A Random Walk With Rashi: Those who know, know

This is a guest post by Phil Goldman, a former stand-up, current attorney, and closet Torah scholar. Stay tuned for a new post in the A Random Walk with Rashi series every Thursday morning.* Miss last week’s piece? Read it here.

Like golden apples in silver showpieces is a phrase well turned

Not so fast, it seems. For those of you who may have been thinking we would start in at Genesis 20:14, sit back, relax, we have some catching up to do with 20:13. Just when we think we have a verse nailed, the Rabbi goes and takes us down another path.

But even before that, a brief ramp up to the story so far. Clearly we can not do justice to all of Genesis to this point – in the course of even a hundred summaries, let alone one – given the fact that we’ve proceeded from the story of creation (yes, both), to Noah, Babel, and yada yada yada (which I’ve learned tends to be Rabbinic code for “then a miracle happened”).

It would be enough (dayenu) were we to try to recap even the last few scenes of just this parasha (Chapter 18 – Va Yera) which began a short time ago – in Rashi years – with the three angels approaching Abraham at the door to his tent, still nursing his circumcision, mind you, and led eventually to Abraham learning that Sarah would indeed beget him a son. This, in turn, led to him negotiating with G-d for the sake of Sodom, then to the destruction of Sodom (a lot of apparent good he did), with Lot and his family leaving just in time, to his wife looking back (you know the rest). Putting aside a minor, but not insignificant tryst between Lot and his daughters (can’t complain – it would eventually beget us Ruth and in turn King David, and someday it is said, the Messiah herself), the scene quickly shifted yet again to where are today, with Abraham and his family. Its enough to make your yarmulke spin.

So here we are, Abraham has just arrived in the town of Gerar – somewhere near present day Beer Sheba – with his 90 year old wife, Sarah (who was still drop dead gorgeous, as Biden would say, though perhaps not as literally as Abraham might find). He arrived with his entourage – he was a fairly wealthy man throughout much of the story to date – yet the first thing he did when he arrived was offer his wife to the harem of the local king Abimelech, by passing her off as his sister, rather than wife. Essentially the very same thing he had done several years, and verses, earlier, when he also passed Sarah off as his wife, er…. sister, to the Pharoah in Egypt.

This time, at least, we learn a little bit more about just why he would do that, and perhaps more importantly, why Sarah would agree (assuming she had a say). But first, lets read the verse, and Rashi’s take on it (truncated a bit for brevity).

Verse 20:13
[Abraham speaking to Abimelech, answering essentially the question ‘why would you do this to me?’] And so it was, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her [Sarah] ‘Let this be your kindness, which you shall do for me – to whatever place we come, say of me, He is my brother’.

AND SO IT WAS, WHEN GOD CAUSED ME TO WANDER – Onkelos translated this verse as he saw fit to translate it. [The verse] can also be explained “with each word in its proper setting,” as follows: When the Holy One, Blessed is He, brought me forth from my father’s house to roam and move about from place to place, I knew that I would pass through places of wicked people, “and I said to her, “let this be your kindness…”

WHEN GOD CAUSED ME TO WANDER – the word ‘hi’tu’ is in the plural, and do not be surprised, for in many places a term for God or a term for another authority is referred to in the plural, for example ‘that God went’ …. Similarly the term of authority (adonai) is plural in the verses ‘and Joseph’s master took the Lord of the lords and the lord of the land. … [yada, yada].

OK, remember our first question? We need to ask ourselves what is bothering Rashi about this verse. Hint – in this case, it must be a biblical doozy, because he gives us two different commentaries about the very same few words, yet they are not intended to be merely alternatives, or equally viable options.

First, he seems inclined to distinguish this fellow named Onkelos, who as it turns out, was a Roman convert to Judaism that lived about 1000 years prior. (Be careful if you go looking for him, spellcheck can tend to make Onkelos into “Ankles”). Another example of the manner in which our study can seem like taking part in an ongoing discussion between people living centuries, or in this case a millenium apart – up to and including us today.

Onkelos is perhaps best known for writing a Targum (translation) of Torah into Aramaic, so he was certainly a well-known, and respected scholar, whose interpretation of this and other verses would, again, have been well-known to Rashi and his contemporaries – hence, Rashi sees no need to repeat it here.

In effect, the debate between Onkelos and Rashi has to do with the fact that in the original Hebrew text for this verse, the word for G-d is written in the plural form – a potential big deal to a couple guys who both worshiped a singular G-d. They would both need to rationalize or explain how this text could jive with their beliefs, with Rashi perhaps keeping an eye out for the Christian interpretation (which would find G-d referred to in the plural to be just fine).

As it turns out, Onkelos found the verse vague and disjointed, and felt the need to insert words in order to have it make sense – essentially interpreting the text in such a way that would have it refer to nations (plural) rather than G-ds at all, and in turn, those nations going astray by worshipping idols.

In his commentary, Rashi steps in to trump Onkelos, by politely saying he went too far, and that indeed the words do make simple, common sense (Rashi’s old peshat approach again) – though without needing to raise the existential or theological debate that Onkelos seemed to avoid. Rashi tells us that the verse makes perfect sense ‘keeping each word in its proper place”, borrowing the expression from Proverbs 25:11 (Like golden apples in silver showpieces is a phrase well turned). While convincing, Rashi also needs to wrestle with the apparent inconsistency between the singular and plural forms, and explain that as well.

Could he take it to mean that the verse refers not only to G-d but to the angels as well, the heavenly hosts? Or could he interpret it as simply referring to the two aspects of G-d that unfold in the book of Genesis – those of mercy and justice? The answer is perhaps, but Rashi’s explanation seems even more straightforward than that – he cites numerous examples (several more than are listed above) in which various words that refer to G-d are used elsewhere in the Torah, though clearly in situations where they refer to a singular being. Hence, the same holds true here. Works for me.

We will pick up next week with Genesis 20:14 (here’s hoping), and perhaps learn a bit more about the bigger picture of what is going on in this scene, namely, what would compel Abraham to offer, or permit, Sarah to join the harem of Abimelech?

In reading Rashi we tend to often be reminded of the old adage, attributed to Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra with respect to his controversial views of the Torah’s authorship. Rather than publicly express his views (of there having been multiple authors) he presumably said only that “Those who know, know,” to which we today might add “Those who don’t, google”.

Those who don’t do either, it seems, will need to wait till next week.

(Photo: glitzuk)