Parashiyyot Hukkat-Balak: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gidon Rothstein

Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos: Parshat Hukkat

Putting Away Carefully

Parshat Hukkat opens with the ceremony for making Parah Adumah water. The Torah tells us after burning the red heifer, the man who collects the ashes will leave them outside the camp in a makom tahor, a ritually pure place. The verse, 19;9, says ve-hiniah, shall place.  ArtScroll notes Onkelos usually translates hiniah as ehat (as in Bereshit 39;16, where Potiphar’s wife holds on to Yosef’s clothing until her husband returns).

Here, Onkelos writes ve-yatzna, shall stow, I think to make clear the value of the ashes, the importance of taking care of them.

Crying Out and Prayer

As part of his request for passage through Edom, Moshe Rabbenu offers a version of the Exodus story. In 20;16, he says va-nitz’ak el Hashem va-yishma kolenu, we cried out to Gd and He heard our plea. Onkelos writes ve-tzaleina kodam Hashem ve-kabil tzelotana, we prayed before Gd and He accepted our prayer, a notably different spin.

ArtScroll says tza’ak often means prayer; Onkelos doesn’t always agree. Sometimes, he thinks tza’ak means tzavah, shouted, such as Esav’s reaction to finding out Ya’akov took the first-born’s blessing, Bereshit 27;34. Par’oh dislikes the Jews’ tzo’akim about their tasks, Shemot 5;8, for Onkelos again tzevahah.

More often, I think, he uses the verb kavel, to complain. Gd tells Kayin his brother’s blood tzo’akim elai min ha-adamah, Bereshit 4;10, cry out to me from the earth, and Onkelos writes kovalan kodamai, complain before me. In Bereshit 18;21, where Gd tells Avraham He plans to descend to Sodom to see if their crimes are ke-tza’akatah, as the cries emanating from the city suggest, Onkelos again uses kavel. For a third example, Shemot 22;22 warns about mistreating widows and orphans, because im yitz’ak elai¸ if they call out to Gd, Gd promises to listen and respond. Again, Onkelos has yekavel, complain.

Perhaps the most surprising example is that is how Onkelos translates the word when Gd describes the Jews’ cries. In their first encounter, Gd tells Moshe the time has come for the Exodus, Shemot 3;7, and says He has heard their tze’akah. That he translates it there as koval prevents us from claiming he distinguished their reaction to their suffering from tze’akot in Tanakh.

The first step to an explanation lies, I think, in two other times Moshe uses the verb and Onkelos renders it tzali, to pray, Shemot 8;8, where Moshe asks Gd to remove the frogs, and 17;4, the first time the Jews need water from a rock.

I wonder, therefore, whether Onkelos thought when the Torah used the vebr in the context of Moshe Rabbenu, it referred to prayer. Moshe prayed to Gd to remove the frogs, prayed to Gd to help him with the water. It changes the experience from an expression of frustration or desperation.

More, in telling the Exodus story to the king of Edom, he puts the Jewish people in a better light—they prayed to Gd rather than complained. In addition, his emphasizing the prayerful aspect of their calls makes a religious point—the Jewish people in Egypt were already learning the importance or necessity of turning to Gd in times of troubled, even if the verse suggests they weren’t quite aware of it at the time. For Onkelos, Moshe helps the king of Edom, and us, see it more productively.

Speaking Against Gd, Speaking Against Moshe

In chapter 21, verse 4, the Jews tire of their journey, for reasons the verse does not specify. They complain about Gd and Moshe, 21;5, with one verb, va-ydabber, describing how they acted towards both. Gd responds with snakes that bite and kill, and the people apologize for dibbarnu ba-Shem u-vakh, 21;7, against Gd and you, again grouping the two together.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected Onkelos to be bothered by the idea of speaking against Gd, because it does not give any physicality to the Creator. In both cases, though, he translates itra’amna kodam Hashem ve-imakh netzena, we complained before Gd and quarreled with you.

ArtScroll, based on Nesinah LaGer, Nefesh HaGer, and Beurei Onkelos thinks he was avoiding any kind of equation of Moshe and Gd, any implication the two played equal roles. Oddly, ArtScroll makes the note on the word he’elitunu in 21;5, where Rashi points out they were equating them. Except there, Onkelos writes asektuna, you brought us up, leaving the blasphemous linkage intact.

I suggest, therefore, he was trying to make us understand the different dynamics of complaint about Gd’s conduct and a human’s. When the Jews are upset about Gd, all they have is complaining before Gd, because Gd is in heaven (as it were) and we are on earth; with a living human being, they can push the quarrel, and did, according to Onkelos. What the verse leaves room to limit to complaint, murmurings, or slander, Onkelos thought erupted into full-fledged quarrel.

Plagues Sometimes Recede Rather Than Disappear

My eye lingered over 21;8 more than it might in other years, I think, because it has contemporary overtones. To stem the tide of snakebites, Gd tells Moshe to make a serpent, a vehicle of healing for anyone who looks at it (and remembers Gd and prays, but not our concern here). The verse says ha-nashukh, who was bitten, past tense.

Onkelos writes kol de-yitnekheit, whoever will be bitten. As ArtScroll says, the verse doesn’t say Gd removed the serpents, it says Gd instructed Moshe how to heal those bitten. He implies serpents continued to bite, except now there was a cure. Admittedly, ArtScroll knows of another version of Onkelos, where the word is de-itnekheit, who had been bitten. Were that more authentic, his translation would simply represent the text.

My teacher, R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik introduced me to a basic rule of textual criticism, lectio difficilior, the more difficult manuscript version is likely to be more correct. It makes sense to assume a copyist changed a text to a more immediately sensible version, knowingly or unthinkingly. It is less obvious how an original simple version got changed into something more challenging.

For our case, I am tantalized by the idea the Jews had to cope with these snakes going forward, just with the availability of a cure (the doctor would tell the one bitten, go look at the copper serpent and think of Gd twice a day for the next week, and then come see me again).

Imagine if, instead of a vaccine, doctors found a really good treatment, whatever it is, for hospitalized Covid-19 patients (as we hope and pray Hashem will allow them to do, soon). It would bring the fatality rate down, a positive, and shorten hospital stays. But thousands or millions of people would still fall ill, some with side effects that lasted for months or forever.

It would count as relief, even as the plague continued to be a force in everyone’s lives. That’s how ArtScroll’s version of Onkelos views the snakes of this parsha.

The Destruction Sihon Brought to Moav

After the Jews defeat Sihon, the Torah tells of his original glory, his defeat of Moav immortalized by the moshelim, literally the allegorizers but I bet they filled the function of todays poets/songwriters. In 21;28, they speak of a fire going out of Heshbon (the capital city) a flame from the city of Sihon. Onkelos writes arei kidum takif ke-esha, a powerful east wind that is like fire, and avdei kerava ke-shalhovita, warriors like a flame.

ArtScroll assumes the wind part of the phrase also refers to Sihon’s army, because the east wind brings a lot of heat, spreads havoc over a greater area than an ordinary fire (Lechem VeSimlah, Beurei Onkelos). ArtScroll also reminds us Rashi to Shemot 14;21 says Divine retribution often comes with the east wind.

Except Onkelos doesn’t say the east wind consisted of warriors. For the second part of the verse, Onkelos turns the metaphor into a clear simile, warriors like a flame; for the first half, he says only kidum, an east wind, as powerful as fire. No soldiers involved.

Probably ArtScroll is right; but it would be more interesting if Onkelos read the moshelim, the poet/songwriters, to be saying Sihon had had another force on his side as well. Whatever it was, it was fast-spreading and destructive, like an east wind, got there before the soldiers did (for example, I think historians today believe the Europeans brought diseases that devastated the populations of the New World, easing the conquest).

What if Sihon were helped by something like that as well? Did Sihon conquer Moav on his own, or did some other force help him? Maybe Onkelos wants us to be unsure.

We can cry out to Gd, we can speak against Gd (Gd forbid), and an aftermath of an incident last many years, with lesser but continuing consequences. All part of what Onkelos shows us in Parshat Hukkat.

Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos: Parshat Balak

Covering the Land or the Sun

When Balak sends messengers to Bil’am, he describes the Jewish people (whom he wants Bil’am to curse) as having covered ein ha-aretz. Sefaria seems to me to provide the simplest translation, hides the earth from view.” Or, as we would say it, they cover the face of the earth.

Rashi goes Midrashic, takes ein ha-aretz to refer to Sihon and Og, the kings the Jews had defeated at the end of the previous parsha. They qualify as ein ha-aretz because they protected the area from invaders. They were ein, the eye ofthe land in the sense of guarding it, watching it, protecting it.

Onkelos writes ein shimsha de-ar’a, the sun’s eye of the land. ArtScroll tells us Gur Aryeh read Onkelos to mean they prevent the sun’s rays from reaching the land, without explaining why Balak would think the point worth telling Bil’am.

I wonder whether Balak is trying to set up a casus belli, a justification for going to war (yep, I had to look it up, but I knew the phrase was out there, so points for that). Were he just to say, they defeated Sihon and Og, Bil’am might not be moved, might think Balak was overreacting.

Perhaps Bil’am only marketed his talents for those with good reason, and Balak was supplying it. By covering the sun’s rays, they’re hurting the earth (maybe), and that’s a reason they’re already Balak’s problem.

Giving Bil’am Rope

After Gd forbids Bil’am from going with the first set of Balak’s messengers, Bil’am tells them me’ein Hashem, Gd refused. Onkelos writes let ra’ava kodam Hashem, there is no desire before Gd. ArtScroll likens it to 14;8, where Kalev and Yehoshu’a said im hafetz banu Hashemim ra’ava bana kodam Hashem, if there is a desire toward us from before Gd.

As Artscroll notes, Onkelos translates me’ein elsewhere as sarev, such as 22;14, where the messengers report Balak’s refusal to join them. ArtScroll thinks Onkelos changed it to be more respectful towards Gd (Pas’shegen and Nefesh haGer) or to avoid it seeming like Gd “changed His mind,” when Gd later allows it (Nesinah Leger).

Another nonliteral translation opens the possibility Onkelos had something else in mind. In 22;18, Bil’am makes a point of lo ukhal la’avor et pi Hashem. I cannot transgress the word of Gd. Onkelos writes let li reshu, I don’t have permission. Cannot might have meant Gd made it impossible; no permission leaves room for transgressions.

In both cases, it seems to me, Onkelos portrays Gd as making wishes known without ironclad rules. The verse’s most literal version says Gd refused to let Bil’am go, where Onkelos portrays it as a matter of lack of desire by Gd (which I grant should be the same as prohibited, for those sensitive to serving Gd), and this second verse turns Bil’am’s declaration of being incapable of violating Gd’s word into one of  permission.

Perhaps Onkelos wants us to see Bil’am’s freewill and choice, despite Gd clearly being able to put a stop to it.

It’s About the Money

A long time ago, I noticed how many people would loudly declare, “and it’s not about the money,” a sign to me it was almost definitely about the money. I thought of it when Balak greets Bil’am, and wonders why it took so long for him to come, asking, 22;37, ha-umnam lo ukhal kabedekha, am I in fact not capable of honoring you?

Onkelos writes ha-ve-kushta haveita amar, did you in fact say, surprising because the text of the Torah has no previous moment where Bil’am made a point of the financial incentives needed to lure him. ArtScroll says Nefesh HaGer thinks Bil’am did say it to the first messengers, as did Rashi on verse 14. The first messengers tell Balak me’ein Bil’am halokh imanu, Bil’am refused to go with us, and Bil’am then sends messengers rabim ve-nikhbadim me-eleh, more and higher-ranking.

Those messengers bring up the issue of Balak’s ability to honor Bil’am, with no seeming spur, and Bil’am responds Balak could give me housefuls of gold and silver, and I cannot violate what Gd commands.

The conversation is irretrievably odd, because we don’t know what started it, unless we go with Onkelos and agree Bil’am had made clear his interest in money and honor. Perhaps the Torah did not report it because he found a way to say it without saying it, as he apparently did in terms of the rank of the messengers, investing the word imakhem, with you, with the message of “better ones needed.”

Bil’am explicitly makes his choice of whether to come an issue of what Gd says, while implicitly he expertly lets them know it’s about the money.

A Nation That Dwells Alone?

In Bil’am’s first forced blessing of the Jewish people, he speaks of am levadad yishkon, a phrase Sefaria and other English online translations take as a continuing present, a nation that dwells alone.

Onkelos writes ama bilhodeihon atidin de-yahsenun alma, will in the future inherit the earth alone. There’s two parts to this, one of which ArtScroll absorbs into its translation of the Biblical phrase. Yishkon theoretically is a future tense, and so ArtScroll writes will dwell. The piece Onkelos clearly adds is the sense of dwelling as a matter of inheriting the world. Onkelos seems to think the future redemption, or the World to Come, will have only Jews in it.

Whatever his vision of the future, he takes away the current meaning of it—all the speeches built on the idea of Jewish separation, setting ourselves up as a separate people, have other verses in the Torah that would agree. But not this one, for Onkelos—and Rashi, who writes ke-Targumo, the way to read the verse is as Onkelos did. We are not a nation that does dwell alone, we are a nation that will dwell alone, and alone more literally than we usually think, alone rather than separate or distinct.

Focus on Non-Gd Worship

In the next attempt to secure a curse, Bil’am instead is forced to say, 23;21, lo hibit aven be-Ya’akov ve-lo ra’ah amal be-Yisrael, He perceived no iniquity in Ya’akov, saw no perversion in Yisrael. Onkelos narrows the purview, let palehei giluin bi-dvet Ya’akov ve-af lo avdei le’ut shekar, there are no idol worshippers in the house of Ya’akov, nor even those who toil in falsehood and sin.

ArtScroll notices the change from the verse, where it seems a matter of Gd’s choosing not to see, to turn a blind eye to their sins, as it were. Onkelos takes it as Bil’am’s testimony it didn’t exist.

I was more interested in how Onkelos turned aven, generalized iniquity, into idolatry, and amal, perversion, into toil in falsehood (which I think must also be about idolatry, because it’s otherwise too vague to be meaningful). For Onkelos, I am suggesting, Bil’am was focused on whether they worshipped other powers.

It also makes sense in light of the end of the parsha, where tradition thought Bil’am was the one who had the idea to lure Jews into worshipping other powers, to bring Gd’s wrath upon them. Onkelos might be showing us Bil’am’s key insight was how crucial the avoidance of idolatry is to the Jewish people’s relationship with Gd.

Two parashiyyot, and we’re caught up with Israel!

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply