Va-Ethanan: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Va-Ethanan is always Shabbat Nahamu, when we begin to turn away from the experience of destruction on Tish’a B’Av and read of Gd’s first promises for redemption. [full disclosure: for most of my life, I have assumed we were on the path of athalta de-ge’ula, the beginnings of that redemption; the current et tzarah, time of distress, and magefah, plague, has shaken my confidence about how straight or short a path that is—we have either overestimated how close to the Messianic era we are, or have allowed ourselves to forget how hard the hevlei Mashiah, the birth-pangs of the Messiah, can be. May it be Gd’s Will this time of trouble is withdrawn soon, returning us to the crises we had thought were so important before. Or, better, may the sufferings of the current crisis bring us all to a realization of Gd’s Will, and a readiness to live up to it, that serves as all the hevlei Mashiah we need, bringing the Mashiah himself.]

I make a point the generally optimistic atmosphere of reading Parshat Va-Ethanan on Shabbat in shul because you will likely read this essay (and thank you for reading it!) during shavu’a she-hal bo, the week in which Tish’a B’Av occurs. It is therefore perhaps not solely serendipitous that the first of the comments that jumped out at me deals with the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the Temple we are most actively mourning.

[In the Daf Yomi I teach for the Young Israel of Scarsdale and the Webyeshiva, one of my attendees always reminds me to do product placement, to note I recently published The Making of the Messiah, 2048my second novel imagining what life might be like in yemot ha-Mashiah, the days of the Messiah.]

The Torah Refers to the Beit Ha-Mikdash

The parsha opens with Moshe’s plea to be allowed into Israel [as I have found myself pleading, for myself and others, in a way I have never needed to before]. Among the sites he longs to see are, 3;25, ha-har ha-tov ha-zeh ve-haLevanon, this goodly mountain and the Lebanon. Onkelos translates Levanon as u-veit Makdesha, the Temple. [The Torah refers to Levanon in two other places, and Onkelos translates it as levanon, telling us he does know the word. This one does not have a vav between the two nuns, perhaps helping signal to Onkelos it referred to a different place.]

The idea appears in the Gemara (Onkelos lived earlier, probably in the first century CE), yet it again has Onkelos inserting an idea I easily would have assumed was Midrashic into his “simple” translation.

Aside from the literal/Midrashic question, the reading changes the nature of Moshe Rabbenu’s request. To get into Israel would have allowed Moshe to extend his life a few years; assume he really was asking to see the people conquer and take their places in the land, it’s still only another fourteen years. The Mikdash was completed by Shlomo four hundred and eighty years after the Jews left Egypt, or 440 years down the road.

Perhaps had Moshe been allowed to lead the people into Israel, or join them as a private citizen, history would have progressed more quickly and productively, the Temple would have been built in a shorter time frame. If so, Moshe’s demise before the Jews crossed the Jordan was a more significant loss for all of us than we usually realize.

Loss of Moshe and a delayed Mikdash, it seems.

Doomed to Serve, Not to Worship

In the part of the parsha we read Tish’a B’Av morning, we are warned about Jews’ possible descent into idolatry and exile from the Land. Moshe (speaking for Gd in his own voice) warns we will be sent out quickly, scattered in other lands, where, 4;28, va-avadtem sham elohim ma’aseh yedei adam, a seeming threat to be sent to worship gods made by people.

Onkelos writes u-tefalehun taman le-amemaya palhei ta’avta, you will serve there nations who worship idols. Remarkable because the text gives no reason to insert it, except to avoid the implication Gd would doom the Jewish people to worshipping other gods, the piece I think Onkelos’ tradition of the Torah’s meaning found inconceivable.

Our sins might punish us by being put in a position where it’s very tempting to worship other gods, such as where our overlords do. (It is always tempting to fit in with those with power over us.) At all points, though, the choice of staying with Gd or going to the negative side will be ours. Divine decree or punishment will never force us to worship other powers, I think Onkelos was certain.

Gd Comes to Take the Jews Out of Egypt

Moshe recommends ways for the people to keep their proper focus on Gd’s service and/or find their way back in those scatterings of exile. Among them, the Torah writes, 4;34, o ha-nisah elohim lavo lakahat lo goy mi-kerev goy be-masot be-otot u-ve-moftim, Or has any god ventured to go and take for himself one nation from the midst of another by prodigious acts, by signs and portents (according to Sefaria). Onkelos thinks Elokim means Gd here, and writes o nisin di avad Hashem le-itgala’ah le-mifrak lei am mi-go am be-nisin, etc., or the miracles Gd performed to be revealed to take the one nation from another with miracles, signs and wonders.

The repeat of the word nisin is a clue to his struggle, if his inserting the words “that Gd did to reveal Himself” wasn’t enough. Yes, it’s probably because Onkelos did not want to allow the anthropomorphic idea of Gd travelling somewhere to take the Jews out. At the same time, he threw in another point: Gd’s being revealed is itself a miracle, making the divine and nonphysical accessible to human beings separate from the other miracles involved in pressuring the Egyptians to realize they needed to let the Jews go.

If so, Gd in fact did “come” to take the Jews out of Egypt, by revealing what usually was not revealed, and could only be communicated miraculously. Onkelos’ nonliteral interpretation here managed to capture a version of the literal truth.

Don’t Like Them, Don’t See Anything Attractive About Them

Moshe promises Gd will help vanquish the seven nations of Canaan, and then warns the Jews to remove them from Israel completely (exile was an option, so this not need be as bloody a process as it sounds, although that, too, offends Western values). The Torah specifically prohibits making a covenant with them, 7;2, and says lo tehanem, show them no mercy, give them no quarter.

Onkelos translates lo teraham alehon. My quick check shows Onkelos translated both rahamim, compassion or mercy, as raham in Aramaic, and also hen, favor (as in the end of Parshat Bereshit, where the Torah says Noah found hen, favor, in Gd’s eyes, and Onkelos has rahamin).

Aside from how it fuses the two Hebrew words, it seems to me to expand its meaning—rahamin for Onkelos includes hen of the Torah, a word that does not mean compassion or mercy, but favor. Onkelos seems to be telling us lo tehanem prohibits a broader range of emotions than just showing favor or giving quarter, it prohibits us from rahamin towards them, from feeling the underlying emotions that fuel good treatment of the other. It will be bad if Jews let them live there when they should not, but they will already have gone wrong in feeling rahamin towards them.

The Face of Gd, the Face of Evildoers

In the second to last verse, as part of a description of Gd, the Torah says Gd meshalem le-sone’av el panav le-ha’avido, repays to His enemy’s face by destruction. Onkelos instead writes u-meshalem le-san’ohi tavan di inun avdin kadmohi be-hayeihon, pays to those who hate Him the goods they did before Him in their lives. Later, the verse repeats lo ye’aher le-son’o, He will not be slow to hate him, and Onkelos again inserts the idea of lo me’aher tav, does not delay the good le-san’ohi, to those who hate Him, for the goods they did before Him in their lives.

It’s clearly nonliteral, to make the point Gd never destroys anyone before repaying all the goods they have done, with a twist. The verse speaks of el panav, to his face, and Onkelos takes it two ways, the goods evil people have done before Gd’s “Face” (the kadamohi of the verse), and the goods are given to the evildoers in their lifetimes, an idea he also is inferring from el panav, to his (the evildoer’s face).

It’s a two-faced word, letting Onkelos stress Gd never withholds earned reward, even from those doomed to perdition.

My Onkelos’ for Va-Ethanan put the parsha in the in-between state of us all, aware of hurban yet beginning to look forward to comfort, with some ideas reminding us of Gd’s strictness of justice, some reminding us of Gd’s bounty wherever deserved, and some of Gd’s bounty beyond the deserved.

About Gidon Rothstein

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