SALT - Thursday, 14 Sivan 2017 - June 8, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

            We read in Parashat Beha’alotekha of how Miriam was punished for her inappropriate remarks about her brother, Moshe, though many commentators struggled to explain what it actually was that Miriam said.  The Torah tells, “Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe, with regard to the Kushite woman whom he married, for he married a Kushite woman” (12:1).  Rashi, citing the Sifrei, explains this to mean that Moshe had divorced his wife, a drastic measure that was necessitated by his unique prophetic stature.  This explains why Miriam and Aharon then proceeded to note that they were also prophets (12:2).  They criticized Moshe for undertaking a drastic measure that other prophets, such as they, did not feel the need to undertake.

            Several other commentators, however, dismissed this interpretation, noting that the verse makes no mention whatsoever of separation or divorce.  The verse speaks only of Moshe’s marriage to his wife, Tzipora, and gives no indication that he separated from her.  If Miriam and Aharon’s criticism of Moshe centered around his divorcing his wife, certainly this should be made explicit in this verse.

            A bold solution to this problem is proposed by Rav Yaakov Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha’kabbala, where he presents an unconventional reading of the word “odot” in this verse.  This word is generally translated as “about,” or “with regard to,” but Rav Mecklenberg rejects this standard definition.  He observes that the word “odot” is nearly always preceded by the word “al,” which itself means “about” or “regarding.”  According to the conventional translation of the word “odot,” then, the phrase “al odot” is inherently repetitive.  Rav Mecklenberg therefore associates the Biblical word “odot” with the Aramaic root a.d.y., which means “throw,” or “cast away.”  Rav Mecklenberg notes Rashi’s comments in Masekhet Beitza (39a) asserting that this Aramaic word is found in the Tanakh, citing the verse in Eikha (3:53), “Va-yadu even bi” – “They threw a rock at me.”  Another example cited by Rav Mecklenberg is the description in Sefer Melakhim II (17:21) of how Yerovam lured Benei Yisrael away from God.  The word used in this verse is pronounced “va-yadach,” which means to “lure” or “incite,” but it is written as “va-yada.”  Rav Mecklenberg explains that this root is used to mean “cast” or “send away,” and it thus appears here in reference to Yerovam’s leading the Northern Kingdom of Israel away from the service of God.  Another interesting example which Rav Mecklenberg brings is the word “eid,” which is commonly translated as “calamity” or “devastation.”  However, Targum Yonatan in Sefer Tehillim (18:19) translates the phrase “yom eidi” – which is commonly interpreted as “my day of calamity” – as “yom tiltuli,” which means “the day of my exile.”  This word is used in reference to exile, when a person or nation is banished and distanced from his or their home. 

We might also note in this context the verse in Sefer Bereishit (21:11) which tells of Avraham’s distress over Sara’s request to banish his son, Yishmael.  The Torah tells that Avraham reacted this way “al odot beno,” which is commonly translated as “regarding the matter of his son.”  In his commentary to Sefer Bereishit, Rav Mecklenberg references his discussion about the word “odot” here in Parashat Beha’alotekha, and writes that the verse there in Bereishit could mean that Avraham felt distressed over the prospect of his son’s banishment.

Of course, this theory would need to be tested against other instances where the word “odot” appears, and which do not seem to involve distancing.  (See, for example, the verse in Parashat Shelach, “al odot ha-eshkol” (13:24) and Rav Mecklenberg’s creative attempt to apply his theory regarding the word “odot” to that phrase.)  In any event, according to this interpretation, the Torah’s account of Miriam and Aharon’s criticism of Moshe indeed makes explicit mention of Moshe’s wife being “distanced,” and this theory thus provides support for Rashi’s interpretation of this verse.