Va’etchanan – Unusual Interpretations 45

                                                                  By Israel Drazin 

 

We will use the portion of Va’etchanan (3:23-7:11) to explore the nuances, deeper significances, and lessons missed in translations from Hebrew to English, and we will examine some verses that say something rabbis rejected.

 

Unusual word

            This portion begins with the idiomatic va’etchanan, which is in the Hebrew reflexive form, indicating people doing or feeling something within themselves, frequently an intense emotion. While usually calmly translated “And I besought (the Lord),” the thirteenth century Bible commentator Chazkuni renders it “I was filled with supplications.” The word shows how translations such as “I besought” fail to capture the intensity Moses felt contained in the Hebrew idiom.

Another more significant and more helpful reflexive form is l’hitpaleil, usually translated “to pray.” The root is p-l-l, “judge,” the reflexive is “judge oneself” or “inner reflection,” making what people call “prayer”[1] a time of inner self judgment, not a petition. The true meaning encourages people to examine their thoughts, actions, goals, and possibilities during “prayer” and not use the time passively seeking outside help.

 

Lord y-h-v-h

            Verse 3:24 has Moses address God as adonai y-h-v-h.[2] Tradition demands that the words be read as Adonai Elohim, and translated “Lord God.” Ever since Greek Jews translated the Bible into Greek around 250 BCE, if not shortly before, when the translators rendered y-h-v-h as curios, “Lord,” Jews everywhere stopped using y-h-v-h out of respect to the deity and, like the Greek Jews, substituted “Lord,” which is Adonai in Hebrew. Since adonai also means “my lord” with a small l, as here, it would seem strange to read the phrase as adonai Adonai so the practice arose that when these two words appear, they would be read Adonai Elohim, “Lord God.”

 

Many gods in heaven?

             3:24 has Moses say mi el bashamayim u’va’aretz asher yaaseh khema’asekha v’khigvurotekha? “for what god is there in heaven or on earth that can do like your works and like your might?” Moses does not say, “There is no god other than you in heaven or earth.” Could he be recognizing that there are other gods, but is praising God as being more powerful than them?

The basic meaning of el found in this verse is “powerful.” God and idols are called el because they are thought to be powerful. The plural “Elohim” is applied to God to indicate the most powerful. Thus el in 3:24 could be a powerful person[3] and apparently[4] this is how Rashi defines the term because he says that God is more powerful than human kings.

A similar question can be asked about “your God” that introduces the Decalogue in 5:6: “I am the Lord your God.” What does it mean? Is God saying that there are other gods, but y-h-v-h is the Israelite’s God? Or should we understand “your God” as “a God who is concerned about the Israelites, for God took the Israelites from Egypt?[5]

Similarly, 4:19 prohibits the Israelites from worshipping the sun, moon, stars, and the other heavenly bodies “that the Lord your God allotted to all peoples under the whole heaven.” Does this mean, as some say, that God allowed non-Israelites to worship the heavenly bodies who are divine beings?[6] Ehrlich rejects Rashi’s explanation of the verse that God is saying that the heavenly bodies were given to all people for light. He points out that the Hebrew chalak, “divided” or “assigned” or “allotted” signifies that these items were only given to the non-Israelites. Furthermore, this verse continues with the next that states that “But you (Israelites), the Lord took you…to be his people.”

 

Ten Commandments?

            Most people understand incorrectly that God revealed ten commands at Mount Sinai. The Torah calls it aseret hadibrot, Ten Statements.[7] The Latin name is like the Hebrew, Decalogue. There are more than ten commands in the Decalogue, although rabbis and scholars have various views of the number, eleven, twelve, or thirteen.

 

Anochi

            The Decalogue begins in 5:6 with anochi, “I.” Another Hebrew word for “I” is ani. Scholars think that anochi is a more elevated term, appropriate for God. English translations do not capture this nuance.

 

Ger

            Ger in the Bible does not mean what it means today, “proselyte,” but “stranger.” Thus when the Torah states 36 times that one must love the ger, it means non-Israelites, non-Jews, because all people were created by God and because we can and should learn from all people. As Maimonides said, “The truth is the truth no matter what its source.” This, said Baruch Epstein, is why the daily prayers begin with words by the pagan soothsayer Balaam.[8] When Scripture states in 10:19 that the Israelites were gerim (plural of ger) it certainly doesn’t mean they were proselytes in Egypt, but strangers.

 

This mountain and Lebanon

Moses beseeches God in 3:25 to allow him to cross the Jordan River “and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon.”  What is the good mountain and why would Moses be interested in Lebanon, which is not part of Canaan nor part of future Israel? Rashi, based on Midrash Sifrei, anachronistically, writes that the mountain is Jerusalem and Lebanon refers to the temple that will be located there.[9] Sifrei also has the view that “good mountain” refers to Mount Moriah where Abraham brought his son Isaac to sacrifice.  Others say that “good mountain” means “a land filled with mountains” and “Lebanon” refers to Canaan that borders Lebanon.[10] In any event, like the former examples, Scripture’s wording is unclear and subject to many interpretations.

 

What is God saying?

            Moses reports in 4:2 that God commanded “You must not add to the word that I command you, not may you diminish from it, so that you keep the Lord your God’s commandments that I command you.” The simple meaning of these words are that the Israelites and their descendants, Jews, must scrupulously observe exactly what Moses transmitted from God without any change. However, rabbis did not understand it in this way. They added laws to the Torah[11] and abandoned others.[12] Rashi, based on Midrash Sifrei, knowing this, wrote that the command prohibits such things as adding a fifth chapter to the four placed in the tephillin, and fifth items to the lulov and tzitzit.[13]

 

Another example

            Moses orders in 4:14 that he will “teach statutes and ordinances that you should do them in the land which you go over to possess.” How should this be understood? Here are four possibilities. One, although Moses clearly says that these laws are laws that should be obeyed in Canaan, he does not mean “only Canaan,” but the Israelites must observe them wherever they live. Two, Moses is not speaking about all Torah laws, but only those that must be observed in Canaan, such as the Shemitah law that is not observed outside Israel.[14] Three, Moses is saying that the entire Torah are laws to be obeyed in Canaan (Israel); the Torah does not mandate observance outside of Canaan; we observe Torah laws, as interpreted by the rabbis outside Israel only because the rabbis require us to do so.[15] Fourth, the intent is that Israelites should always obey Torah laws, but the book Devarim did not think Israelites would ever leave Canaan after they settled there.



[1] Based on the Latin for “beg.”

[2] Y-h-v-h, frequently incorrectly rendered Jehovah, is a term that describes God. See my discussion “The true definition of God” in my website www.booksnthoughts.com. The phrase here means lord y-h-v-h.

[3] Elohim is used for people in Genesis 6:2 where benei elohim is powerful people and Exodus 21:6’s ha’elohim are judges.

[4] I say “apparently” because Rashi does not say this explicitly. He may understand el as god and his comment may be only a homily.

[5] See my website article “The Hebrew Bible reflects a view that there are many gods.”

[6] Nachmanides taught that Jews are forbidden to worship idols because although they exist and are powerful, Jews may not have any dealings with them because Jews are God’s people and must not reject Him by seeking help, which would be efficacious, from the idols. The Zohar also contends that the “gods of the nations” mentioned in the Bible are not mere idols but actual celestial beings with real, but limited powers to influence the world and people. See 2:7, 2:67, and 2:237.

[7] Exodus 34:28.

[8] In his Baruch Sheamar.

[9] This is anachronistic because Jerusalem was not chosen as the capital of Israel until King David selected the site as his capital. He did so because the city was on a hill and defensible and because it lay between the tribe of Judah and the rest of the tribes who he wanted to unite. The Pentateuch never mentions Jerusalem, but speaks of the place that God will choose.

[10] Sefer Devarim, Mossad HaRav Kook.

[11] All of the holidays were changed by the rabbis as I will show in my upcoming book, temporarily titled Mysteries of Judaism that reveals that Jews are no longer Torah Jews, but rabbinical Jews. See next note and discussion in Chapter 49, Ki Teitzei.

[12] Mostly because after 70 CE sacrifices could no longer be brought. An example is Pesach, the offering of the Pascal sacrifice on 14 Nisan, which was abandoned and Chag Hamatzot, the Holiday of Matzot, was renamed as Pesach, Passover.

[13] Actually, the Torah does not mandate use of four in these items, these are rabbinical enactments. Rashi and others would recognize this but would say that these were commands transmitted orally to Moses by God.

[14] Sefer Devarim, Mossad HaRav Kook, by Aharon Mirsky. Shemitah is leaving fields fallow during every seventh year.

[15] This is the view of Nachmanides. Commentary to Leviticus 18:25,  Deuteronomy 11:18, and Sermon on the Words of Kohelet.

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