"You Have Glorified God this Day"

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


 

Please include in your tefillot:

 

Zecharia Shlomo ben Miriam Baumel

Kidnapped: June 11, 1982

Tzvi ben Penina Feldman

Kidnapped: June 11, 1982

Yekutiel Yehuda Nachman ben Sarah Katz

Kidnapped: June 11, 1982

Ron (Roon) ben Batya Arad

Kidnapped: October 16, 1986

Guy ben Rina Chever

Missing In Action - After leaving his army base in the Golan: August 17, 1997

Gilad ben Aviva Shalit

Kidnapped: June 25, 2006

Eldad ben Tova Regev

Kidnapped: July 12, 2006

Ehud Ben Malka Goldvasser

Kidnapped: July 12, 2006

 

 

PARASHAT KI TAVO

 

"You Have Glorified God this Day"

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            Parashat Ki Tavo introduces the final section of Sefer Devarim.  Moshe has already completed the main part of his lengthy and exhaustive explication of the mitzvot.  What remains to be realized is the sealing of the covenant between the people of Israel and their God so that they might obligate themselves to keep His commands while He in turn will make them His own.  It is this process of invoking the pledge that constitutes the main part of remainder of the book. 

 

            Optimistically, the parasha begins with a solemn description of the rites of the first fruits, which the grateful farmer is to present at the altar while proclaiming God's power and compassion in taking his hapless ancestors out of Egypt and then giving them a bountiful land.  It goes on to describe another agricultural observance, the so-called eradication of the tithes, in which the homesteader is to remove any undistributed tithes from his possession and to surrender them to their rightful recipients – the Levite, the indigent convert, orphan or widow.  This is done in order that God might look down favorably from the His abode in the heights and "bless His people Israel and the land that He gave them, just as He swore to their ancestors to give them a land flowing with milk and honey" (26:15).

 

            The tone of the parasha, however, soon turns decidedly less sanguine, as the curses and then the lengthy and frightening admonitions are spelled out – all of them described as the natural consequences of Israel's abrogation of the commands.  The effect of the whole is to underscore the covenantal nature of the relationship between God and His people, for Israel's fate in the new land will not be the product of serendipity or happenstance, but rather the direct result of the choices that they will make as a people – either to embrace their unique destiny or else to spurn it.

 

TEXTUAL TRANSITIONS

 

            Textually nestled in the midst of these two extremes – the bountiful blessings of their new land or else the consuming curses that will result in their cruel and sudden exile from it – is a transitional series of verses that spells out the characteristics of the special bond between Israel and their God.  The section includes a curious and unparalleled expression that is the subject of much discussion among the commentaries, and we will explore a number of their interpretations:

 

This very day, God your Lord commands you to fulfill these statutes and these laws, and you shall observe and perform them with all of your heart and with all of your soul.  You have "he-EMaRta" God this day, to be your Lord and to walk in His ways and to observe His statutes, His commands and His laws and to hearken to His voice.  And God (in turn) has "he-EMiRcha" you this day to be for Him a treasured people just as He spoke to you, and to follow all of His commands.  And to make you supreme over all of the nations that He has made, for praise glory, and renown, so that you might be a holy nation to God your Lord as He has spoken" (26:16-19).

 

The section as a whole is clearly concerned with emphasizing Israel's responsibilities while simultaneously enumerating their praises.  Should they keep His laws, then He will single them out to be His own; should they observe his statutes faithfully, then He will treasure them above all of the other nations.  But there is more than cause and effect that is implied by the equation, for Israel also chooses God as their own.  It is precisely this dynamic of reciprocity that binds God and Israel together in the immutable matrix of "choseness" and uniqueness.

 

RASHI'S INTERPRETATION OF THE UNUSUAL VERBS

 

While the common root of the two verbs "he-EMaRta" and "he-EMiRcha" certainly looks familiar, an application of the usual meaning of its infinitive form "lAiMoR," which is "to say" or "to speak," seems here strange and out of place.  We also note that while the verb "lAiMoR" is typically conjugated as a "kal" or simple form, the "heh" prefix in our verbs as well as their vowels are a sure sign that we are dealing with the causative form – to cause one to do the action indicated by the verb.  The verb suffixes, on the other hand, are typical and comprehensible – the "ta" of "he-EMaRta" indicating the action of the second person singular verb (i.e. "you"), and the "cha" of "he-EMiRcha" its second person plural object form.

 

Rashi opens his remarks to the unusual words by candidly declaring that

 

"he-EMaRta" and "he-EMiRcha" have no obvious parallels in Scripture.  It would seem to me that they are related to separation and to distinction.  You have separated God from among the other gods to be your Lord, and He has separated you from the nations of the world to be His treasured people.  I have found evidence to support this reading and it pertains to glorification, as the verse states (Tehillim 94:3-4): "For how long shall the wicked, Oh Lord, for how long shall the wicked rejoice?  They speak and say proud words, all of the perpetrators of iniquity glorify themselves ("yitAMRu")."

 

For Rashi, "he-EMaRta" and "he-EMiRcha" are not related to speech at all, but rather to separation and to distinctiveness.  While Rashi attempts towards the end of his comments to find Scriptural support for his reading, it is clear that his interpretation is predicated primarily upon the larger context of the troublesome terminology.  As any student of text knows, when there is an obscurity in a particular passage that cannot be illuminated by any obvious parallels, then often the safest approach is to rely upon the larger context for guidance.  Our section clearly is focused upon uniqueness and exclusivity:  Israel has chosen God and He has selected them; they have adopted His commands and He has made them His treasured people.  Once this basic reading has been established, it is simply a matter of deduction to explain the verbs in question:  "You have "he-EMaRta" God this day, to be your Lord and to walk in His ways and to observe His statutes, His commands and His laws and to hearken to His voice.  And God (in turn) has "he-EMiRcha" you this day to be for Him a treasured people just as He spoke to you, and to follow all of His commands."  What else might the terms mean if not something that is directly related to Israel's adoption of God's ways and statutes and His selection of them in turn?

 

            As for Rashi's "proof text" from the book of Tehillim, it too is conjectural, for the passage is not entirely clear about the meaning of "yitAMRu."  But here Rashi utilizes another technique of textual analysis, particularly useful when approaching the poetic sections of the Tanakh, namely the tool of parallelism.  That is to say that a verse of Biblical poetry typically is composed of two balanced phrases that state similar sentiments in slightly different words.  When the passage says concerning the wicked that "they speak and say proud words, all of the perpetrators of iniquity glorify themselves ("yitAMRu")" it is telling us about their two discrete actions.  They speak arrogant and boasting words and they "yitAMRu."  Since the first phrase is obviously about their statements of pride, condescension and self-aggrandizement, it is reasonable to assume that the second phrase describes a similar idea.  Therefore, "yitAMRu" must mean "glorification," or more correctly "self-glorification" since the form of the verb is reflexive. 

 

            To complete the picture, we must note that for Rashi, the implied association between separation, distinction and glorification is natural, for that which is glorified is made unique and special.

 

THE READING OF IBN EZRA

 

            A different approach is provided by the great Spanish grammarian Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, who mentions two possible readings:

 

"he-EMaRta" is an expression of greatness, and it is close in meaning to its related form in Yeshayahu 17:6 – "There shall remain upon it only scrawny fruit, like one who beats the olive tree to remove the final two or three olives at its crest ("AMiR"), four or five olives that blossom upon its boughs, says God the Lord of Israel."

 

            According to this first possibility, the verb "he-EMaRta," just as in Rashi's reading, is not related to speech.  What then is its meaning?  This can be ascertained by considering its noun form, which Ibn Ezra takes to be allied.  The "amir" signifies the very top of a tree, as the passage from Yeshayahu 17 indicates.  In fact, Ibn Ezra maintains, in his commentary to Yeshayahu, that the meaning of "amir" is similar to its usage in Arabic, a Semitic language that is cognate to Hebrew.  The "emir" is of course the respected leader, ruler or commander in Arab cultures and, at least for Ibn Ezra, his position of power picturesquely corresponds to the proud and upright crown of a tree! 

 

            Of course, like Rashi, a wider exploration of the proof text does not concern Ibn Ezra right now.  All that matters is that the meaning of our passage has been established.  The meaning of the passage, then, would therefore be somewhat similar to that provided by Rashi's reading, except that the emphasis for Ibn Ezra is not upon the separateness or uniqueness that Rashi understands to be the primary theme, but rather upon the glory and grandeur that Rashi assumes to be only derivative.  Additionally, for Ibn Ezra it is precisely the proof text that provides us with the key for interpreting our passage, while for Rashi the proof text is provided almost as an afterthought, once the correct meaning has been established through a thoughtful consideration of the context.

 

THE INTERPRETATION OF RABBI YEHUDA HALEVI

 

            Ibn Ezra then goes on to offer a second interpretation in the name of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, one that remains truer to the morphology of "he-EMaRta" and "he-EMiRcha":

 

Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi explains that the word is derived from "vayOMeR," or "he said."  The meaning is that you (Israel) have done that which is upright so that He said that He will be your Lord.  So too He did to you so that you said that you would become His treasured people.  He explained well!  This explanation treats the word "he-EMaRta" as a causative verb.

 

For Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, the illustrious Spanish scholar, philosopher and poet who was Ibn Ezra's contemporary and friend, "he-EMaRta" and "he-EMiRcha" are related to the familiar root that is at their core: "AMR" that pertains to speech or to the act of saying.  The verb form, as we pointed out earlier, is causative.  The literal meaning therefore of "he-EMaRta" is "you caused Him to say" while "he-EMiRcha" means "He caused you to say."  In context, the expressions read as follows:

 

This very day, God your Lord commands you to fulfill these statutes and these laws, and you shall observe and perform them with all of your heart and with all of your soul.  You have CAUSED GOD this day TO SAY that He will be your Lord so that you will walk in His ways and observe His statutes, His commands and His laws and hearken to His voice.  And God (in turn) has CAUSED YOU this day TO EXCLAIM that you will be for Him a treasured people just as He spoke to you, and will follow all of His commands.  And to make you supreme over all of the nations that He has made, for praise glory, and renown, so that you might be a holy nation to God your Lord as He has spoken" (26:16-19).

 

While Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi's reading is seemingly more straightforward than either Rashi or Ibn Ezra, it does depend upon some externally supplied facts that are prerequisite: God agreed to be your Lord BECAUSE YOU WERE UPRIGHT AND GOOD.  You agreed to be His treasured people BECAUSE HE WAS RIGHTEOUS TOWARDS YOU.  Additionally, the syntax of the passage, especially in the first verse (v. 17), is somewhat strained by the inconsistent use of the prepositional form where "to walk in His ways" now becomes "SO THAT YOU WILL walk in His ways."  The phrase is readily comprehensible according to Rashi and Ibn Ezra: "You have separated God from among the other gods to be your Lord and to walk in His ways etc., and He has separated you from the nations of the world to be His treasured people."  But the fluidity of the phrase is admittedly compromised according to the reading of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi.  And finally, while Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi treats the verb form as causative, this constitutes an unparalleled usage for AMR.  There are NO MORE examples in all of Tanakh of a causative verb form for "to say," although the verb occurs more than five thousand times!

 

CONCLUSION

 

            These three approaches highlight three important principles of interpretation that are applicable whenever one carefully studies the text of the Tanakh.  The pressing exegetical problem, not that uncommon, is of course how to interpret an enigmatic and obscure word or phrase that has no unequivocal meaning.  When faced with such a task, one can adopt the approach of Rashi and let one's context be one's guide.  Alternatively, one can follow in the footsteps of Ibn Ezra and pin one's reading upon a proof text from elsewhere, perhaps even buttressing one's argument from external linguistic sources.  Or, one can boldly espouse the ways of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi and provide a reading that is deceptively simple and elegant, that looks at the word or phrase in question in the most straightforward way possible, but ultimately creates a reality that is perhaps overly conjectural.  Each one of these three approaches (and there are more) has merits; each one, when wielded by expert hands, can succeed in providing a plausible reading. 

 

            In the final analysis, it is the grandeur of the Tanakh and not its austerity that allows for multiple interpretations, for it is a text that invites us to engage it in serious dialogue.  Simple, severe, and pedantic texts abound in world literature and especially in the sacred literatures of religion.  But the Torah and the Tanakh, as texts that demand of their adherents active and ongoing involvement in the rewarding task of their interpretation, occupy a unique position of their own.

 

Shabbat Shalom