Friday, October 22, 2021

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va'yera


Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’yera

B’resheet (Genesis) 18 - 22

 Va’yera,” which is translated "he appeared," actually means "and he showed himself," and even more literally: “and he caused himself to be seen”.  “Yera” stems from the root r.a.h. (resh, alef, hey), meaning to "see".  Some of its other derivatives are: "seen, to show, to be seen, and sight". Certainly, "seeing" plays a major role in this Parasha.  Yes, YHVH does show Himself to Avraham – but it was up to the latter to do the seeing.  The opening statement in 18:1-2 reads thus: “YHVH appeared to him… and he lifted up his eyes and saw… three men!" This peculiar wording indicates that while looking, Avraham had to see beyond what met his eye. But before we continue, let us note that last week’s Parashat Lech Lecha also had its share of “seeing”, such as in 12:7, where it is ‘seen’ twice (as “appreared”), similar to the way it is used in our Parasha. Then there was the concern of the beautiful Sarai being “seen” by the Egyptians (12:12, 14). In 13:10 Lot “lifts up his eyes” and sees the expanse of land which appeals to him. However, Avram’s magnanimity pays off, as in 13:14ff YHVH promised to give him all the land which his sight captures (and that includes Lot’s territory). Chapter 15 opens up with Avram’s vision, and then with “seeing” the stars that were symbolic of his future progeny. Later, Hagar, who was carrying Avram’s child, “saw that she had conceived, and her mistress became despised in her eyes” (16:4). As a result of the conflict between the two women Hagar fled with her child. There, in the wilderness, she was met by an angel at a spring of water (“spring” is “ayin” in Hebrew, meaning also “eye”), “then she called the name of YHVH… You-Are-the-El-Who-Sees –Me - El Ro’i – for she said, ‘Have I also here seen Him who sees me?’” (16:13). Even the well that was there, was to commemorate this “seeing”, by being named (by Hagar) the well of the Living-One-Who-Sees-Me (Be’er La’Hai Ro’i). This, then, forms the backdrop of all the “seeing” that will be mentioned in our Parasha of Va’yera.


The principle promulgated by Yeshua in Matthew 25:40, namely, "inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me", is apparent throughout chapter 18.  Avraham (as he is called now) appears to be keenly aware of the fact that by entertaining strangers, one could unknowingly (or knowingly), be entertaining (at the very least), angels… (ref. Hebrew 13:2).  The strangers passing by, whether one of them is or is not YHVH Himself, are greeted by their host, in word and deed, with great respect and homage not unbefitting royalty. 


The passage at hand (in chapter 18) contains significant interplays between singular and plural* as in verse 3 Avraham addresses the three men who had just appeared to him as "Adonai" (“my Lords”) saying: “…If now I have found favor in your [single person] sight, pass not away from your [single person again] servant". Verses 4 and 5, however, employ the second person plural. But in verse 10, where the promise of the son who is to be born to Sarah within the year is pronounced, there is a switch to singular again (“and he said I will return”, italics added). It is YHVH who is actually mentioned in verses 13 and 14, as the One addressing Avraham (relating to Sarah’s response), while in v. 16 the “men rise up” and get ready to leave. Starting with verse 17 the scene changes altogether.  In the passage which commences here (describing Avraham's intercession on behalf of the cities of Sdom and Amora – Gomorrah - vs. 23-32), YHVH, and the men who until now seemed to represent Him, are referred to as totally separate entities: “And the men turned their faces away from there, and went toward Sodom. But Abraham still stood before YHVH” (v. 22). The blurred distinction (in regards to YHVH) within the three-person party leaves us baffled as to ‘who is who’ here, and raises the question whether there is a hidden message in this unusual and enigmatic text formulation. Later on, when Lot and the members of his family are being led out of Sdom by the messengers-visitors, there is a similar lack of distinction between YHVH and His ‘agents’ (ref. 19:16-21 with another interchange between singular and plural).* Thus, although this Parasha is characterized by ‘seeing’, the reader’s vision is often quite impaired (or challenged).


Back to chapter 18, where Avraham’s guests stand and view Sdom from a distance, while the Elohim who "showed Himself" to Avraham determines (v. 17) to (literally) not "cover" His plans from His servant, and to inform him what He was about to do (to Sdom and Amora).  YHVH then declares that He Himself aims to "come down and see if they had done according to the outcry that had come" to Him (18:21 italics added. As to “coming down”, cf Gen. 11:5).  In this instance, the "seeing" is a symbolic "inspection" or a declaration of intent that will obviously be followed by action on YHVH’s part.  This “outcry” is echoed in 19:13, which says: “… we will destroy this place, because the outcry against them has grown great…”


Following Avraham's bargaining scene with YHVH, we meet his nephew Lot as he is sitting in the evening by the gate of Sdom (whereas his uncle had been sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of day).  Now it is his turn to "see" (19:1).  Lot greets the two messengers (quite likely of the same “threesome” who had visited his uncle) by rising up and bowing down, just as his relative had done.  He too offers to have his guests' feet washed, and is anxious to supply them with refreshments.  As it is evening time, Lot also offers them a place for the night, which they are very reluctant to accept (or are they simply testing him?), and do so only after much imploring on the part of their host.  The meal served by Avraham under the tree was far more peaceful than the feast at Lot's house in the city of Sdom (notice that up until now each reference to “city” has been connected to wickedness, Kayin built a city, ref. 4:17; Nimrod was a city builder, ref. 10:11-12, the tower of Babel builders intended to build a city, ref. 11:4).  Before Lot’s guests are about to retire, the town's evil men surround the house (ref. 19:4, 5). The messengers, however, quickly and supernaturally blind the eyes of the would-be-assailants (ref.  19:11). Next, Lot tries to talk his family into leaving town, but his sons-in-law perceive it to be a joke ("laughing" is the word in Hebrew in verse 14). This laughter, however, is only short lived, as in verse 25 YHVH overthrows the two cities and in verse 28 Avraham is mentioned watching (literally “seeing” - “vayar” - of the  root r.a.h) “the smoke of the country”. Aside from seeing, “looking” is also mentioned. In verse 17 YHVH warns Lot and his family not to “look behind” them, at the destruction that He was about to inflict. However, Lot’s wife disobedience led to her demise – she turned into a pillar of salt (v. 26).


Laughter was also part of the above-mentioned scene with Avraham and his guests.  The three visitors came in order to reaffirm, once again, the promise of a son. Sarah, who overheard this conversation, laughed in her tent and later denied it (18:12-15).  What’s more, this is not the last time that she is seen laughing.  After giving birth, exactly within the year as YHVH had declared, Sarah says, "Elohim has made me laugh, and everyone who hears of it will laugh at me" (21:6 italics added).  And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian… mocking” (the word is again “laughing,” v. 9, italics added). "Seeing" this “laughter” results in the banishment of Hagar and her son Yishmael (Ishmael).  The banished handmaiden wanders in the wilderness by Beer Sheva, and when her drinking water is used up she places her son under a shrub and exclaims: “Let me not see the death of the boy.  And she … lifted up her voice and cried" (v.16 italics added). “And Elohim opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave drink to the boy” (v. 19 italics added).


Hagar's eyes are opened in the wilderness of Beer Sheva. The episode that follows (21:22 – 32) expounds on the meaning of that town’s name.  Beer Sheva is literally "the well of seven".  The words “adjure, charge, and oath” share the same root (sh.v.a, shin, bet/vet, ayin). “Satisfaction, or to have had enough” (especially regarding food), is “sovah”, being of the same root (although the letter “shin”, the “sh” sound, is modified to a “sin” - “s” sound).  The usage of the number seven is often indicative of “fullness” and “completeness”, and as such it is also a solemn promise, or an oath that can be guaranteed simply by repeating it seven times (or by using multiplications of seven).  The connection between these two words ("seven" and "oath") is well illustrated here in our story, namely in Avraham and Avimelech's settlement.  Avraham places seven (“sheva”) ewe lambs in front of Avimlelech, as a witness to the fact that he had dug the well that was now under dispute.  Following this action "he called that place Beer Sheva, because there the two of them took an oath (sh'vu'ah, v. 31)".  In Matthew 18:21, we see Peter proclaiming that the act of forgiving up to seven times is sufficient.  Yeshua, of course, goes beyond that but He too stays within the ‘realm of seven’ saying, "up to seventy times seven” (v. 22).  Truly, “…The words of YHVH are pure words; as silver… refined seventy times" (Ps.  12:6). The figure ‘seventy’ tells us that His words promise to guarantee full satisfaction.  "…On the day when YHVH binds up the fracture of His people and heals the bruise He has inflicted… the light of the sun will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven days" (Is. 30:26).  Again, the guarantee of fullness in the form of "sevens" renders it like an oath.  The sunrise and sunset dictate the formation of any given day, just as the sun and the moon control the length of the months and seasons of the Biblical year.  The seven-day week, however, seems to be quite arbitrary - but is it?  Elohim chose to create the world in six days and then to add one more at the end, which He set apart for rest, remembrance, and declaration.  The sanctification of the seventh day, the commemoration of the number "seven" (in naming the “week” “shavu’a”), the fullness and completeness of what Elohim has accomplished, and its guaranteed fulfillment are all innately expressed in the Hebrew language by the root sh/s.v.a: "In Your presence there is fullness ("sova") of joy; I will be satisfied (“es'be'ah”) with Your likeness when I awake" (Ps. 16:11 & 17:15). To seal off the episode of Avraham’s test, YHVH declares: "By Myself I have sworn – nish’ba’ti - ’ says YHVH, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only one, blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your seed…” (22:16-17 italics added)    


This blessing is the peak of Avraham’s tests, known as the "binding of Yitzchak (Isaac)", or “Akedat Yitzchak”.  But before we go on to examine the Akeda, we cannot dismiss the fact that Abraham was very upset when Elohim told him to listen to Sarah and send away Hagar and her son. Thus, before being told to sacrifice Yitzchak, he also had to give up Yishma’el, whom he held as his son, while Elohim called the latter “the son of the handmaiden” (as did Sarah. Ref. 21:10-13). After a three-day journey, set off by the words “lech le’cha”, with Yitzchak and two of his servants “…Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar…” (22:4 italics added).  Responding to his son's question, as to the whereabouts of the lamb for the sacrifice, Avraham says, "Elohim will see for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son" (v. 8 literal translation, italics added).  YHVH does indeed "see" (translated as “provide”) a substitute for Yitzchak in the form of a ram…  "And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and behold, a ram was caught in the thicket by his horns.  And Abraham called the name of the place ‘YHVH Yir'eh - will see’ - as it is said to this day - 'it shall be seen on the mountain of YHVH'" (v.13-14 emphasis added). Very fast forward, in fact millennia later, the following (some more about seeing AND about a lamb) is inscribed in Scripture: “The next day Yochanan saw Yeshua coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of Elohim who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).       


In the opening verses of our Parasha we saw Avraham “seeing” YHVH by using his 'inner eyes' and discernment, even when looking upon three men.  YHVH is also seen as the One who reveals His "secret to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7) prior to judging Sdom and Amora, though not before doing His own "seeing" of the state of affairs there (ref. 18:21). Further, His messengers' aura of light impairs the vision of the spiritually blind.  Avimelech sees YHVH in a dream which prevents him from sinning with Sarah (ref. 20:3, 4).  What the latter “sees” (ref. 21:9) causes her to send Hagar and Yishmael away, but their needs are “seen to” by YHVH in the wilderness (ref. 21:014-19).  Finally, YHVH is the One who “sees” (present tense) for Himself the sacrificial Lamb provided by Him for all time (ref. 22:8, 14). And so, as it is in the beginning so it is at the end of the Parasha - YHVH reveals Himself.  More on Avraham’s, this time long range vision, is found in the words of Yeshua who declared to the Pharisees: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). Quite likely this is connected to Avraham’s statement regarding the future “lamb for the sacrifice”.


Earlier we noticed that Avraham was sitting at the tent door “in the heat of the day” (18:1) denoting daylight, while Lot was sitting at the gate of the city of Sdom “in the evening” (19:1), denoting darkness (cf. John 3:19, 8:12, 12:35, 46; Romans 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:5,7). But in the Parasha as a whole, it is the expression “early in the morning” that keeps reoccurring. In three out of five times it relates to Avraham (19:27; 21:14; 22:3), and one time to Avimelech (20:8), but also Lot used this term in addressing his angelic guests (192). “And he rose early” is rendered each time, “va’yashkem” of the root (shin, kaf/chaf, mem) which is also applied to the word “shoulder”. This is illustrated very graphically in 21:14: “And Abraham rose up early  - “va-yashkem” - in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder -”shichma” -  (italics added). The connection of those two terms is thought to be imbedded in the very reason for rising early, which is to put one’s shoulders to work. However, the two examples (out of the three) of Avraham’s early rising and setting to do as he is told (“Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice” – 21:12, and “… so Abraham… took… Isaac his son… then they came to a place that Elohim had told him, 22:3, 9), have a common theme. In each of those Avraham is told to give up his son, his firstborn. But whereas in the first instance, which appears to be a rehearsal for the second, he reacts (21:11), when the second episode comes round he obeys implicitly (see 22:12b). Interestingly, Avraham, whose original call was “lech lecha” (12:1), words with which he complied without as much as blinking an eyelid, was once again addressed by these very words (as we noted last week) when he was told by YVHVH to go to Mount Moriah and there offer up his son (ref. 22:2)  


In 19:37 and 38 we learn of the origin of the Moabites and the Amonites. The fact that they are the product of an incestuous relationship is expressed by the name of the older of the two: Mo’av” stems from “m’av”, meaning “from a father”, as the boy had been begotten by his mother’s father (his own grandfather). The second boy’s mother names him “Ben Ami” (Ammon), meaning “son of my people”, which is also a reference to the close family tie. Lot’s daughters’ conduct is not surprising, as earlier on, when the men of Sdom demanded that he hand over his guests to them, their father attempted to offer these two daughters in place of the visitors (ref. 19:4-8). If Ham, and especially his son, Kna’an, were cursed for revealing the father’s nakedness (Gen. 9:24, 25), the same, and more, would be applicable to Lot’s descendents, Moav and Amon.


*In all these cases this is much more pronounced in the Hebrew original than in the translations, one reason being that in English there is no distinction between you singular and plural, which there is in Hebrew.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Lech Lecha


Avram, whom we met at the end of last week's Parasha, is singled out now from the rest of his kin and community. He is commanded to go forth and leave behind him his native country, heritage, culture, and above all his relatives (12:1, cf. Ruth 2:11). The expression "lech   [“go”] lecha" (“for yourself") can best be rendered in English as the emphatic: "go forth" or even better, the colloquial "get yourself going!” The alliteration makes it especially forceful and commanding as those two words, in spite of a vowel difference, are spelt identically. The would-be patriarch will hear another “lech lecha” when, in the future, YHVH will charge him to, “take now your son, your only one,  Isaac, whom you love, and lech lecha to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you" (22:2). His obedient response to the first “lech lecha”, with its ensuing results, will enable Avraham (as he will be named) to respond similarly when the familiar voice will call him again.  At the time when “the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grapes give a good smell”, it is then that the Bridegroom says to the Bride: “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and lechi – feminine for “lech” - lach – feminine for lecha – ‘go forth for yourself’” (Song of Solomon 2:11-13, 10). Total and implicit faith and trust, as well as obedient abandonment appear to be the path leading to the season of fruitfulness and?serenity?(although?not?without?tests),?as?described?inShir?HaShirim?(Song?of?Songs?Songs/Solomon). Toward the end of?the?Parasha Abraham is told “Walk before me and be perfect/blameless”(17:1). The one who was able to fulfill the first call, of “walking”, and the second one, which will be an even greater challenge, is called upon to embark on a “journey of the heart”.

Avram is promised many descendants and a great blessing that will also be extended to those who will bless his progeny. In fact, his seed is destined to be a blessing to "all the families of the earth" (12:3). “Family” is “mishpacha”, of the root (shin, pey/fey, chet), which is also the root for a word found in 16:1 of our Parasha, “shifcha” – “handmaiden” (in reference to Hagar). The root (shin, pey/fey, chet) means to “join a family”, implying that one’s servants (in this case the female servant) were to be treated and looked upon as an extension of one’s kin. 


Blessing”, which is "bracha", appears five times in 12:2, 3 in several forms. The consonants (bet, resh, kaf) also make up the root for “knee” ("berech"). Bowing the knee is always associated with humility ("to Me every knee shall bow…" Is. 45:23). Thus, experiencing a blessing humbles its recipient, stirring him to bend or bow the knee in gracious thankfulness. However, he who “curses you, I will curse”. The first “curse” is “mekalelecha”, k.l.l. pertaining to “weightless, light”, and hence of ‘light esteem’ (as we noted last week in Parashat Noach). In our Parasha k.l.l is mentioned a number of times in relationship to Hagar’s attitude toward Sarai. In 16:4 and 5 “despise/d” is “to lightly esteem”. The second reference to “curse” (v. 3 above) – a’or – of the root a.r.r (alef, resh, resh) first appeared in B’resheet 3:14 and 17, in reference to the curse upon the serpent who was to crawl on its belly and eat the soil, and then to the curse upon the ground, whose fruitfulness was to be obtained with great toil.


Could these earlier pronouncements (in the ”Garden) portray?the?conditions?which?will?apply/to?those?who would?esteem?lightly[the?nation/people?(“goy”)?that?wasto?come?out>of>Avram’s>loins?

After these promises of blessings and of a nation, in
12:7, the promise of land is given. Upon hearing this word, Avram builds an altar and moves on, only to erect another one in the next location. In the following two verses (8,9) mention is made of three of the four directions of the wind: “east, west, and south”. In Biblical Hebrew there are several words for each of these, with the ones used here being "kedem", "yam", and "negev", while in 13:14 mention is made of all of those with the addition?of?“north,”?which?is?"tzafon".

The root for east - “kedem” - is k.d.m (kof, dalet, mem), with its primary meaning being "before" or "in front of". Thus, its derivatives are to “greet” or “meet" (Deut. 23:4; Mic. 6:6), "early” and "first". Words such as "old" and "ancient" also stem from "kedem", as we see in Micah 5:2 in reference to Messiah’s origins (another example being the “everlasting hills” promised to Yoseph in Deut. 33:15, as well as the term "kadmoni" – “ancient” - in 1st Sam. 24:13). The root k.d.m therefore reveals an interesting approach to the dimensions of time and space. That which is "in front" is also that which is "early", from “antiquity” and of the “past”. Thus, “kedem” - the “eastern” - denotes what is “ahead” and at the same time that which was. Kohelet (Ecclesiastics) 1:9 says: “That which has been is that which shall be”, a fact that is certainly true of our Elohim, “who is, and who was, and who is coming” (Rev. 11:17), “d
eclaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times [kedem] things that are not yet done” (Isaiah 46:10).  "Kadim" is the east wind which many times spells blight and dryness (e.g. Job 27:21; Ps. 48:7), while the prophet Y’chezkel (Ezekiel) saw the glory of the Elohim of Yisrael coming from the same direction ("kadim", i.e. the “east”, in 43:1,2). One of the best known usages of "kedem" is found in B'resheet (Genesis) 3:24, referring to the place where Elohim expelled our renegade ancestors: "east of Eden". Finally,

in 15:19, “Kadmonites” are mentioned, as part of a people group, which may just be a generic term for people from the “east”.

West” here is "yam". Yam means “sea” and since the "Great Sea" (the Mediterranean) shore runs the entire length of Israel's western side, it has
become synonymous?with/that?direction.

Negev” is the word here for “south”, and is used to denote wilderness and dryness, yet in Y’chezkel 20:47 reference is made to the “forest land of the negev". It is the very same prophecy that speaks of the fires that would consume every tree there (as indeed they have);  fires (of judgment) that brought about that region’s dryness, bareness, and desolation.


The last direction is "north" - “tzafon” - the root of which is tz.f.n (tzadi, pe/fe, noon), and means to “conceal or hide". The same word is used when Moshe (Moses) was put out of sight for the first three months of his life (Ex. 2:2). In T’hilim/Psalms 27:5 we read about being hidden by YHVH in His succah (booth), and in 83:3 about YHVH’s “hidden ones”. The north also conceals evil, and it is from there that "evil will break forth", according to Y’rmiyahu’s (Jeremiah) prophecy (1: 4). The proud king of Babylon declares his position to be "on the mount of the assembly in the far north" (Is. 14:13), words that are countered by the Elohim of Yisrael in T’hilim 48:1,2, proclaiming that His holy mountain, Mount Tziyon (Zion), is in the far north.

After receiving the promise of a land extending in every direction, and a seed so numerous (rendering it) too great to count (13:14-16), Avram builds another altar, this time in Alonei Mamreh, which is Chevron (Hebron). It is from that location that he set forth to rescue his nephew Lot. It is here (14:13) that we first encounter the term "Hebrew" - "ivri" - attached to Avram's name, after his ancestor Ever whom we mentioned last week. Indeed, Avram is now entitled to this ‘label’ as he ‘crossed over’, both physically and spiritually. When he returns, after having accomplished his mission successfully, he is greeted by the king of S’dom (Sodom) in the Valley of Shaveh (14:17). “Shaveh” is “equality, agreement, or resemblance”, and in this case probably an “even plain”. “I have set YHVH always before me” (Ps. 16:8), reads in Hebrew: “I have envisioned [or imagined] – shiviti -YHVH before me… "  "Shiviti" indicates seeing Him at one’s own eye level (as He is near to those who call upon Him). The valley of “shaveh” is also called here the “King’s Valley” (singular) and is apparently the place where Avram meets another king. His encounter with the king of S’dom, in this 'valley or plain of evenness', is being interrupted by the appearance (at ‘eye level’) of another monarch

The root of “shalem” (sh.l.m - shin, lamed, mem), is “perfection, wholeness, completeness, and requital”. This king, whose name means "king of righteousness", is also a priest of the Most High Elohim (“El Elyon”). Thus, in his persona are met the two offices of king and priest (ref. Zec. 6:13). In his blessing to Avram, whom he serves with bread and wine, Malchitzedek invokes “El Elyon” (“Most High God”), calling Him "possessor of heaven and earth" (14:19). "Possessor" here is "koneh", meaning "buyer" or “purchaser”, thus connoting redeemer (of heaven and earth). (Remember Chava exclaiming: "I have purchased/acquired a man from YHVH", which we examined in Parashat B’resheet?). Malchitzedek gives thanks once again to "El Elyon", who has "delivered Avram's enemies into his hand" (ref. 14:20), using “migen” for "delivered", which stems from the root  g.n.n. (gimmel, noon, noon) meaning "shield or protection", and also used for

Avram gives his newly-met acquaintance "a tenth (‘ma'aser’) of all", an act which concludes this encounter (14:20). At this point, the text recaptures Avram's tryst with the king of S’dom, but the language of the next few verses seems to be colored by what had just taken place in the encounter with the king of Shalem. Upon being offered the spoils of the war, Avram answers the king of S’dom by mentioning the name of YHVH, repeating the expression "El Elyon - Most High God - the purchaser of heaven and earth" (v. 22). He then refuses the king’s offer, on the grounds that it should not be said that he had been made rich by the latter (ref. v. 23). The word for "rich" is "ashir", of the same root as "eser"- "ten" (the consonant for "sh" and "s" being one and the same, differentiated by a slight vowel change when used as an “s” or a “sh”), from which we get the “tenth part” or the “tithe


As this scene with the king of S’dom fades, another one comes into view – the description of a vision in which YHVH speaks to Avram: "Fear not Avram, I am your shield…" (15:1). The word used here for "shield" is "mah’gen", a variation of which we saw in Malchizedek's blessing
?of/Avram?a few verses above.  Thus,?the?echo?of?that?dramatic?meeting?continues>to>aaccompany>the?events>that?follow?it.

When Avram wonders what it is that “Adonai YHVH”, who promised him a great reward, will give him "seeing that [he is] childless…" (15:2), he is granted a promise of a son. Once again he is told that his progeny will be numerous. It says, literally, that Avram "believed in YHVH" (v. 6). The root of "believe" is a.m.n (alfe, mem, noon) from which we get the term "amen". It is also the root word for “trust, steady, faithful”, and nurse” (Num. 11:12), “guardian” (2 Kings 10:1), and for “bringing up and training” (Esther 2:7). Proverbs/Mishley 8 cites the call of Wisdom-personified. In verses 29-30 Wisdom says, "When He marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was the craftsman at His side…" The word here for "craftsman" is "amon", once again, stemming from the root a.m.n. Faith, therefore, is the act of believing which involves 1) training, and 2) action - in other words, practice. Putting convictions into practice is guaranteed many a time by a covenant. Thus, in Ne’chem’ya (Nehemiah) 9:38 we see the people making “a sure covenant”, which in that particular text depicts the root a.m.n again and is therefore termed “amana”. Based on this understanding, the Apostle Ya'acov (James) writes: "Do not merely listen to the Word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says… faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by

Avram experiences an awe-inspiring vision (see 15:12-17), in which the covenant is confirmed. In Hebrew the experience and the covenant are called “habrit ben habtarim” - "the covenant between the cut up pieces”. The infinitive of “cut up” - "ba'ter" - also means to “dissect or “dismember” (15:10). In 15:17 those pieces are called "gzarim", from the verb “gazor", meaning, once again, "cut up". Verse 18 says, "On that day YHVH cut [literally] a covenant with Avram…" This time the word for "cut" is "ka’rot" (which is also used frequently for cutting down trees). These powerful verbs point to the irrevocability and certainty of this covenant. It is no wonder that the very sign of the covenant itself involves a cutting - a removal of the foreskin - which is recorded in 17:10-14, after Yishamel's birth and Avram's name change, augmented by the words: “The uncircumcised male whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off [stemming from “ka’rot”] from his people…” (17:14 italics added). But there is more  to the “cutting” – the very word “covenant” – brit – originates with b.r.t (bet, resh, tav) with its meaning being… to cut or fell.


Yishmael’s birth came as a result of Sarah resorting to a common practice of surrogate parenthood (such as was also done by Rachel and Leah who gave their maids to their husband in Gen. 30:3-5,9-13, and Joseph, who had his grandson’s wife give birth “on his knees”, as it were. See Gen. 50:23, for the purpose of making his great grand-children his own). This is how Sarah approached her husband:  “’See now, YHVH has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her’. And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai” (16:2). The literal rendition of obtain children by her” is “I will be builte’ba’neh’ – by/through her”.  Above we examined the word “mishpacha” – family. “Family” may be likened to a building, which grows tier by tier, floor by floor. No wonder the apostles referred to the body of believers as to a building, and used the imagery of stones to describe it (see 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 5:1; Eph. 2:21; 1 Pet. 2:5). Sarai too had the same idea in mind when she said, “I will be built by her [Hagar the maid]”. In the root word  b.n.a (bet, noon, hey), “build”, is hidden, not surprisingly, the word “ben” – son.  Thus, when Sarah was expecting the maid to help her out, she was thinking of “being built up by having a son”. However, the matriarch soon discovered that Hagar was not about to merely “lend” her womb. She had other notions. When Sarai discerned Hagar’s ambitions, she was?forced?to?send?her?away?(see?21:9ff).
In 17:4,5 Elohim declares that He is changing Av’ram’s name from “exalted father  to Avra'ham, because he is to become “a father to multitudes” of nations. Technically, this name change involves adding only the letter - "hey" - (comparable to "h"), which stands for the word "hamon", meaning “a multitude”. Hamon is of the root verb "hama", which is “boisterous, noisy, or roaring”. Thus the promised multitude was to become a teeming one, and rather loud at that! This "hamon" was to be made up of nations or peoples (“goyim”). The addition of the letter “hey” could also be in reference to its two appearances in YHVH’s name, or in its shortened form “Yah”. Interestingly, all the lofty promises to Avraham, along with the institution of circumcision, are couched in very brief but concise terms. Our text, therefore, provides a good example of the compactness and conciseness that?are?so?characteristic?of?Biblical?Hebrew.

Sarai's destiny also changes with a single letter (17:15). The last letter of her name, being "yod" (comparable to “y”), is exchanged for a "hey", making her Sarah, "a princess", who will not only mother a son, but “nations and kings of nations” are also?to?come?from?her?(v.16).

In the course of the names change of the would-be parents, YHVH does not forget the offspring. Since Avraham laughs at the prospect of having a child, seeing that he and is wife are so old (ref. 17:14), he is told to name this future son Yitzchak, meaning, "he will laugh". No doubt, in the end, the One who will have the last laugh in this story will be the One responsible for giving this name, the One who also “sits in the heavens and?laughs”?(Ps.2:4).?And?as?we?shall?see?next?week,? there?is?more?laughter?to?come…


*For more on Malchitzedek and his encounter with Abram

Friday, October 8, 2021

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Noach


Our Parasha spans the Flood, its causes and aftermath, leading to events related to the Tower of Babel and to the subsequent dispersion of humanity. Here, as is the case in many of the other Parashot*, we find certain key words (words stemming from the same three letter root) which are repeated within a given passage, or strewn throughout the text.

In Parashat* B’resheet (in Gen. 5:29), Noach’s name was explained: “Now he called his name Noach, saying, this one will comfort us“. The root of “comfort” in this instance, is (nun, chet, mem), pronounced nachem. Noach’s name, however, does not contain the consonant “m” (the letter “mem” in Hebrew). And whereas in his evil generation he was a comfort to Elohim, his name actually means “rest” (, noon, vav, chet). At the end of Parashat B’resheet (6:6) there is another reference to the root We read there, “And YHVH repented [or “regretted” that is, “was sorry”] that He had made man on the earth”. In this case “regretted” is “(va)yinachem”. But how is “comfort” related to “regret” or to “being sorry”? The root’s primary meaning is to be “sorry” which indicates that only deep empathy with another’s sorrow can be a source of genuine comfort at a time of grief. Moreover, a close examination of Lamech’s words reveals what it was that he was lamenting and why he was hoping that his newborn would be a “comfort” concerning (literal translation): “our toil and sorrow of our hands, from the ground whom YHVH cursed”. In his lament, Lamech was echoing YHVH’s words in 3:17 to Adam (literal translation): “Cursed is the ground for your sake, in sorrow you shall eat of it…” The three identical terms which Lamech repeats are “sorrow”, “ground” and “cursed”. 

Back to the current Parasha. At the end of our Parasha, an explanation is given for the name Ba’vel (Babel). According to 11:9 “Ba’vel” was so named because “there Elohim confused the language” of the builders of the tower. However, the verb “confuse” used here is “balal” and even though similar in sound, Ba'vel does not originate from this root and actually means (in the Sumerian and Acadian languages) “Gate of El”.
One more example of this in our Parasha is found in 11:7: "Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language..." – “navleh”. The names Noach and Ba’vel are two examples of how the Tanach (O.T.) employs puns (for another such case refer to Yehoshua-Joshua 5:9).

 In spite of the sought after comfort-cum- rest, ironically, Noach lived at a time of great unrest, a fact that led to the natural disaster that befell his contemporaries. Yet in the midst of it all, calm could be had in the 'eye of the storm' represented by the one who was found righteous at that time (ref. 6:9; 7:1), and by the place of refuge that he was constructing. In 8:4 we find the ark “resting upon the mountains of Ararat” (italics added). Following the raven, a dove was sent out “to see if the water had abated… and [she] found no resting place for the sole of her foot… “(8:8, 9 italics added). Rest is depicted here, and even highlighted, against the backdrop of the grave catastrophe. When Noach, his family, and the animals emerged out of the ark, Noach built an altar. In 8:21 we read, “And YHVH smelled the soothing aroma”. The word for “soothing” is “nicho’ach”, which once again originates with the root “rest”.

 The dove was sent “to see if the water had receded” (8:8). “Receded” in this case is “kalu”, spelt with the letter “kof” rather than with the expected “kaf” (which would have meant, “finished, done, complete”).  The word “kalu” as it appears here means “having become light, or of little substance” from which stems “k’lala”- "curse" (and literally, to “make something of light esteem”).  In 8:21 YHVH says: “I will never again curse [a’ka’lel] the ground”. Is the unusual form of “recede”, as used here, inferring to the fact that?the?cause?for?the?great?deluge?was YHVH’s curse?

Last week we dealt with the root of “erev” (“evening”), which means a “pledge” and a “mixture” (being but two of its several meanings)… This time it is the “raven” (“orev”) which shares this root. The association between “raven” and “evening” is found in the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) 5:11, where the beloved’s dark curls are compared to the dark raven. The black fowl, therefore, borrows its name from the evening’s fading light (i.e. darkness).

Mankind’s corruption is highlighted in 6:11. The word used there is “tisha’chet”, of the root (shin, chet, tav), which primarily means to “destroy or destruction”. In verses 12, 13 and 17 derivatives of this root appear four times as “corruption” and also as the verb for the “destruction” which YHVH was about to bring upon the entire earth and its inhabitants (v. 13). Inherent in the verb “sha’chot”, therefore, is corruption's self-destructiveness. In Yishayahu (Isaiah) 11:9 (and 65:25) we read the following: “They shall not hurt nor destroy – yash’chitu - in all My holy mountain”.

 Interestingly and in a strangely similar way the condition of ‘no destruction’ is also characterized by water, as Isaiah 11:9 continues: “… for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHVH as the waters cover the sea”, which in our narrative is the agent of annihilation. Additionally, the impact of the verb “sha’chot” (with the letter “tav” at the end) receives an extra emphasis, as it evokes a similar sounding verb ending with a different “t” consonant (“tet”), which is to “slaughter” (e.g. Exodus 29:11,16, 20).

 The other noun repeated in chapter 6 is “chamas” (ch.m.s, chet, mem, samech), translated “violence”: “…And the earth was filled with violence” (vs. 11, 13). As a rule the noun/verb “chamas” is connected to sinful acts of violence and injustice. “Chamas” rhymes with another verb - “chamad” - which means to “delight” but also to “desire or covet” (as was the case with the fruit of the tree in Gen. 3:6, which seemed “desirable – nechmad - to make one wise”). Quite often similar sounding words, like “chamas” and “chamad” are also connected in meaning. Thus, the violent actions of “chamas” are motivated by covetousness, or unbridled desire. (Is it a lingual coincidence that Chamas is also the name of the notorious terror organization, bearing in mind the similarities between Arabic and Hebrew?)

Planted right in the midst of these descriptions of corruption, violence and pending destruction, is the only (potential) solution: the ark - "tey'va". More than a millennium will pass, when another would-be savior will be protected by a "tey'va" (though translated "basket" in English), which will also float on water. This will be Moshe. In the process of building this ark, our attention is first drawn to the act of propitiation and atonement: “kippur”. “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood… and… cover it inside and out with pitch" (6:14 italics added). The verb and noun for the action (of “covering”) and the material itself (“pitch”) are of the root k.f.r (kaf, pey/fey* resh) – which makes up “kippur”. Thus, this ark was to become a shelter, offering a protective covering from the disasters resulting from the sins of the age. The rabbis believe that anyone among those who had watched it being built, through the many years of its construction, could have also found refuge in it. Instead, the spectators chose to scoff and ridicule its builder. In most other cases, the verb and the noun stemming from the root k.f.r are used directly in connection with ‘atonement’ (e.g. Daniel 9:24), or as “payment of a price, or ransom” (e.g. Num. 35:31).

The very principles of atonement, and the reasons for its requirement, also find expression in our Parasha. Thus, we read in chapter 9:4-6: “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning … From the hand of every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed…”  Indeed, for atonement to be effective blood is imperative.

The importance of covering is brought out one more time in our Parasha, in the story of Noach’s three sons’ respective responses to their father's drunken stupor. Cham (Ham), the son who looked upon his father’s nakedness, was condemned to slavery by a curse which was pronounced upon his son, Cna’an (Canaan) (9:25), whose name stems from the root  to?“subdue”?or be?subdued”?(k.n.a, kaf, noon, ayin).

The other two siblings, on the other hand, are said to have covered their father’s naked body.

"And it happened in the six hundred and first year, at the beginning, on the first of the month that the waters were dried up from off the earth. And Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked. And, behold, the face of the earth was dried!” (8:13). “Dried” in both instances in the above verse is “cha’rvu”. In 7:22 we read, “All that was in the dry land, died”. Once again, “dry land” is “charava”. Both the verb, as well as the noun, are of the root ch.r.v (chet, resh, bet/vet) which is also the root for “waste, desolate, attack, sword, plunder, wage war, fight” and more. In Hebrew thought “dryness”, denoting lack of water and rain (and hence drought), is commensurate with terms associated with lifelessness and destruction, which points to the shortage of water characterizing the land of Israel (even before the latter
?is?ever mentioned!)

When they emerged out of the ark, Noach and his family were given the same ‘marching orders’ as did Adam, their predecessor. Humanity’s survivors were to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (9:1 with the following verse’s addition pointing to the major change that had taken place since similar words were said to the first humans).
The injunction to be fruitful is “pru”. In the 10th generation, one of Noach’s descendants, Avram (Abram), will be informed by the bestowal of a blessing that, he will become “fruitful” (Gen. 17:6), while four generations after that event, Avraham’s grandson will be named, in faith, “multiple fruitfulness?-?that?is,?Ephraim. However, one striking difference between  Elohim’s blessing and charge to and over Noach and his sons and the one over Adam’s, is that this time the Almighty declares that “the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast…  bird … and on all that moves on the earth, and on all the fish…” (Gen. 9:2). Notice that the “fear and dread” are absent from YHVH’s word to Adam regarding the latter’s “subduing” of the earth and the “dominion” he was to have over all that lives and moves (ref. Gen. 1:26, 28).

 Among the many names found in our Parasha, there are three in particular that call for our attention. The first two persons are second cousins: Yefet’s (Japheth) grandson, the son of Yavan (Javan) is Dodanim (or Rodanim, as he is called in 1 Ch. 1:7), the second is Cham’s (Ham) grandson, the son of Cush – Nimrod.

Yavan is the Hebrew word for Greece. Down the road of history Greece will become a major power of unprecedented influence over the entire world in a number of areas, one of which will be government (democracy). Yavan’s son’s two names, Dodanim and Rodanim mean, respectively, “cousins and rulers” (“rdu”, connected to Rodanim, is the verb YHVH used when He told Adam and Chava to subdue the earth in Gen. 1:28). His cousin, Cham’s grandson, Nimrod, is the one who built Ba’vel; a place which will become synonymous with the world’s hierarchal systems, especially as pertaining to religious matters. Nimrod means, “we will rebel,” and rebelling he does by setting up his own kingdom, as a direct counterfeit of Elohim’s kingdom (10:10).

In the following generation we have the son of the third cousin, Shelach, whose name was Ever, who is of the firstborn lineage. It is his name which is given to the entire race - the Hebrews (“Ivrim”) who are to represent Elohim’s Kingdom on earth. The name Ever is derived from the verb to “pass or cross over”, a fact that this race will be demonstrating throughout biblical history, beginning with Avram. We will observe the Hebrews passing over from one place, or condition, to another, whether in a physical sense or otherwise, in order to earn the name of their forbearer.

The generation of the “cousins” (is it a coincidence that one of them, as mentioned, is actually named “Dodanim”- cousins?) is unique, having left its imprint upon humanity to this?very day.

 It says that Noach and his sons were to “fill the land/earth”. It is quite likely that this “filling” was not meant only in a physical sense. Nimrod and the other inhabitants of the land of Shinar rebelled against Elohim and busied themselves by erecting a tower, which, by their own admittance was designed to prevent their scattering ( noon, pey/fey, tzadi) on earth (ref. 11:4). But in verse 8 it says that YHVH Himself “scattered” them – va’yafetz (being of the same root as used by the builders of the tower). In verse 3 “they say to one another, come let us make bricks…” and in verse 5, they say once again, “come let us build ourselves a city…”. In both cases, “let us” is “ha’vah”. YHVH’s watchful eye over them is underscored by His “let us” – ha’vah – when He says in verse 7: “Come, let us go down…” etc

 Earlier, in 9:19, it says about the sons of Noach that, “the whole earth was populated by them”, with the verb “populated” being literally “scattered” (the same one as used in 11:4, 8). The “scattering” was YHVH-initiated   because, “indeed, the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they will begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them” (11:6). “Propose to do” is “yazmu”, which in Modern Hebrew refers to “initiatives” and “entrepreneurship”, but in Biblical Hebrew the root y.z.m. means  “unrestrained activity”, and not surprisingly is analogous to the verbs  “zamom” which is “to devise wickedness”, and “zimah” which is  “to lust”.

At the very end of the Parasha (11:26ff), we are introduced to the “exalted father” - Av’ram, whose goings forth, preceded by the command “lech lecha” (“go!”), will be reported next, in the Parasha?by?the?same?name.

Parashot - plural of Parasha (feminine gender)

 *Parashat – “Parasha of…”

* The p and f sounds are designated by the same letter and may be pronounced as “p” in one form of the word, and as an “f” in another. The same is also true about the “b” and “v” sounds.