Where We Begin

Now, to the places where we begin Devarim. Some of them we located on the map, and some were clearly mysteries, even to Rashi. We consult Rashi (eleventh century Biblical commentator, France, his day job: vintner) to see which places were known and which unknown to him. Rashi takes up the time it took us … Continue reading “Where We Begin”

Now, to the places where we begin Devarim. Some of them we located on the map, and some were clearly mysteries, even to Rashi. We consult Rashi (eleventh century Biblical commentator, France, his day job: vintner) to see which places were known and which unknown to him.

Rashi takes up the time it took us to arrive at this particular place, where we begin Deuteronomy: eleven days from Choreb (Deut. 1:2). Moses says even though it was a journey of eleven days from Choreb to Kadesh-barnea, by way of Mount Seir, it was traversed in three days. Rashi explains that the Shekhinah, the inside presence of G-d, struggled that much for us — to hurry our arrival to the Land — but because we acted improperly, G-d took us roundabout Mount Seir for forty years.

The word that Rashi uses here that is translated as “struggled so much” for us, is another clue-word. Mit-la-be-tet, a root lavat that is only used three times in the entire Hebrew Bible: in a different form (niphal) to indicate failure of some kind, a fallen people, in Hosea 4:14 and Proverbs 10:8 and 10:10. Why does Rashi use this exceedingly rare verb in his commentary, in another form from the one that appears only three times in the entire Hebrew Bible?

If you check the Rashi in Hosea and Proverbs to see what he made of the other occurrences of this verb, he explains each one in detail, and in one place even resorts to lashon am loez (the language of people who speak unintelligibly, see Psalm 114:1 where it refers to Egyptians, here he means his own medieval French).

I was wondering why Rashi plucks this uncommon verb and uses it here in his commentary in Deuteronomy to describe the action of the Shekhinah on our behalf, using it in a different form, to indicate now not a failure but the Shekhinah’s effort to elevate us, struggle for us?

So I asked him.

Scene:
Vintner’s cottage
Troyes, France
Eleventh century

Rashi, his hands bruised with the hard toil of tending grape vines, is bent over a sloping table where he hovers over a manuscript of the Torah, without commentary, as he is preoccupied creating it. Rashi mumbling as I eavesdropped:

Hmmm, what’s this story signify, the text claiming it is eleven days from Choreb by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea. But there is a midrash that it took only three days. Ah, it was the intercession of the Shekhinah, G-d’s holy immanence, the inner presence of G-dliness, it was her presence as she uh. . .helped us, no. . .accompanied us. . .no, too passive, struggled that much for us! Yes — that will do — let me pluck this obscure root and put it in another form, a root I myself did not understand well the three times I came across it. I will take the obscure passivity of that root and make it into the active – she struggled that much for us — the Shekhinah not only accompanied us, she struggled that much for us! Oh, now that is beautiful.

Yes, but so is the moon. I am finished for the night.

He walked outside his hut and sat in a small circle overlooking a valley planted with vines, gazing at the moon, newly full, just above his head. He sat that way for an hour, more, he decided to stay there the entire night, waiting for his students to arrive, and then just before dawn, he grabbed the moon and rolled it across the universe.

jsg, jerusalem