VaYera: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Va-Yera has many notable incidents, including especially the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, but I personally find the incident at Sodom so interesting, I get caught up there, as my selections from Onkelos show.

A Metaphysical Onkelos

In the narrative about Sodom, after the angels leave Avraham’s house, the Torah pauses to tell us Hashem’s thought process, as it were, in deciding to tell Avraham of the cities’ impending destruction. In 18;18, one reason is the idea of ve-nivrekhu vo kol goyei ha-aretz, a phrase Rashi at the beginning of Lekh Lekha read as “shall bless themselves by you,” meaning they will say to each other “may you be like Avraham.”

Onkelos instead writes ve-yitbarekhun be-dilei, will be blessed because of him. Other sources have the idea as well, Hashem sending the blessings of the world by way of Avraham (and his descendants), from there spreading to encompass the whole world. Rashi calls his version peshat, the simplest meaning, yet Onkelos offered his.

At one level, Onkelos explains better why Hashem would include this fact as part of why Avraham had to hear about Sodom ahead of time. If Avraham is becoming the source of blessing of the world, he perhaps counts as a stakeholder in the world, deserves to know what will happen to it. For Rashi, it is less clear why the likelihood others will see Avraham as a model to aspire to follow connects to Hashem consulting with him before destroying Sodom.

It caught my eye for inclusion here because Onkelos takes the kind of metaphysical position I think we often assume pashtanim, seekers of simple readings of the text, would not adopt. For Onkelos, the Torah means Hashem promises Avraham he (and his descendants) will be the source of blessing in the world. It’s not a claim to bandy about on the world stage or use in political arguments, but it is a perspective we as Jews might want to remember, as part of 0ur internal experience when those around us confidently assert otherwise.

Prayer as Service

The parsha twice refers to Avraham as omed, standing, before Gd. The first comes when the men/angels leave Avraham and head for Sodom, the verse adding ve-Avraham odenu omed lifnei Hashem, Avraham was still standing before Hashem. After Sodom is destroyed, 19;27, Avraham wakes in the morning el ha-makom asher amad sham et penei Hashem, to the place where he had stood before Hashem (is how ArtScroll translates it; amad et penei Hashem seems to me to have more to it, but Onkelos gives us enough other material to consider).

In both places, Onkelos reads it nonliterally. In the first verse, he writes ad ke-an, until now, meshamesh bitzlo kodam Hashem, was serving in prayer before Hashem. In the second verse, he has the same idea in the past tense, di shamash taman bitzlo kodam Hashem, the place where he had served in prayer before Hashem.

ArtScroll reasonably attributes the change to the philosophical problem in the idea of standing before Gd. With Gd everywhere, there is no obvious meaning to a particular place as being before Gd (almost two thousand years later, R. Soloveitchik zt”l argued the Torah’s references to lifne Hashem, before Gd, mean in the Bet HaMikdash, the Temple, where the physical place has a special spiritual standing).

Onkelos could have assuaged the concern with the verb shimush, service, could have said meshamesh kodam Hashem, was serving before Gd. Instead, he each time adds bitzlo, in prayer. He has some support from Berakhot 26b, where the Gemara discusses two views as to the origins of prayer. R. Yose b. Hanina thought the Patriarchs did, and a baraita takes the same view, attributing shaharit, the morning prayer, to Avraham, based on our verse’s reference to amidah, standing, a verb Tehillim 130 uses as prayer.

[The parallel in the Gemara reminds us Onkelos did not write his translation on his own, did not approach the text without preconceptions, read the Hebrew words, and render them in Aramaic. Part of my point in noticing how often he strays from the literal is to remind us he reflected a tradition of understanding, a way to read the Torah tradition ratified as the most accurate one, the reason his translation was the one for Jews to study weekly.]

In addition to reading “standing before Gd” as prayer, Onkelos has called it service; where the Gemara showed us the verb for standing can mean prayer, Onkelos added mishtamesh, was serving. He reminds me of Rambam’s quote of Sifrei (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Obligation 5), telling us the Torah’s le-ovdo, to serve Hashem, included prayer as a specifically commanded form of such service.

In one phrase, Onkelos avoided the idea of a physical presence of Gd, read “stand” as prayer, and reminded us prayer is a form of service of Hashem.

A Limited Reprieve

Praying for Sodom presented quite the challenge, however, and Avraham ultimately failed to save them (we might wonder what value Hashem saw in entering a conversation with Avraham as if Sodom might yet be saved; Onkelos does not help us with the question, so we will move on). As he worked to carve out room for their salvation, Avraham asked whether fifty righteous people would be enough, then forty-five, forty, and on, down to ten.

For both forty and thirty, 18;29 and 30, Hashem says lo e’eseh, I will not act, because of the righteous people. (In the other cases, Hashem says lo ashhit, I will not destroy, and Onkelos translates ahabel, destroy, the simple translation. We will have to leave the meaning of why it changes for another time.)

Onkelos translates lo e’ebed gemira, I will not wipe them out, where e’eseh seems to refer to any action. ArtScroll quotes Nesinah Le-Ger, who read Onkelos as anticipating Rashi in thinking each successful plea convinced Hashem to save one city—fifty righteous would save all five cities, forty would save four, and so on. At these first two points of saving only some cities, Hashem says I will not wipe them out for those righteous people.

It seems to me his knowledge of Rashi might have affected his reading of Onkelos. Taken on its own, Onkelos seems to me to be saying Hashem was telling Avraham there would have to be some reaction were there only forty righteous, but not complete destruction.

Onkelos and Rashi suggest Avraham wasn’t winning Hashem’s promise to forego the sins of Sodom as he went down the ladder of numbers of righteous people, he was finding ever more limited avoidances of complete destruction, still better than what ended up happening.

Joining Matters

With the dawn of the morning of Sodom’s destruction, 19;15, the angels pressure Lot to leave, because they need to do their job. They tell him to take his wife and shete venotekha ha-nimtza’ot, literally your two daughters who are present—as Rashi puts it, the daughters who still live with you. Onkelos writes de-ishtakhah mehemnan imakh, who have been found faithful with you. ArtScroll offers two readings, Marpei Lashon says they had some merits of their own, a reasonable reading of mehemnan, faithful, although imakh, with you, does not quite fit.

Nesinah LaGer says they believed him, did not laugh at him as the sons in law had (I think he implies these were the wives of those sons-in-law, had separated from their husbands to join their father). I find this reading both more convincing and a reminder of an important oft forgotten point: when people make true claims about Hashem and how Hashem is running the world, claims others ignore, reject, or even ridicule, the simple fact of joining the person, declaring one’s belief in the truth of his/her claims, itself counts as a merit, itself puts us on the better side of life.

Wandering in a Lost World

The last phrase I am going to focus on here comes after the destruction of Sodom, when famine again pushes Avraham out of the land, to Pelishtim. The story goes instructively different here, and Avimelekh complains to Avraham about being misled. As part of his defense of his choices, 20;13, Avraham says ka-asher hit’u oti Elokim mi-beit avi, read by Rashi in the simple sense of “when Hashem caused me to wander from my father’s house.”

As ArtScroll points out, reading it this way forces Rashi to fudge the verb hit’u, a plural form, where Hashem is One (I could imagine arguing Avraham used the plural with Avimelekh, an idolater, because the term for Gd was Elokim, a seemingly plural word in Hebrew. But our concern is Onkelos). Who writes kad te’o ammemaya batar ovadei yedeihon, yati kariv Hashem le-dahaltei, when the nations strayed after the work of their hands, Hashem brought me close to the fear of Him.

The reading assumes a sort of ellipsis after ka’asher hit’u, when they (the nations of the world, implied) strayed (we are supposed to know he means after powers other than Hashem), Gd took me (the verb implied, and understood to mean “brought me close to Hashem’s service).

Not a simple reading, it was in Onkelos’ view the best sense of the text.

Leaving us with a sample of Parshat Va-Yera where Onkelos pushes us to recognize a broader world of faith than we might have seen on our own. The world receives its blessings through Avraham, Avraham stands in prayerful service to Hashem, the cities of Sodom were never going to be completely spared, because sin requires punishment, and Lot’s daughters earned their salvation by ratifying their father’s view when all around mocked it. Ending with Avraham’s awareness of how he differed from the people of his time, having been brought close to Hashem’s worship.

Onkelos was no simple literalist, and if we pay attention, we can be religiously enriched by his additions, especially these from Parshat Va-Yera.

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