Va-Yetze: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Gates of Heaven

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Ya’akov has his famous ladder dream. Among his reactions upon awaking, 28;17, he says ein zeh ki im Bet Elokim, literally, this is none other than the House of Gd. Onkelos opens a can of worms by instead translating let den atar hedyot, elahen atar de-ra’ava vei min kodam Hashem, this is not a common place but a place in which there is favor before Hashem.

ArtScroll quotes Meleches HaKodesh, by R. Elazar Fleckeles, known also for his Shu”t Teshuva Me-Ahavah. [I got to know him a bit in my studies of responsa, and he stands to me as a paragon of the faithful student. His teacher was R. Yehezkel Landau (famed for Tzela”h, Dagul Me-Revava, and Shu”t Noda Bi-Yehuda), got his first rabbinic position through his teacher, and after two years returned to Prague to serve on the rabbinical court of the city where his teacher was the rabbi.]

R. Fleckeles says Onkelos means the holiness of this place is permanent, is always there. The idea reminds me of Rambam’s claim the sanctity of Jerusalem never went away, despite the first sanctification of the Land of Israel receding with the Destruction of the first Bet HaMikdash.

It’s not exactly the same, because Rambam thinks that first sanctity was initiated by people. A rationalist could still think Rambam saw the sanctity as a matter of human experience, his famous words Shekhina einah betelah, the Divine Presence is never nullified, as about how we as people should see places connected to Hashem’s Presence.

Onkelos seems to me to be speaking more definitively metaphysically. Ya’akov arises from his dream and realizes the place itself has favor before Hashem, inherently. Sefer HaHinukh highlights the two perspectives in his discussion of the mitzvah to build a Bet HaMikdash. Troubled by the idea of a house for Gd, his long discussion offers two ideas, the rationalistic one we just noted, that people do better when they can connect the idea of Presence to one place, and a metaphysical one, Hashem created the world such that this specific place—the eventual Temple Mount– is in fact more connected to Hashem, inherently and always.

Where R. Fleckeles leaves open which of the two Onkelos held, I read Onkelos as clearly on the side of the latter.

Wresting a Baby From Gd

Frustrated by her infertility, Rahel complains to her husband, telling him to give her a child or she would die. Ya’akov’s harsh reply (30;2) hatahat Elokim anokhi, am I in Gd’s stead, incurred protests from later commentators, such as Ramban. ArtScroll sees her request as reasonable, to have a more righteous person pray on her behalf.

Onkelos’ translation offers a defense of Ya’akov. He renders the answer as ha-mini at be’aya hala min kadam Hashem tiv’in, are you asking from me? You should ask from Hashem! His version treats Ya’akov’s words as a response to Rahel’s saying hava li banim, give me children, as if Ya’akov could just do it. He is correcting her, telling her to remember only Hashem can solve her problem. Taken that way, Ya’akov might not have been addressing his willingness to pray for her, he might only have been pointing out her faulty mindset, regardless of who prayed (he might then have prayed for her, for all we know).

ArtScroll also cites Nesinah LeGer, who thinks Ya’akov was urging her to pray herself, directly. As proof she listened, ArtScroll notes verse 6, where Rahel reacts to the birth of Dan with the words “ve-gam shama be-koli” and Onkelos translates (as he often does) ve-af kabil tzeloti, Hashem accepted my prayers (as also in verse 22, where she becomes pregnant with Yosef).

ArtScroll does not explain why it would be important for her to pray herself, an idea in tension with the assumption it was fine to ask a more righteous person to pray. Given how often we have seen Onkelos stress prayer (reading it into many other words in the Torah), I wonder whether he thought it important to interact with Hashem oneself, not delegate it to others, however more righteous.

But that’s my own guess, not for now.

Raising the Child Counts

Spurred by Ya’akov, Rahel offers him her maidservant, Bilha, whose birthing a child will count for Rahel somehow. Onkelos provides a reason it should; Rahel says ve-teled al birkai, she will give birth on my knees, translated by Onkelos as va-ana arabe, I will raise it (or them). Rashi accepts the translation here and in Va-Yehi, where Onkelos says Yosef raised Efrayim’s grand-children, because 50;23 says they were born “on Yosef’s knees.”

For Onkelos, Rahel was asking Bilha to be her surrogate, after which the child would be hers. Rabbinic tradition (and Rashi) did not think it fully worked, because the bene ha-shefahot, the maidservants’ sons, were treated differently in several contexts. Rahel’s idea, however, as Onkelos presents it, was for her to do the work of child-raising, to adopt the child from birth, and therefore have it count towards her contribution to the Jewish people.

Omission Can Also Be Deception

Ya’akov secures his wives’ approval, then leaves Lavan’s house without saying good-bye, an act the Torah (31;20) characterizes as va-yignov Ya’akov et lev Lavan, Ya’akov deceived Lavan. Onkelos instead writes ve-khasi Ya’akov min liba de-Lavan, Ya’akov concealed from the heart of Lavan.

ArtScroll says Onkelos toned down the language to tell us Ya’akov was justified; I could read the comment the exact other way, see Onkelos as telling us Ya’akov did nothing active to deceive Lavan, only hid his plans, and yet it counted as “stealing Lavan’s heart.” To me, it better explains why Onkelos translates verse 26, where Lavan says va-tignov et libi, you “stole my heart,” the same way.

Surely Lavan does not mean to justify Ya’akov’s behavior, yet Onkelos still has it as ve-khaseta mini, you hid it from me. To me, Onkelos thinks Lavan called out Ya’akov for hiding what he had reason to expect he would be told—your son-in-law, resident in your house for twenty years, should by rights tell you if he’s leaving forever, Lavan  would say (not unreasonably, in most contexts; of course there were other circumstances here justifying Ya’akov’s behavior. I’m only saying hiding from Lavan qualified as deceptive, in Onkelos’ eyes).

We can violate trust passively or actively, and sometimes justifiably. But hiding a truth the other person would have expected to be told is also a violation of trust, a stealing of the heart.

National Gathering Places

At the end of the parsha, Lavan and Ya’akov part on good terms, after setting up a pile of stones to symbolize their agreement to act peacefully and for Ya’akov to treat Lavan’s daughters well. The next verse refers to hamitzpah asher amar yitzef Hashem, the place was referred to as Mitzpah because Lavan said Hashem should look out on us, when we are separated (to be sure we keep the agreement).

Onkelos translates ve-sakhuta, the Lookout. This may not quite qualify as a nonliteral translation, because Mitzpah does come from the root tzfh, for looking out over something. I note it here because Mitzpah becomes an important place in Biblical history; it’s where the nation gathered twice during the incident of the rape and murderer of a concubine (at the end of Shofetim), before they went to war and then after, when they swore not to intermarry with Binyamin. It’s where Shemuel judged the people, where the people gathered for war with Pelishtim, and where Shaul was chosen as king.

It later fades, other places usurping it as the national center (eventually, of course, Yerushalayim). I thought it interesting to notice, however, the place started as where Lavan calls for Hashem to look down and evaluate people’s actions. It gives a more conceptual reason for the Jews to choose it as where to gather as a nation; yes, it was a lookout and therefore likely both large and beautiful. More importantly, however, it was a place where Hashem’s involvement in history was invoked, a lasting part of the Jewish people’s national identity.

From the Gates of Heaven to the Lookout where Hashem watches over us, I found Onkelos seeing Hashem in the world more often than we might expect.

About Gidon Rothstein

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