Va-Yehi: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parashat Va-Yehi has a wealth of places where Onkelos interprets the Torah less than literally, especially in Ya’akov’s words to each of his sons. I will offer two examples from there, but did not want to have all my examples come from there. After we see he  takes those as poetic, metaphorical, allegorical, or not literal for any reason, I chose to look elsewhere as well.

Wisdom Is Not Intuitive

Early in the parasha, Yosef brings his sons to receive a blessing from his aged father. He presents the boys to his father with the older son, Menashe, in place to receive the right-handed blessing Yosef assumes belongs to him as first born. The Torah, 48;14, tells us Ya’akov switched his hands, to put his right on Efrayim [Onkelos does not explain why a blessing with the stronger hand is better; we will have to leave it for another time].

The Torah describes Ya’akov’s action as sikel et yadav, translated “crossed his hands,” or, for ArtScroll, maneuvered them. Onkelos instead writes ahkeminun li-yedohi, endowed his hands with wisdom. ArtScroll correctly notes the Torah’s verb, sikel, does share a root with wisdom, sekhel, but that does not tell us why Onkelos chose to focus on that.

I wonder whether Onkelos was bothered by the redundancy. The previous verse said Yosef arranged the boys to be near the hands he wanted, this one tells us Ya’akov put his right on Efrayim and left on Menashe, we could figure out he switched them on our own. When the Torah still says sikel et yadav, I can imagine Onkelos thought it meant to add new information.

I think Onkelos understands the Torah to be informing us this was a deliberate choice, not an accidental one. Ya’akov could have switched his hands thinking Yosef had not had the foresight to present the boys in mirror image; sikel et yadav makes clear this was a fully aware decision.

Yosef’s failure to appreciate Ya’akov’s intent suggests a broader lesson about wisdom. While we all may have absorbed certain pieces of wisdom well enough to recognize them as they happen, I wonder whether Onkelos is teaching us wisdom often looks to others like someone is mixing up their hands.

The NonLiteral Can Be The Only Simple Meaning

Later in the conversation, 48;21, Ya’akov gives the city of Shekhem to Yosef, a city he says he conquered be-harbi u-ve-kashti. In Biblical Hebrew, those mean sword and bow. Onkelos instead wrote bitzloti u-ve-va’uti, with my prayer and my supplication. It’s obviously nonliteral.

More interesting, it is the interpretation assumed by Baba Batra 123a. We generally assume Onkelos lived in the time of the Mishnah (35-120 CE, according to Wikipedia); for him to already know it tells us this was an older tradition than just the Gemara. More, Onkelos’ using it here seems to me to tell us he thought this was the correct way to read the verse at the level of peshat, of simple meaning.

In the examples I have been gathering, the why of Onkelos’ divergence from literal can often be no more than speculation. In this instance, given its appearance in the Gemara, I think it’s more clear than usual Onkelos understood this to be the correct way to read the verse. It confirms to me an important point I have thought true all along: Onkelos did not think the ordinary meanings of words is always the correct simple reading of the text (it is usually, but not always). Onkelos seems to be telling us to take “sword and bow” as metaphors for the true weapons of the Jewish people, prayer and supplication, with no literal sword or bow relevant to what Ya’akov was telling Yosef.

Consolidation of Power or Separation of Powers

The United States and other democracies have benefitted greatly from separation of powers, spreading power among competing institutions, who can check the excesses in each other (when they do their job right). I personally believe the Torah’s system has that as well, with power divided among the king, Sanhedrin, kohanim (priests, in their role at the Mikdash), and nevi’im, prophets.

The Torah occasionally hints another option could have worked as well, in some ways better. Onkelos’ reading of Ya’akov’s words to Reuven give us one instance of the idea more concentrated power was the original option the Torah favored.

Ya’akov tells Reuven bekhori atah, yeter se’et ve-yeter az, exceeding in rank and exceeding in power. Onkelos has lakh hava hazei le-metav telata hulakin, bekhiruta, kehunta, umalkhuta, it was fitting for you to take three special portions, the first-born, the priesthood, and the kingship. But for the incident with Bilha, Onkelos thinks, Reuven was slated to hold all the central positions of leadership in the Jewish people.

The values in concentrated power are usually outweighed by the danger of flawed people holding those positions. Reuven showed he, too, was too flawed to hold all (or any) of them, but also seems to have shown almost no one can, because the backup plan already split the kingship off of the birthright.

[Onkelos also shows us history does not always go optimally. Perhaps that seems obvious, except I hear people often say the road they took was the road they had to take, and it all worked out for the best. History always works out somehow, but I think Onkelos is telling us Reuven’s misstep altered the planned course, presumably in a less good way. Similarly—I am straying from Onkelos now, Yosef doesn’t tell his brothers it all worked out for the best, he tells them Hashem redirected their nefarious act. There were other ways for it to go, better ways, that did not involve them selling their brother and deceiving their father.]

A Commitment to Truth as a Prerequisite of Leadership

Ya’akov begins his address to Yehuda by telling him, 49;8, ata yodukha akhekha, your brothers will acknowledge you, as ArtScroll has it, or will praise you, as online translations had it [hoda’ah properly means praise, thanks, and/or acknowledgement, worth considering another time].

Onkelos instead writes at odeita ve-lo be-heteta, you admitted and were not ashamed. ArtScroll suggests the word atah, you, was unneeded (yodukha has an implied ‘you’). Possibly, but it does not explain how Onkelos then took it to be a reference to Tamar.

I suggest Onkelos focused on the word yodukha as the way the brothers would relate to Yehuda. Whether it means acknowledge or praise, it’s not an obvious word choice for seeing someone as their leader. To me–although I like the idea on its own, always a danger sign for assuming Onkelos was saying what I wanted him to say– Onkelos saw the odd root hoda’ah, and heard an echo of what Yehuda had done. Yehuda’s admission, hoda’ah, Tamar was right, turned into the brothers’ yodukha, acknowledgement, praise, and submission to him as their king.

I like to think Onkelos is telling us a key moment for Yehuda’s rise to lead the Jewish people was his willingness to admit he was wrong, without excuse or qualification.

Fear of God Has Practical Ramifications

For our final example, I moved to the epilogue to Ya’akov’s death, where the brothers worry about Yosef’s reaction to them with Ya’akov out of the picture. After they plead with him, he reassures them, in 50;19 saying ha-tahat Elokim anokhi.

I suspect most of us read the phrase as a question, as did Rashi, am I in Gd’s place (Rashi has it as a matter of capability; considering Hashem worked your actions all out well, could I hurt you even if I wanted to? I think we could also read it as a more literal question, what right do I have to judge you, am I Gd)?

Onkelos writes instead, arei dahala da-Shem ana, for I am Gd-fearing. ArtScroll correctly tells us he reads it as a statement rather than a question, takes the word tahat to mean ‘under’ or ‘subservient to’ rather than ‘instead of’. To explain how fear of Gd forces Yosef to refrain from any revenge he might have contemplated, ArtScroll cites Nefesh HaGer, who says he means because of lo tikom ve-lo titor, the Torah’s prohibition against revenge or holding a grudge.

Nefesh HaGer is backed up by a Talmudic idea we have seen before, Avraham and his descendants observed the Torah. I wonder whether here a broader idea might be in play as well, that fear of Gd, awareness of Hashem’s power and providence, generally stops us from revenge. Revenge—different than reparations or a socially determined punishment for an action (part of keeping society running smoothly, in multiple ways)– is about an individual deciding s/he knows what another person deserves for a misdeed. One who fears Gd, who operates with an awareness of the Holy One, will not arrogate to him/herself what clearly belongs to the Creator.

We started with wisdom and ended with fear of Gd, although Mishle tells us the path should be reversed, the fear of Gd should come first. Nonetheless, Onkelos on Va-Yehi has taught us about wisdom, the nature of meaning, balance of power, leadership and truth, and the impact of fear of Gd.

A pretty good way to end the book of Bereshit. Normally, I’d pause to review themes or highlights of what we have seen. The push of the weekly Torah reading means we’ll have to wait for digesting until after next Simhat Torah. For now, on to Shemot!


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