Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hebrew Insights into Parashat R’eh – Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 11:26 – 16:17

Behold! – “r’eh,” “see, look” - I set before you today a blessing and a curse…” (Deut.11: 26, emphasis added). The imperative form of the verb “see, look or behold” is in singular person, while the “you” in this verse is in plural form, denoting that although that which is about to follow is a charge to the entire nation, each and every Israelite is to consider individually what is being said, and is to be personally responsible to obey YHVH’s word.  Contrary to the English rendering, that a blessing will result “if you hear the commandments of YHVH your Elohim which I command you today; and a curse, if you will not hear the commandments of YHVH your Elohim” (11:27 italics added), in Hebrew it is simply: “behold I set before you today a blessing and curse; a blessing [of] hearing the commandments…” while the prepositional “if” is attached only to the curse.  Thus, the keeping of YHVH’s word constitutes a blessing in itself, which is the very reason He gave Yisrael the Torah - instructions for life abundant - in the first place!

In order to maintain the blessings, the Israelites are commanded: “You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall possess serve their gods… and you shall obliterate their name from that place” (12:2a.3c italics added). The verb used for “utterly destroy” is the same as for “obliterate” - “abed” of the root a.b/v.d (alef, bet/vet, dalet).  The first reference is a double rendering, “a’bed t’abdoon (- obliterating you will obliterate - singular),” while the second is “ve’eeba’de’tem (plural).”  “Abed” forms a pun with “avod” (ayin, vet, dalet), which is “work” but also “worship and service rendered to Elohim or to idols,” and may be an intentional device employed in our text. Thus we read above, “The places where the nations… serve [av’du] their gods,” and in 13:6-8: “If your brother… or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend… entice you secretly, saying, ‘let us go and serve [na’avda] other gods…’ you shall not yield to him or listen to him…” (emphasis added), as serving other gods will indeed bring about utter destruction and obliteration - ovdan-of the above root a.b/v.d - upon those thus engaged (ref. 13:6-16).

Having been nomads in the wilderness, the Israelites have not yet experienced the “rest and the inheritance” promised them by YHVH (12:9).  It is precisely in order to obtain those two promises that they are to “not do according to all that [you] are doing here today, each doing all that is right in his own eyes.” “And you shall cross over the Jordan, and shall live in the land which YHVH your Elohim is causing you to inherit. And He shall give you rest from all your enemies all around; and you shall live securely” (12: 8, 10, italics added).  “Rest” is “menu’cha” (root – noon, vav, chet), and “inheritance” is “nachala” (root – noon, chet, lamed), with the first two consonants of the latter - forming the word for “rest,” thusly making these two (inheritance and rest) an indivisible unit.  In Yishayahu (Isaiah) 30:15 we read:  “For so says the Lord YHVH the Holy One of Israel, ‘in returning and rest – nachat - you shall be saved [but you would not].”  From Hebrews 4:1,2 we learn that “the word [of the promise to enter the rest and receive the inheritance] did not profit those hearing it, not having been mixed with faith in the ones who heard.”

Large portions of our Parasha deal with YHVH’s place of choice, where He is to be worshipped.  As we saw in Parashat Va’ye’tze (Genesis 28: 10 – 32:2, in chapter 28), “place” is “makom,” originating from the verb “kum” which means “to rise, stand up, or go up.”  This place is defined as: “The place which YHVH your Elohim shall choose out of all your tribes; for you shall seek His dwelling, to put His name there” (12:5).  It is there that the Israelites are to “go” (v. 5); it is there that they are to “bring” their “offerings, sacrifices, tithes, contributions and oaths” (vv. 6, 11). It is also there that they are to “do” all that He commands them to do (v. 14).  It is to be a place for both individual and corporate service to and worship of YHVH, with the Pesach sacrifice being offered there (ref. 16:2, 6), and the “rejoicing” during the Feast of Shavu’ot (Feast of Weeks ref. v. 11).  Finally, “three times in a year shall all your males appear before YHVH your Elohim in the place which He shall choose” (16:16 emphasis added).  The word here for “males” is not the usual “z’charim” (singular, “zachar”), but another version of the same root ( zayin, chaf, resh), “z’churim.”  The root means to “remember,” and thus a “male” is “one who remembers.”  But here the changed form (“z’churim”) means “those who are remembered.” If the Israelites remember to obey YHVH’s word, He will definitely not forget them and will maintain His faithfulness to them (and to their households).

Whereas the sacrifices and offerings are not to be offered randomly (“take heed to yourself that you not offer your burnt offerings in every place that you see”, 12:13), the slaughtering and partaking of meat, once Yisrael enters the land, may be done at will (v. 15). This will enable the people to eat the meat of undomesticated animals such as deer and ram, which although kosher, could not be eaten in the wilderness as they were not to be used for sacrifices.  But in addition to this changed regulation, another change is now being enacted.  Because meat eating in the wilderness always involved a sacrifice (“peace offering” for the laymen), those partaking of it had to be “tahor,” that is in a state of ritual cleanliness.  However, with the changed conditions and requirements for and in the Land of Yisrael, he who is ritually unclean, the “tameh,” will also be able to partake of meat (except meat which is to be sacrificed in the place designated by YHVH).  It is here that the prohibition of consuming blood is also repeated (12:16) and elaborated upon in verse 23, where it says: “Only, be strong not to eat the blood, for the life is in the blood, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh” (emphasis added). Rashi, quoting Rabbi Yehuda, comments that it took “strength” to restrain oneself and not partake of the blood. He further quotes Rabbi Shim’on ben Azay who says that this indicates that if fortitude was needed to stay away from blood, which naturally does not constitute a great temptation, how much more so regarding YHVH’s other injunctions![[1]]  However, the  blood that we are obligated to ‘drink’ is Yehsua’s, for He said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood you do not have life in yourselves.  The one partaking of My flesh and drinking of My blood has everlasting life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53, 54).

The “life is in the blood,” of 12:23, is actually the “blood is [or constitutes] the soul,” as we see also in B’resheet (Genesis) 9:4.  Soul - “nefesh” - stems from the root. meaning “rest” or “refreshing oneself.”  Shmot (Exodus) 23:12 provides a good example and illustration of the usage and meaning of this verb: “Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor [in order] that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger may refresh themselves” (emphasis added). Thus, embedded in the very word for ‘soul’ is YHVH’s original intent and design for it, which is “rest, repose and refreshment.”

Chapter 13 begins with a challenge concerning false prophets or dreamers of dreams, which the Israelites are not to heed if they truly love YHVH their Elohim.  Accordingly, we read the following in verse 3: “You shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for YHVH your Elohim is testing you to find out if you love YHVH your Elohim with all your heart and with all your soul.”  The Hebrew for “you love…” is “ha’yesh’chem ohavim…”  This is an unusual usage of “yesh,” which means “there is, substance, or existence” and is generally not attached to pronouns.  The particular usage employed here indicates that the love the Israelites are supposed to have for YHVH is to be part and parcel of their very being, their make up and fiber.  

The rest of chapter 13 and the first part of 14 deal with idolatrous practices, about which it says: “You shall put away evil from among you” (13: 5, see also v. 17)).  The verb for “put away” is “(u)ve’arta,” of the root (bet, ayin, resh) , which literally means to “burn.”  In Bamidbar (Numbers) 11:1 we read, “And when the people complained, it displeased YHVH and YHVH heard it; and his anger was kindled, and the fire of YHVH burnt among them.”  That fire of YHVH, which burnt among them, was denoted by the same verb.  And thus we may infer that Yisrael is not only to “burn” the “evil,” but that failing to depart from evil they too will be incurring YHVH’s burning anger.  Moreover, another word that is spelt the same, means “brutish or ignorant,” and by inference also “beasts and cattle” (e.g. Gen. 45:17).  The fools are addressed in Tehilim (Psalms) 94: 8 – 11 in this way: “Understand you beastly ones [“bo’arim”] among the people; you fools, when will you be wise? He who planted the ear, shall He not hear? He who formed the eye, shall He not see? He who chastises the nations, shall He not punish, He who teaches man knowledge?  YHVH knows the thoughts of man, that they are vain.”  It appears that (“burning,” but also “removal” and “brutish”) is applied to those who have incurred YHVH’s burning anger (or who could be in danger of doing so).

The laws of tithing are also repeated in our Parasha: “You shall surely tithe all the increase of your seed that the field yields year by year” (14:22).  “Aser te’aser,” you shall surely tithe” (lit. tithing you shall tithe) is emphatic, whilst the letters ayin, sin and resh which from the word “eser” -  “ten” (the tithe of course being the tenth part of the whole, and called “ma’aser”) are also the root of ashir - rich (with a slight modification in the letter “sin,” placing the dot on the upper right hand side turning it to “shin”).  Are we to surmise from this that he who pays his tithes is guaranteed riches?  The reason given here for the tithes (and for having to be faithful to eat it in the place chosen by YHVH), is for the purpose of teaching “to fear YHVH” (14:23).  The commentator Alshikh asks, “How can eating, drinking and abundance of rejoicing teach people to be God fearing? … Perhaps the Holy One blessed Be He commanded them to take a tithe of all their possessions to Jerusalem, to deter them from repudiating the source of their bounty and that they should realize that this wealth did not originate with the power of their own hands. It was as if they were giving the king his portion. This tithe is ‘holy to the Lord’, and from the table of the Most High. They were partaking of the table of the Most High (this tithe was regarded as their own personal goods…) … The ‘living would take this to heart’ that he was a slave of the king of the universe, partaking of His bounty, and in this way never stop fearing the Lord continually.”[[2]]

The principle of the release of debts comes next. “Every seven years you shall make a release”… a “sh’mita” (15:1) of the verb sh.m.t. (shin, mem, tet), which means to “drop, release, or let go” (as we saw in Parashat Mishpatim – Ex. 21-24, in 23:11).  The lesson learned thereby is not only the remission of debts, but also the remission of sins granted us by YHVH, who in forgiveness and grace “lets go” of our transgressions.  The results of an attitude denoted by the expression “an open and free hand” (15:8), and by the deeds accompanying it, is such that there will be: “…no one in need among you, for YHVH will greatly bless you in the land that YHVH your Elohim is giving you for an inheritance, to possess it” (15:4).  But should the poor nevertheless remain in the land, “sh’mita” will afford an opportunity to “give freely” (ref. vv. 8, 10, 11) and, further, to be blessed in return.  Even Yeshua made the comment that “the poor are always with you” (John 12:8).  The word used in this text for “poor” (15:7,8, 11) is “ev’yon,” of the root a.v.h (alef, bet/vet, hey) which is “submit to existing demand” [3], thereby describing the lot of the less fortunate member of society.  Two other verbs with similar meaning are found within the same context in chapter 15.  In verse 2 we read:  “… every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor…,” while “loaned” here is “yasheh” (root, mem, shin, hey) and means “obligate, give up rights.”  In verse 6 we read again: “For YHVH shall bless you as He has promised you, and you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow…”. “Lend” is “avot” (a.v.t. ayin, vet, tet), meaning “obligate, be indebted”. [4]  Conditions of full graciousness and generosity result in full freedom, with none having to “submit to the demands of others” to whom they are “indebted.” But, as mentioned above, when that is not the case, YHVH makes provision for those who fall under this category, thus giving an opportunity to the rest of society to be exercised in goodness and care toward the needy.

In the latter part of chapter 15 we encounter instructions concerning Hebrew slaves, who are to be released on the seventh year: “And when you send him out free from you, you shall not let him go away empty. You shall richly bestow on him from your flock, and from your threshing floor, and from your winepress…” (v. 14, emphasis added).  The Hebrew reads: “bestowing you shall bestow,” while the verb for “bestow” is “ha’anik” (the root is a.n.k, ayin, noon, kof). According to Daat Mikra commentary [5] the usage of this verb here is connected to “anak,” a necklace, is in order to point out that rather than ‘hang burdens on the neck’ (as the idiom goes) of the former slave, the (former) master is to ‘hang on his neck’ gifts of every kind.

Still on the same theme, in 16:11 we read concerning the Feast of Shavu’ot: “And you shall rejoice before YHVH your Elohim, you and your son, and your daughter, and your male slave, and your slave-girl, and the Levite that is inside your gates, and the alien, and the fatherless, and the widow that are among you…” According to Rashi, the first group of four form parallels the last four. The first lot belongs to man, while the second lot belongs to YHVH, who says to man: “If you will treat well those who belong to Me, I shall likewise be kind [literally, ‘cause to rejoice’] to those who belong to you”. [6]

[1]  Dvarim with Daat Mikrah Commentary, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 2001.
[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.
[3] Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebew, based on the commentaties of   
     Samson Raphael Hirsch, Matityahu Clark, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, - New    
     York, 1999.
[4] Ibid
[5] Dvarim with Daat Mikrah Commentary, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 2001.
[6] Ibid