yitzchak sowing, against all odds, a “seed” (“zerah”, of the root z.r.a, zayin, resh, ayin, which is also shared by “arm”), yielding "a hundred fold" (26:12). In verse 4 YHVH talked to Yitzchak about his progeny (“zerah” again), and of its great increase. Is the great harvest that the sown seed yields here (during the famine), a hint of a future fulfillment, against all odds, of YHVH's word to the Patriarch?

Yitzchak's wealth increases tremendously, and his neighbors, the Philistines, are jealous of him (v. 14), and thus Avimelech their king makes a demand from Yitzchak, "Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we" (v. 16). “Much mightier” is “atzam’ta,” from the root (ayin, tazdi, mem). The usage and meaning of this term will prove to be very significant during the Egyptian exile (in Sh’mot – Exodus – 1 it is found in verses 7,8 and 20), and will motivate the Pharaoh to try to annihilate Israel.

In our case, Yitzchak’s jealous neighbors resort to filling up all the wells that have been dug by Avraham's servants. In doing this they are "withholding benefits from both themselves and their cattle! But in addition to stopping up the wells, they fill them with earth so as to obliterate their existence altogether and make sure that no water would ever flow out of them again. Why did they wish the land to be desolate?[1]” The explanation that follows, quoted from Haketav Vehakabala, points out that Yitzchak gave the wells the same names that his father had given them (as we see in v. 18). “These names, such as, YHVH Will See, YHVH is My Sign, The Well of Him that Lives and Sees Me, mark the kindness of the Lord."[2] This was done in order "to spread abroad the knowledge of the Lord and show the people that idols were valueless. Avraham thought out a wonderful device to help to bring those who were misled, under the wings of the Divine Presence. He called the well by a name that would drive home the lesson of the existence of the One True God. By this, he would arouse in them an awareness of the truth by saying, ‘Let us go and draw water from the well of the eternal God!’ The wells were a public necessity, and in this manner, the people were initiated into the knowledge of the true God. Whilst he was alive his fear was upon them [i.e. the locals], as they left the wells intact with their names, but after his death they reverted to idolatry. In order to erase from their memory the names of these wells, which recalled the very opposite of their false opinions, they stopped them up. With the disappearance of the wells, the names also disappeared…. Isaac followed in his father's footsteps and endeavored to dig out these same wells and resurrect their names in order to restore the crown of the true faith to its former glory."[3]

The wording in verse 19, where Yitzchak's servants dig "a well of living water," evidences what we have just read regarding the wells of the Patriarchs. The locals fill up the wells, and now they are being re-named, as pointed out, in order to erase the testimony of the Elohim of Israel. The name of the first well is “Esek”, “contention.” The name of the next, is “Sitna,” “hostility; accusation.” It is from the same root, s.t.n (sin, tet, noon), that we get the word “Satan”, the “accuser”. A closely connected word to “sitna” is “sin'ah” (s.n.a, sin, noon, alef) “hatred.” The verb for “hate” is “soneh,” found in Yitzchak’s query in 26:27: “Why do you hate me?” A similar word, both in sound and meaning is to be found toward the end of our Parasha (27:41), where it says of Esav that he "bore a grudge against Ya'acov," which is “sotem” (s.t.m. sin, tet, mem). The progressive rate of hostility is seen very clearly by this string of sounds: “soten, to accuse; sotem, to bear a grudge and soneh, to hate,” demonstrating accurately how each of these conditions, if unchecked, will lead to the next.

When a third well is dug up, some distance away, “they did not quarrel over it; so he named it Rechovot, for he said, 'at last YHVH has made room for us, and we will be fruitful in the land’” (26:22). “Rechovot” is of the root (resh, chet, vet), meaning, "broad, wide, or making room." Thus, enlarging and broadening the subsistence space brings relief, as we see in T’hilim (Psalms) 4:1, where David cries out: "Answer me when I call, O Elohim of my righteousness, You gave room (“hirchav’ta”) to me in trouble – literally in a place of narrowness” (italics added), words which in his present situation Yitzchak certainly would have concurred with.

1 Studies in Bereshit, Toldot 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library,
Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn,
2 ibid
3 ibid