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Questions on Parashat Devarim

For each parasha in the Torah, this column raises questions as to why the Torah expressed itself in precisely the way it did. For example, why choose one word instead of its more common synonym, in verse x? Why is there an apparent repetition in verse y?

Other columns in the series:

Balak/Pinchas, Mattot, and Massei.

Q1. In verse 1:21, Moses cites the Israelites as asking him to “Let us send men ahead of us and let them spy out the land for us,” but instead of the common verb for spying, “וירגלו- לרגל”, the Israelites are cited as using a verb whose literal meaning is to dig, “ויחפרו”. Why the digging metaphor?

A1: One possible answer is that initially, the intent was good – they’d be digging for hidden treasure as it were, revealing the greatness of the land.

A2: An answer I find more plausible, because it’s more in line with the traditional criticism of the generation of the wilderness, is that they were looking for the spies to uncover the negative aspects of the land. The good would be obvious – the 7 species are hard to miss.

Q2: Verse 1:26 reads, “But you did not wish to ascend,” again using the less-common word “אביתם” instead of the more widely used “רציתם” or “חפצתם”. Why the particular wording?

I don’t have an answer to suggest…

Q3: “The Moabites called them Emim,” reads verse 2:11. Rashi comments that the name ‘Emim’ is derived from the Hebrew word for ‘dread’ (in the sense of fear), ‘Emah’, because they were giants and instilled fear in those who saw them.

Why would the Moabites have referred to another nation by a name derived from a Hebrew word? I can picture them calling them something based on the Moabite word for dread, but it seems incongruous for the Moabites to use Hebrew in their naming.

Q4: Verse 2:13 has some strange grammar. Moses has up to that point been recounting events in the Israelites’ travels through the wilderness, in the past tense. Then verse 2:13 reads: “Now, rise up and get yourselves across the Valley of Zared – so we crossed the Valley of Zared.”

Similarly, verse 2:24 transitions from the previous verses’ past tense to the imperative, “Rise up and cross the Valley of Arnon; see! into your hand have I delivered Sihon king of Heshbon, the Amorite, and his land; begin to drive [him] out, and provoke war with him.”

What’s the imperative doing there?

A: The best I can think of is to connect this to the content of verses prior to 2:13 and to the content of 2:24 and following.

Before 2:13, the children of Esau drove out the Horites, and prior to that we find a discussion of giants. So perhaps the imperative comes to explain that G’ wasn’t having any of our dilly-dallying and ordered us to cross over into what was land filled with intimidating people? And so we crossed…

This seems reinforced as the next such past-imperative switch in 2:24 has a reference to G’ (“I have delivered Sihon king of Heshbon”), and there’s again reference to an intimidating person, the powerful warrior Sihon, who was mighty in his own right but also commanded hundreds of high quality chariots.

Q5: Verse 2:27 outright repeats the word “in the road,” “בדרך” , consecutively. Artscroll translates this as meaning “only on the road” [shall I go…]. That would make sense, as meaning the road within the road. I guess this isn’t much of a question now, but it was when I first noticed it and noted it…

Q6: 2:30 reads, “for Hashem, your G’, hardened his spirit and made his heart stubborn, in order to give him into your hand, like this very day.”

What does “like this very day” come to add to our verse? It seems superfluous?

Rashi doesn’t comment, sadly.

Q7: Conversely, we find a bit of a perplexing comment by Rashi later, on the name of the mountain, Senir. He explains that it means snow in German and in the slavic languages.

(Rashi uses the expression “Canaanite,” not “Slavic,” but Artscroll explains it as an expression used by Jews in Rashi’s time (the Middle Ages) to refer to the Slavs.)

Where did the expression come from? Did Rashi and his contemporaries see the Slavs as descendants of the Canaanites? That would be somewhat amusing considering the typically pale complexion of Slavs, in contrast to the Canaanites, descendants of the first black man (Ham).

Q8: The powerful and gigantic warrior Og, who survived the battle of the 5 kings against the 4 kings, has his size described with reference to his bed, in verse 3:11.

Why describe Og’s size according to his bed’s size? Why not according to the size of the door to his house?

The best I can imagine is that his bed would be the thing most tailored to fit him. The door might be taller or shorter depending on his family’s dimensions, and other household items like a table and chairs aren’t necessarily proportional to their users’ sizes.

Q9: A related question is why does that same verse (3:11) use the unit of measurement “the cubit of a man” to refer to what Rashi describes as “the cubit of Og”? (A cubit is the length of the forearm.) Why not just outright say, “the cubit of Og”?

A: Rashi tells us in other comments on the Torah that the word “man,” when it is superfluous to the literal meaning of the verse, is interpreted as an “important person.”

Og would be deserving of such a title for having done Abraham a favour. In the book of Genesis, he told Abraham that Abraham’s nephew Lot had been captured in the war of the kings.

Using the phrase “the cubit of a man” teaches us that Og was an important person.

At least, that’s my guess!

Q10: In Hebrew, conjoined nouns, סמיכות, normally feature the general noun followed by the personal noun. Hence, “Magen David” for “Shield of David,” and not “David Magen.”

Yet there’s a curious noun conjunction in verse 3:16, where the “Valley of Yabbok” is referred to “Yabbok HaNakhal” (literally, Yabbok The Valley).

Why the odd syntax?

It’s all the more strange in that another valley referred to in the same verse uses proper syntax: the “Valley of Arnon” is referred to as “Nakhal Arnon.” And an earlier reference to the valley in verse 2:37 uses the regular form, “Nakhal Yabbok.”

Q11: We find the word Ashdot, אשדת, translated by Artscroll as “waterfalls” in verse 3:17. Yet in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 33:2 we find the same word to have a ktiv-keri instruction to read the text differently than it appears: there it’s interpreted as two words, אש דת, meaning Fire of Law, i.e. The Torah.

(Kudos to the Hebrew biblical search engine for helping me find the citation.)

So what does this word really mean? The closest I can come to an explanation is our Sages’ teaching, “there is no water but Torah.” איו מים אלא תורה. Thus on a literal reading the word Ashdot refers to waterfalls in a particular geographic location, while on a higher level it’s perhaps a reference to the Torah?

Love to hear your comments!

Posted in Judaism.

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