Rabbi David Walk
This week's Torah reading is very intense. As part of the covenant at Sinai, God decreed many laws which are the basis for our Jewish judicial system. The material about slaves, theft, lost articles and court procedures are hardly the inspirational stuff we associate with the thunder and lightening of the epiphany. However, our Sages point out that true spirituality and sanctity is based on our respect for and treatment of others. So, we should see this prosaic material as the key to a moral and uplifting life. But the big problem facing us as we wade into this thick stuff of the legal system, is that the Torah expresses itself differently. Many of us learn and study these passages with very different tools than we parse the biblical stories. When the Midrash explains a narrative, it seems that anything goes. The only boundaries are those of the imaginations. However, the Halachic Midrashim are a bit more constrained, and are tied to certain rules of hermeneutics (especially the thirteen midot or rules of Rebbe Yishmael recited every morning in synagogues throughout the world). This week I would like to focus on one particular problem of homiletics, and that is the issue of synonyms.
According to the Bar Ilan Responsa Project CD, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) notes over three hundred synonyms in our Bible or Tanach and Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235) cites about two hundred. Both of them claim in almost every case that the text is merely repeating the same idea in different language, either for emphasis or clarity. But as time went on commentaries became more particular. The Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer, 1720-1797) explained many verses with paired words of similar meaning to be elucidating variant concepts. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibish ben Yechiel Michel Weiser, 1809-1879) half a century later dealt with this topic extensively and formulated what has become the accepted position of traditional modern commentaries, namely there are no true synonyms in Biblical Hebrew. In his introduction to the book of Isaiah, he stated: In the language of the Prophets there is no duplication of the same subject matter in different words…nor even two words which duplicate each other. Those are the two positions. Some commentaries (usually earlier ones) say that repetition and duplication are the norm, while others claim that no synonyms exist. Basically Eleizer ben Yehuda (1858-1922), the father of Modern Hebrew agrees that there are no synonyms in Biblical Hebrew, and he looked for minor differences in every instant. There must always be at least a subtle difference in each statement. Personally I opt for a middle position. If a reasonable interpretation of the duplication presents itself, go for it, if not, ignore it. Unfortunately many Biblical verses, especially in poetry, stylistically have a parallel construction, which creates thousands of repetitious passages, and the vast majority don't lend themselves to simple explanations.
Let's take a look at an example from this week's parsha. In chapter twenty-one we have two expressions which are often translated in the same way, even though different terms are used in the original Hebrew. Both are usually rendered as 'when people will engage in strife (alternate words I found in English translations: quarrel, contend, dispute, fight, and struggle).' But the first phrase is ki yerivun (verse 18), while the second is ki yinatzu (verse 22). The authoritative Aramaic translation of Onkelos from the first century makes no effort to differentiate between the two verses, and translates them both as yinatzu. However the Jerusalem Talmud (Nazir 58a) sees a clear distinction between the two verbs and verses, and, therefore, states: Is a fight a quarrel or a quarrel a fight? What does the Torah wish to teach by saying when men fight and when men quarrel, if not to contrast the case of one who acted with intention with one who did not act with intention?
So, on a simple, literal level the two verses are just restating the situation of violent altercations in varied language, but the legal interpretations from the Talmud find a clear dichotomy between the two cases. Do we have a third alternative somewhere between ignoring the difference and a cold legal analysis of the discrepancy? I think so.
Late in the nineteenth century the last head of the great Yeshiva of Volozhin, now Belarus, Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv) found a novel and meaningful approach. He suggested that the Hebrew word 'riv' connotes a verbal assault. While the other verse refers to a physical beating. According to Rabbi Berlin the sod or secret in the first verse is that verbal oppression and abuse can be as devastating as actually blows. Now here is the entire verse as rendered by the great Rosh Yeshiva: When people verbally assault each other and this leads to one beating his fellow with a stone or a fist, but he doesn't die, just is confined to bed. However, he also points out that a vocal attack doesn't justify a physical response.
Rabbi Berlin allows the linguistic anomaly to teach an important principle. This is extremely important in the context of our section, because there is no other mention of verbal assault in this material which emphasizes many financial and violent losses, and how to determine compensation. But we have to be aware that words can hurt as much as fists, stones or modern weapons.
So, the Netziv teaches us that we should look for these subtle changes in the language to find new meaning and give the verses a richer texture. In this particular case there is double beauty, because the idea he develops from the language is the importance of words in our lives and in our behavior. Our study of Torah and our speech patterns must always search for the nuance in the words we find or the words we use. It can make our lives as well as our study that much more worthwhile.
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