Thursday, February 6, 2020

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Yitro – Sh’mot (Exodus): 18 – 20 with Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

This week we arrive at the foot of Mount Sinai to participate in a glorious and “epiphanic” scene of colossal scope, but not before attending to some personal and administrative matters. The touching and even intimate episode of Moshe's meeting with his father in law, Yitro (Jethro), eventually evolves into a strategic plan proffered by the latter (18:13-26).  However, to begin with, Yitro’s purpose for coming to his son in law was for another reason altogether, as is evidenced in 18:2-6. Yitro did not come alone. He brought with him his daughter, Tzipora and her two sons, “after he [Moses] had sent her back”. Apparently, before Moshe could embark on the great task ahead of him, he had to take care of the wellbeing of his own family, because a nation, a people, especially a unique one such as Yisrael, is dependent on the soundness of its components, the families (see 1st Timothy 3:2-5).  Rather than be rid of his family, in order to be able to devote himself wholly to his duties, Moshe had to do quite the opposite.  After attending to these family matters, Yisrael’s leader was free to receive some instructions from his father in law in order to improve his organizational skills prior to the revelation of YHVH and His Torah.

Moshe tells Yitro that he has been busy “making known the statutes of Elohim and His laws” to the people (18:16). These "statues and laws" are "chukot and torot" (plural of "chok" and "torah"). This is not the first time that these legal terms are used before the official 'giving of the Torah'. Their usage, as seen here, as well as in B’resheet (Gen.) 26:5 and in Sh’mot (Ex.) 16:4, may help lend these terms a more comprehensive meaning. Thus, instead of being strictly perceived as a set of rules of 'do's' and 'don'ts,’ YHVH's instructions to His People may be viewed as just that… instructions for life, for abundant life. "Chok" - "law" - is from the root ch.k.k (chet, kof, kof), meaning "to engrave or imprint" (and by implication "to decree, inscribe and enact"). With this understanding, the "law" may be viewed as an "imprint", rather than only an imposition from without. YHVH desires to impress upon the hearts of His people His way of life and His character (with the "renewed covenant" being the final seal of that objective. See Jer. 31:33). At the same time, the act of inscribing is mutual. It is not only YHVH who is embossing His imprint upon those who belong to Him, for He says: “I have inscribed you (“cha'ko'tich”, using the same root of ch.k.k) on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:16 italics added). The root of Torah is y.r.h (yod, resh, hey) and means to “shoot”, as in “hitting the mark”.  Since “sin” – chet – means “missing the mark”, the “Torah” is to help us all become “sharp shooters”.
In the course of instructing Moshe, Yitro uses, in 18:20,21, two interesting verbs which are translated, respectively, “teach” (v. 20) and “select” (v. 21). However, “vehiz’harta” (the first of those, i.e. “teach”) originates from the root z.h.r. (zayin, hey, resh) which means “radiate”, (for more examples on the usage of this word see Ps. 19:11; Dan. 12:13). Thus Moshe is told to cast light upon, or illumine the “chukim” and “torot”. His teaching, therefore, has to originate with the Source of Light – the “Elohim [who] is light and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). While the light is thus being “cast” Moshe can now not merely “choose” or “select”, as your translation would have it, but actually “see far ahead and envision the unseen - te’che’zeh” (root ch.z.hey – chet, zayin, hey, e.g. Ps. 58:10, and in next week’s Parasah in Ex. 24:11 etc.), as the original text states. A seer is called “chozeh” (ref.1 Sam. 9:9).

With some practice in godly nationhood now accomplished, “the House of Jacob" and the "Sons of Israel” (ref. 19:3) appear to be in a slightly better position to hear directly from YHVH. Shlomo Ostrovski1 delineates these two, seemingly synonymous terms that are used here for the Nation, with  the "House of Ya'acov" being the title for the “natural” entity with its “natural” free will, in contradistinction to the "spiritual entity" – that is the "Sons of Yisrael" – who are to employ their will and capacity to make choices on the spiritual level. The next verse continues: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself” (19:4 italics added). This kind of imagery demonstrates the tenderness of a parent, as well as that of a husband, who, in Biblical terminology "brings" his bride to himself (e.g. Gen. 24:67). If we think of the episode of the Sinai Covenant as a betrothal, the above verb is very appropriate. According to Nehama Leibowitz, this verse (4) describes "the road from Egypt to Sinai [and] represents a momentous spiritual and physical transition".2 

The message Moshe is to convey to the People continues: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine” (19:5). This "special treasure" is "s'gula", and means "personal property", as Psalm 135:4 affirms: For YHVH has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His special treasure [s'gulato]” (italics added). (Notice the Psalm’s parallel usage of “Jacob” and “Israel”, just as in 19:3 above.)

At this juncture Yisrael is seemingly being fast transformed into a well-administered group of people, but above that “Israel is chosen to reflect God's holiness and live out his commandments, reflecting His standards in a life of wholehearted compliance with the terms of the covenant”.3 With this in mind, YHVH further defines His people: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:6). Thus, Yisrael will be equipped and prepared for this (ultimate) ideal goal of reflecting Elohim’s image by becoming a holy covenant community of priests who are to minister to a royal Sovereign.  "Holiness", is a totally new concept for the fledgling Nation, hence the cleansing and separating measures which are imposed on them. If noted in list form, the people are to: "consecrate", by "washing clothes", "setting bounds”, “being careful not to go up to the mountain”, nor “touch its base" and "not to come near [their] wives" (19:10, 12, 15). Being an “am s'gula” they are not only YHVH's possession, but, as mentioned, also a reflection of their Owner, marked by a distinction of status and nature. "Kadosh" - “holy” - primarily denotes separation and devotion to the service of YHVH. In the quick transition that they are making, the acts of “consecration” serve as an external illustration of what has hitherto been a completely strange notion. Likewise, the loftiness, holiness, and sublime stature of YHVH will be expressed in an outward fashion, as we shall soon see.

As part of YHVH's instructions, which precede His descent from the Mountain, He says to Moshe “When the shofar sounds long, they shall come near the mountain” (19:13b); and (literally), “when the yovel is drawn out…" (referring to a prolonged sound of the shofar, which is mentioned here for the very first time in Scripture, 19:16,19). The current reference is to the type of sound, and not to the instrument producing that sound. The root of yovel (y.v.l - yod, bet/vet, lamed) means to “lead” (e.g. Jer. 31:9 – “And with supplications I will lead them”), as it was undoubtedly the ram that supplied the horn for blowing, and was used to lead ceremonial processions. Blowing the horn (shofar) also became the signal for the year of “Jubilee” - hence “yovel” for the 50th year. The English word ‘Jubilee’ is therefore a derivative of the Hebrew “yovel”. The usage of the “yovel” in this context may also allude to Yisrael’s impending “year of release” from their bondage and into the “liberty of the sons of Elohim” (see Rom. 8:21).

The greatest sound and light spectacle is about to unfold with the following ‘pyrotechnical effects’: Thundering and lightning, a thick cloud, loud sound of a shofar, smoke (which envelops the mountain completely), and fire. The smoke is like the smoke of a furnace; the mountain is found quaking greatly, with the long blast of the shofar - becoming louder and louder (ref. 19:16-19, cf. Revelation 8:1-9:3; 10:7).

The first part of chapter 20 (1-17) is devoted to the Decalogue, the ‘Ten Commandments’, or literally the d'varim – “words”, of the root d.v.r (which we have previously discussed as being the root for “desert, plague, to drive, thing, flock, holy of holies” and more). It is YHVH’s voice, which utters these “d’varim” - “words”. (Incidentally, in the text itself the number ‘ten’ is not mentioned in connection with these declarations of YHVH.) The seventeen verses of these “d'varim” constitute for the Israelites the foundation, or basis, of their Covenant relationship with Elohim and with one another, helping to form this “am sgula” into what they are, who they are to become, and are in fact Yisrael's very raison d'etre (reason for existence).  Notice that even though at that time the Levitical priesthood had not yet come into being, mention is made of priests in 19:22. Some of the sages, as well as Rashi (the renowned Middle-Ages commentator), attribute this position to the firstborn, presumably because the latter belonged to YHVH (ref. Parashat Bo, Ex. 13:2). The existence of this early priesthood is a precursor pointing to a future reality (of a "nation of priests") yet to be fulfilled (even beyond the era of the exclusively Levitical priesthood).

The first seven verses of Chapter 20 deal specifically with Yisrael's relationship with YHVH. The text opens up (v. 2) with "I am" – “anochi (and not “ani”, which is a simpler form of "I am"), denoting YHVH's inextricable link to His People, its circumstances ("who brought you out of Egypt"), and destiny.  “You shall have no other gods over my face (v. 3, literal translation, italics added), is next. The word "face" utilized in this way refers to direct defiance and spite, implying, according to the Mekhilta (2nd century commentary on Exodus) and Rashi, that this prohibition is for all times, not just for that generation. "Face" ("panim") connotes Presence (e.g. Ex. 33:14-15 “My face shall go before you”). And as YHVH's Presence 'automatically' includes place or location, this singular prohibition applies to all places.4  YHVH's jealousy over His People (v. 5) may be likened to the response of a jealous husband, thus making the Covenant of Elohim with Yisrael much like that of a marriage contract,5 as mentioned above.

This is followed by the declarations concerning the Shabbat. Although the Shabbat is to be an expression of the People's relationship with YHVH, its observance instructions ‘overflow’ into the community, and affect inter-personal associations. Shabbat stems from the root “to sit”,shevet” (sh.v.t. shin, bet/vet, tav). Sitting implies rest and bringing activity to a halt, ceasing, such as YHVH did when “He ceased from all His work” of creation in B’resheet (Gen. 2:2 italics added). Whereas all other “calendarian” divisions (such as days, months and years) are dictated by natural phenomena, the seven-day week is purely a spiritual ‘divide.’

Since the first One to celebrate the Shabbat was Elohim Himself, after He had completed His work of Creation, it follows suit that this is a universal declaration that He and He alone is the Creator! In Sh’mot (Exodus) 31:12-17 we are told that the Shabbat is an "eternal covenant" and a sign between YHVH and the sons of Yisrael. In D’varim (Deut.) 5:14-15 the reason given for celebrating the Shabbat's rest, together with one's entire household, is in order to remember the slavery in Egypt, and the freedom realized upon being brought out of there "by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm". Here is an acknowledgement of the miracle of ceasing to be a ‘slave’ (one who never rests), and of becoming free. Similarly, we are no longer “slaves to sin, but have been set free” from it (Rom. 6:6, 18). Hebrews 4:1-11 tells us that the Shabbat rest is the reward bestowed on the one who believes and obeys; Hence Shabbat also speaks powerfully of one's faith and obedience. The cessation from manual labor and from financial worries is a proclamation of trust and faith in the Heavenly Father for all provisions - not only during Shabbat, but also at all other times. We noted above that Shabbat is rooted in the verb "to sit". Yeshua, after having completed His task of offering the sacrifice for all times, “sat down at the right hand of Elohim” (ref. Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3, 10:12 italics added).

Following the Shabbat's injunctions is the command concerning honoring of parents; "honoring" is esteeming them “weighty” ("kabed", k.b/v.d, as we observed in last week’s Parasha), with its promise of long life "upon the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you" (v. 12). Thus, there is a gradual and progressive transition from the "heavenly" precepts to the Shabbat, being a link between the heavenly bond and its earthly expression, through to injunctions concerning one's nuclear family which is to reflect the relationship with the Heavenly Father, all the way down to one's conduct within the community (v. 13-16), and finally to the hidden motives of one’s heart (v. 17). Immediately after YHVH declares the above, we are told that “… all the people witnessed the thundering, the lightning flashes, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking…” (20:18). As to the “witnessing”, The Hebrew says “ro’eem”, that is, present tense “seeing” – “and all people – “am” – is seeing the voices, and the lightning flashes and the sound of the shofar…” (italics added).

The present tense, as well as the “seeing of the voices”, transports us from a naturally perceived scene to one that is beyond the natural faculties and senses. Almost as if the dramatic spectacle was outside the realm of Time, and beyond simple and direct visibility.  More than once mention is made of the fact that YHVH was in the “cloud”, or “smoke” (19:9-10, 16, 18; 20:18). But in 20:21 we encounter a reference to a new term - “arafel” – translated, “thick darkness”, or “gloom”. The root of “arafel” is the verb “arof” (ayin, resh, pey/fey), meaning “to drip”, hence employing a figure of speech related to precipitation, such as the cloud. This is a description of the “veiled glory” of YHVH, so many times made deliberately vague in order to protect His people from His awesome presence that cannot dwell alongside sin. Thus everyday life situations which may appear dark, uncertain, bleak or foggy are not always to be perceived as negative. Rather, they may point to the “arafel”, that is “the thick darkness where Elohim is” (emphasis added).    

YHVH continues to elaborate on His instructions, speaking through Moshe (20:22-26). In contradiction to the prohibition against the making of images and glorifying precious metals (v. 23), comes the statement: “An altar of earth you shall make for Me” (v. 24). “Altar” is “miz'be'ach”, of the root (zayin, bet/vet, chet) - "to sacrifice". The altar is to be made of earth - adama - the substance that makes up man’s material being and after which he is named (Adam). If the “miz'be'ach” should be made of stones, they are not to be embellished by any of man's efforts, or by tools and implements that are made by his hand (v. 25), lest the altar be desecrated. “Profane or desecrate is "chalel" (ch.l.l., chet, lamed, lamed), meaning also "pierced through" or "hollow", and hence, "flute" and "slain." In Yishayahu (Isaiah) 53:5 we read, “He was pierced through – mecholal (of the same root) - for our transgressions”. However, as we have just seen, “mecholal” does not only mean “hollow” (and hence “pierced through”), it is also “desecrated”, as indeed Yeshua was, having borne our Sin. Last to be mentioned is the prohibition concerning steps leading up to the altar, so that one's nakedness would not be exposed. “Nakedness” here (v. 26) is "erva" (a.r.h, ayin, resh, hey), "to lay bear, uncover", and "shame". It can also means "to pour out" or "to empty one's self", such as Yeshua did when He poured out (heh'e'ra) His soul unto death” (Is. 53: 12), so that our ‘nakedness’ would be covered, and our shame removed.

1 Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit,  Jerusalem, 1976, 1999.

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

3 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago,  1980.

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

5 The Chumash Shmot With The Commentary Daat Mikrah, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 1991.

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

Above we examined the root of Torah, which we discovered was “to shoot”. Then we examined an unusual usage of the root z.h.r as “to teach” while its literal meaning is “to shine”. Modern Hebrew employs this root for “warning”, “caution” and for “being careful”. Another term we dealt with was “face” (“panim”), YHVH’s face. “Internal” (“p’nim”), is almost an identical word, revealing that a facial expression is the outcome of one’s inward thoughts and feelings. Let’s see how we can apply that notion to a statement in ‘basic’ Hebrew. For this purpose we will use another verb that appears in our Parasha, and that is “seeing”, “roeem” (present tense, masculine, plural, and that is because “panim” is a plural noun and the verb changes according to the noun it is attached to, whether masculine or feminine, as well as if it is singular or plural). We have already encountered the verb “to see” in the past. Now we will see how “seeing” and “showing” are connected. In fact they are both from the same root of r.a.h (resh, alef, hey). And finally, we will “sit down”…  on Shabbat.

Shoot with caution!
Lirot bi’zheerut! (lit. “to shoot with caution”)

The face shows what is inside
Ha’panim mar’eem ma yesh bi’fnim

On Shabbat we will sit (down)
BeShabbat neshev

Hebrew Insights into Parashat B’shalach – Sh’mot (Exodus): 13:17 – 17 with Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

The peculiarities characterizing the relationship of a graceful, sustaining and forgiving Elohim with a people, who are marked by vacillation and unbelief, are very evident in Parashat B’shalach. This makes the current Parasha a most suitable introduction to this relationship, foreshadowing that which will continue to transpire for many generations to come. The opening words, referring to Par’oh's release of the Israelites, without attributing it to YHVH, have been called into question. However, since in the process of negotiating with Par’oh the term "let go" ("", literally to “send or send off") is used time and again (seven, to be exact) and to no avail, the opening words of this Parasha point out that (ultimately) the ruling king is compelled, "willy nilly," to do just that.1. This is especially so, since we noticed last week that it was incumbent (legally) for Par’oh to let the Hebrews go, in an act which signified a divorce-like separation. Right after the "sending" it says that, "Elohim did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines" (13:17 emphasis added). "Lead" here is "nacham", of the root (noon, chet, hey). The same verb is used again, in verse 21, where it says that, "YHVH was going before them, in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them ["lan'chotam"] on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night". In Moshe’s Song (15:13) he specifies further, saying (literally), "by Your grace you led the people…" (using the same verb). This root is also used in “satisfaction” or “peace” (e.g. Pro. 29:9), while the root, which is a related root, means “rest”. Thus YHVH’s guidance and leading of His people during the entire wilderness journey, including the events described here, promises to be marked by these qualities. Interestingly, a potential encounter with the Philistines caused YHVH to take Yisrael in a round about way, even though they “came up from the land of Egypt prepared for action [or] in martial arraychamushim” (14:18b italics added). The root (chet, mem, shin) also serves the figure “five” – “chamesh” - which is thought to be the minimal number required for taking action.

The next phase wherein the Children of Yisrael find themselves 'between a rock and a hard place' (14:2, 3) forms an inseparable part of YHVH's plan for them. YHVH intends to be "honored – ve’eka’veda’ - through Pharaoh" (ref. 14:4). "Honor" (and "glory" too) here, and in most other places is "kavod", meaning "weightiness" or "heaviness". In verses 17 and 18, YHVH repeats the principle, "…then the Egyptians will know that I am YHVH, when I am honored - ve’eka’veda - through Pharaoh, through his chariots and his horsemen" (emphasis added). A little later YHVH "caused their chariot wheels to swerve, and He made them drive with difficulty…" literally "with heaviness" - "bich'vedoot" (v. 25, emphasis added). This is indeed an intriguing usage of the figurative and literal manifestation of the "glory" and "honor" of the Elohim of Yisrael, who is to be honored even through the heaviness of His enemies’ chariots! But the divine irony does not end there… In the past two Parashot we encountered quite a few times the term “Pharaoh hardened his heart”. Occasionally the verb used was “hach’bed” – made heavy (i.e. harden), such as in Sh’mot (Exodus) 8:28. Thus, it was the very “heaviness” of Par’oh’s heart (and also, proverbially, of his chariots) which brought about “high esteem” – kavod – to the Elohim who used the enemy’s ploys for the sake of His name. If we look back at the time when Moshe was first commissioned by YHVH, we discover that his initial response was that he “was slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10), which in Hebrew is (having) a “heavy mouth” and a “heavy tongue”.

Much of the description of the scene of the mighty deliverance (chapter 14) is echoed in chapter 15, by what is typically known as the "Song of Moses", or in Hebrew “Shirat Ha’Yam” – the Song of the Sea, rendering this Shabbat’s title, the Shabbat of the Song - Shabbat Shira. The "six hundred select chariots" and the "officers in command" of 14:7 become in 15:4 "the choicest of his officers" (when describing their drowning). "Select" and "choicest" are denoted by the same word, the root being (bet, chet, resh), and the "officers" (in both references) are "shalishim", which is of the root "three" – shalosh - making them (possibly) "third in command". In 14:8 we are told that "the sons of Israel came out with a lofty arm" (literal translation), and in 15:1, "the horse and its rider was lifted into the sea" (literal translation, emphasis added). In both instances, the word is "rah'ma", which also means "high, exalted, lifted, lofty". This type of repetition lends a dual dimension to the description; thus it is YHVH's "high and lifted arm" (ref. 14:8, emphasis added) which in this case raised high the waves and lifted off the riders and horses, casting them into the sea.

When the Israelites saw the Egyptians drawing close, they became very fearful ("vayir'u", root y.r.a – yod, resh, alef), and cried out to YHVH (ref. 14:10).  Moshe exhorts them: "Do not fear ("tir'oo", again y.r.a), stand and watch (literally: "see", "look at", “observe”) the salvation of YHVH" (v. 13). Moreover, while it is only the "midbar" (desert, v. 3) and the Egyptians that their eyes were looking at and seeing (v. 10), Moshe assured them that they would “never see the Egyptians again" (v. 13, emphasis added). "YHVH will fight for you while you keep silent" (v. 14 italics added) is stated in contradistinction to their "crying out" (v. 10, italics added). And thus YHVH responds to Moshe: "Why are you crying out to Me?" (v. 15, italics and emphasis added). Finally, after crossing the sea and walking on dry land, the "seeing" and the "fear" are transformed - "Israel saw the great power which YHVH had used against the Egyptians, and the people feared YHVH, and they believed in YHVH and in His servant Moses" (14:31, emphases added).

When Moshe addressed the people in 14:13, he referred to "the salvation – ‘yeshu-ah’ - of YHVH", whereas in his song YHVH Himself is the (epitome of) salvation, as well as the very strength and the song itself, while the “song” is called zimrah (15:2). The latter reference to the song is reminiscent of the word used by Ya'acov in B’resheet (Genesis) 43:11, where the "produce of the land" was described. Although "zemer" is “song” and the verb "le'za'mer" is to sing, another form of this verb is "lizmor", denoting "cutting" or "pruning" (ref. Lev. 25:3). This led some of the commentators to explain that "zimrah" is used here not as a song, but rather as a "cutting off" (of the enemy).2

The Song does not only employ words which echo and amplify the narrative that precedes it, some terms are also repeated, or contrasted within the poem itself, and thus underscoring them as for example, in "this is my Elohim and I will glorify Him…" (15:2), "I will glorify" is "an'vehu" of the root n.v.h. (noon, vav, hey), which means "beautiful" or "adorn". In verse 13 we read "…You guided them [the People] to Your holy abode" - "n'veh kodshecha". This is seen as either a reference to Mount Sinai, the land of Yisrael, the future Temple in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) - or to possibly all three of them together – the principal resting places of His Shekina Glory. 3 Thus, the combined usage of the root n.v.h in the poem creates a picture of the present presence of the Presence and the indwelling of the One Who is also guiding and leading His People as a Shepherd to a resting place where He will continue to reside (among them). In 15:17 there is also a reference to the settling of the Nation in Elohim's dwelling place and sanctuary, "mikdash", echoing “neveh kodshecha” of verse 13 (“Your holy habitation”).

The enemies of Yisrael, Egypt, as well as Philistia, the "chiefs of Edom", "heads of Mo'ab", and the “inhabitants of Canaan” are likened to "lead" and "stone" sinking into the depths, and also to a "still stone" (15: 5, 10, 16). In verse 10, “they [sink] like lead in the mighty waters”. “Mighty” is “adirim” (plural for “adir”) of the root a.d.r (alef, dalet, resh) which also stands for "majestic". It is repeated two more times here, both of them in connection with YHVH: "Your right hand YHVH is majestic in power" (v. 6), and "who is like You, majestic in holiness" (v.11). It is the majesty and might of YHVH which lends these very properties to the “waters” (of the sea) when used by Him for His purposes. 

In 15:1 Moshe and Yisrael sing, "I will sing to YHVH because He is exaltedga'o - ga'a". Verse 7 also mentions "Your exaltedness” - ge'on'cha”, again of the root g.a.h (gimel, alef, hey).  Verse 7 continues: "You send forth Your wrath and it consumes them [the enemy] like stubble" (emphasis added). YHVH's wrath is compared to a consuming fire, while the next verse says: "With the blast of your nostrils the waters were heaped up… the depths froze up" (emphasis added). According to the Daat Mikrah commentary, this text may be interpreted as two opposite actions performed by the wind at YHVH’s command: burning on one hand, and freezing on the other.4

In the course of the brief time covered by our Parasha, the Children of Yisrael find four occasions to complain. We are told that at Mara (“mahr” is “bitter”), after the act of causing the water to become sweet by casting a tree or a stick, which YHVH pointed out to Moshe, "He made a statute and an ordinance and there He tried them" (15: 25b). But whereas the Israelites are tried at Mara, in Refidim they "try YHVH" and are also quarreling with Him, when "there was no water" (17:7). Hence the place is named Masa (of "nisayon" - "to try"), and Meriva (from "riv" which is "quarrel"). In between these two episodes, they demand food and thus obtain the quail meat for the evening meal and "manna" for the morning (ref. chapter 16). Since the shape and texture of the manna was unfamiliar to them, "they asked each other: 'mah'n hu?'" or "what is it?" (16:15). Mah'n is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew "mah", meaning "what".

Although at the beginning of the Parasha YHVH averts the Israelites from the path of war, by the end of the narrative they find themselves in a battle with Amalek, a descendant of Esav (Gen. 36:12). Again, YHVH's miraculous intervention on their behalf is evident, coupled with faith (ref. Hebrews 4:2), symbolized by Moshe's "steadily" held arms. The Hebrew word for steady here is "emuna", literally "faith" (17:12), thus causing Yehoshua (Joshua) to "weaken Amalek" (v. 13). Moshe’s arms are denoted by the word “yad” (also “hand”). In the final verse of our Parasha, Moshe makes a proclamation about another “yad” - a “yad” which is “on Yah’s throne”, pointing to YHVH’s oath regarding His “war with Amalek from generation to generation” (17:16).5. We have just encountered the “yad” of YHVH (“hand” as distinct from “arm” – z’roah – and from “right hand or arm” – yamin) in the process of emerging from Egypt (e.g. 14:8, “yad ramah” – a lifted up hand; 14:31 – “yad g’dola” – “great/mighty hand”; 15:17 “kone’nu yade’cha” – “your hands have established us”). If YHVH places His hand on His throne (as in a gesture of making an oath), He will surely carry out that which He set out to perform.

Our Parasha is characterized by the contrast between the manifest Presence and Glory of YHVH and the Israelites' total focus on their immediate needs and fears, blinding them to the greatness and might displayed before them - so much so that even at the end (just before the battle with Amalek) they dare ponder, “Is YHVH among us, or not?" (17:7b).

1. New Studies in Shmot Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans.
Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah
Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc.,
Brooklyn, N.Y.
2. The Chumash Shmot With The Commentary Daat Mikrah,
Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 1991.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

The act of sending sets off this Parasha, so let’s look at the verb for “send”. From loftiness, glory, honor (and heaviness) we will be brought down to earth by a Modern Hebrew usage of rahm and k.v.d . The “heavenly bread” – mana (or “mahn”) will connect us to the very common “what”, but not without some “bitter flavoring”.

Elohim sent Moshe
Elohim shalach et Moshe

Noach sent the dove
Noach shalach et ha’yonah

Moshe was the envoy of Elohim
Moshe haya ha-shali’ach shel Elohim

He lifted the heavy thing (lit. “the thing the heavy”)
Hu herim et ha’davar ha’kaved

She lifted the heavy thing (lit. “the thing the heavy”)
He herima et ha’davar ha’kaved

Well Done!
Kol HaKavod! (lit. “all the honor”)

What is bitter?
Ma mahr?