Lekh-Lekha: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Torah Is More Than a Book

When Avraham accedes to Hashem’s command to go to Canaan, verse 12;5 tells us he and Sarah took “ha-nefesh asher asu be-Haran,” literally the souls they made in Haran. As Rashi points out in his second interpretation, the simplest sense of the text reads the phrase as referring to their slaves, the souls they made/purchased in Haran.

Rashi calls that peshuto shel mikra, although he had first given the reading Onkelos (the supposed pashtan, the translator of the Torah par excellence). Academics debate Rashi’s relationship to peshat, but I am here more interested in Onkelos’ relationship to peshat. Each time we see him veer from literalism, we are reminded he did not see translation as technical rendering words of a text in another language.

Here, he says ve-yat nafshata di sha’abidu le-oraita, a phrase ArtScroll translates as “the souls they bound to the Torah,” although Rashi more aptly phrases it as the souls they “brought under the wings of the Divine Presence.”

They agree Onkelos means people Avraham and Sarah had brought to service of Hashem (Avraham the men, Sarah the women), reflecting the tradition Avraham and Sarah worked to propagate awareness of Hashem after they found their way to His service. ArtScroll’s translating oraita as Torah—how the word is usually used—calls us to consider what counts as Torah.

Onkelos could only have meant Torah by the word oraita if he subscribed to the literal version of the rabbinic tradition the Patriarchs kept the Torah. There is a strong history of rishonim and aharonim who took that view, although it seems a little more Midrashic than my assumptions about Onkelos allow.

Rashi’s phrasing raises the possibility Onkelos meant oraita more loosely, the teachings and conclusions emanating from accepting the existence of a unitary and unique Creator. Even absent specific commands, just knowing Hashem’s existence fosters an oraita, a set of laws or rules one would follow, ways to serve Hashem.

Calling Out in Gd’s Name

About a chapter later, 13;4, Avraham returns to Beit El from Egypt, to the altar he had built previously, va-yikra sham be-shem Hashem, calls out there in the Name of Gd. Rambam to Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 1;3 reads the phrase as Avraham calling out to other people, continuing his “kiruv” efforts, his search for ways to bring people to recognize Hashem.

Onkelos instead translates va-yikra as ve-tzalei, he prayed. In his view, Avraham makes it back from Egypt, returns to where he had been, to the altar he had built, and prays to Gd. [I have elsewhere argued Hashem taught Avraham to pray when Sodom was on the verge of destruction; Onkelos clearly disagrees. ]

The Directions of Our Lives

A few verses later, 13;9, Avraham feels the need to separate from Lot, and tells him to choose where he wanted to go, adding im ha-semol ve-eiminah, if to the left, I will go right, and vice verse. Onkelos translates im at le-tzipuna, ana le-daroma, if you go north, I will go south.

ArtScroll points out Ramban to Shemot 26;18 relates the words kedem (literally, forward) for east and ahor (literally, backward) for west because if you face towards the rising sun, east is forward, west is backward (and then, ArtScroll is saying, left is north and right is south).

It suggests Ramban thought people of the time of the Torah based their directional sense on the sun rather than on their personal right or left, an idea more clearly true for Onkelos, who is taking right and left (rather than forward and back) directionally rather than personally.

I noticed the idea because I at some point read a book, I think about the metaphors in our lives, which noted the Guugu Yimithirr, an aboriginal people in Far North Queensland. The shocking thing about them is they speak in terms of objective directions, speak of turning north, east, etc., not right or left. They orient themselves by those objective standards; standing in a house with no windows, they would still speak about north, south, and so on.

Onkelos seems to me to be suggesting that’s how Avraham spoke to Lot, implying either that was the way Onkelos thought, and therefore assumed Avraham did, or that was the way he thought they spoke, despite his already speaking more similarly to how we speak.

How we orient ourselves, I am saying, is less obvious or inherent than we might think.

Simplifying the Intent

I noticed two times in Lekh Lekha where ArtScroll explained a change of Onkelos’ as his “simplifying the intent” of the verse. It sounds reasonable until we remember he was translating the text, not summarizing or clarifying it. Let’s look at the examples and see what we can make of them.

Hashem promises Avraham will have an heir asher yetzei mi-me’ekha, who shall come forth from your insides. Onkelos writes bar de-tolid, a son you will bear (or father). A chapter later, 16;5, Sarah complains to Avraham about Hagar’s reaction to her pregnancy, saying natati shifhati be-heikekha, I gave my maid in your bosom, where Onkelos writes lakh, to you.

True, in both cases, he simplifies the intent, but it seems to me, at least here, he also sidesteps a somewhat intimate phrasing of the Torah’s. He omits Hashem’s reference to a child’s origins in Avraham’s insides and Sarah’s to a husband and wife lying together, speaking only of being a father and Hagar being Avraham’s wife.

Two examples do not a theory make, but we can keep our eyes out for other examples, to see whether discretion was part of Onkelos’ toolbox, a legitimate choice (in his world), for how to communicate the Torah’s ideas to Aramaic speakers.

Serving or Being Enslaved

As part of the Berit ben ha-betarim, the covenant where Avraham splits animals in half, Hashem tells him (15;13-4) his descendants will be strangers in a land not their own, va-avadum ve-inu otam, and then Hashem will take them out, and judge the nation where they resided, promising to judge the nation asher ya’avodu. In both cases, the most literal reading of the verb avod would be to serve, Avraham’s descendants would serve the other nation, and Hashem will judge the nation they serve.

The second part of the phrase in the first verse creates a problem, because ve-inu otam fairly clearly means “they will torture (or oppress) them,” with the subject being the other nation and the object the Jews. To read va-avadum as “they will serve them” forces us to switch subjects in the middle of the phrase, they (Avraham’s descendants) will serve them (the oppressing nation) and they (the oppressing nation) will torture them.”

Onkelos instead translates it as ve-yiflehun be-hon, they will enslave (or subjugate) them. This makes the next verse work less well, with Hashem promising to judge ha-goy asher ya’avodu; the form of the verb should mean the Jews did the serving—had the Torah meant the nation who made the Jews work, ya’avidu would have been easier. Yet Onkelos again writes de-yiflehun behon, who will enslave them.

Any reading of the verses has to grapple with the problem—to attribute va-avadum to the Jews means switching subjects mid-sentence, to apply asher ya’avodu to the other nation takes an unconventional form of a verb. The options are also fairly clear: read the verb the same way in both verses (either about the Jews or the oppressing nation), accepting one of the difficulties, or read it differently between the verses. Onkelos opted for the first option, reading the verb as being about the other nation in both cases.

I am interested in the comment for the technical interpretive choice Onkelos made (I think the very fact of recognizing the choices the text presents us, and the ways to possibly answer them, itself enhances our understanding of Hashem’s Torah), and also the result.

In Onkelos’ reading, the Berit ben ha-betarim makes the Jews more powerless than another reading would have had it. The prediction is all about the other nation, the Jews seeming to have little or no agency during the period. I don’t want to go too far; there may be ways they would have power or control over their lives. Onkelos’ reading of these verses, however, makes the story of the four hundred years more about the other nation and what it will do.

Yishmael’s Social Issues

In chapter sixteen, a pregnant Hagar flees Sarah’s mistreatment and meets an angel who tells her she will bear a son who will be a pere adam, yado bakol ve-yad kol bo, a wild man, his hand in everything, and the hands of everyone in him. Onkelos writes marod be-enasha, rebels against people, hu yehei tzarikh le-khola, he will need all, ve-af benei enasha yehon tzerikhin lei, all people will also need him.

It’s a remarkable image. Where the Torah could have been read as meaning Yishmael would simply be a thorn in people’s sides and they in his—his hand in all and theirs in him, a sort of neverending fight with a social misfit—Onkelos understands the angel to mean a step more. Yishmael will be marod be-enasha, will have a problem fitting in with the world, but will also need other people as they will need him. A recipe for continuing problems and challenges, a member of the family of humanity who does not fit in, creates tension and fights, and yet must be kept within the fold, because the world needs him/them.

[I won’t apply the image to the presumed descendants of Yishmael, nor to their possession of much of the world’s oil, currently a vital substance for human existence. Onkelos wrote his words long before oil was as vital as it is today.]

Orienting Ourselves

Although I picked them one by one, the comments of Onkelos we saw this time seem to me to build on questions of how we place ourselves. Avraham and Sarah bring people to realize the need to serve Hashem, calling out in Hashem’s Name means to pray, we can choose directions based on ourselves or the world, we can be agents of our future or, sometimes, have our future set by others, and we can be placed in circumstances where we have to deal with difficult others, unable to get away from them, because we need them and they need us.

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