Ha’azinu: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Most of Ha’azinu is a song, a situation where Onkelos tends to stray from literal more than usual, I assume because poetry itself does not intend to be as literal as prose. Nonetheless, more than a few of his choices jumped out at me.

The Comparison to Rain and Dew

After calling heaven and earth to hear his words, Moshe Rabbenu, 32;2, hopes those words ya’arof ka-matar, tizal ka-tal, will come down like rain, descend or settle like dew. Onkelos has yevasam and yitkabbal, which I think mean will be pleasant and accepted. It fits the original metaphor, if we think rain and dew come down and find a place where they are accepted by the earth.

At the same time, I think most of us would have understood the analogy to rain and dew to mean Moshe is asking for his words to hit their mark, to be heard, where Onkelos thinks he is aiming higher, for those words to be accepted, to become part of how people view the world.

Staying Away From Worshipping Other Powers, the Nature of the Relationship with Gd

32;5 has a difficult phrase no matter what, yet Onkelos still gives us food for thought. Moshe says shihet lo, lo banav mumam, according to Sefaria, “their baseness has played him false,” where online English translations have variations of the Jews having acted corruptly, to their shame, or have become blemished.

Rashi and Rashbam (known as a literalist among commentators) think the verse means their hashhatah, their going the wrong way, is their blemish. They are closer to Onkelos, who significantly narrows the focus when he writes di pelahu la-ta’avata, that they worshipped other powers than Gd.

Part of the reason for the attention to the relationship with Gd becomes clearer at 32;17, where the song bemoans the Jews’ offering sacrifices la-shedim lo elo’a, elohim lo yeda’um, demons, no-gods, gods they have never known. At this plain-sense level, the complaint is about their worshipping powers with no real power.

Onkelos instead writes de-let behon tzerokh, for whom they have no need, dahalan de-lo yedaunun, sources of fear/awe they have not known (meaning, I think, with which they have no historical relationship). The idea of Gd as dahala, a source of fear/awe, comes up again in the next verse, 32;18, where a reference to Gd as tzur (usually, rock) is dahala takifa, mighty fear/awe; in contrast, in verses 31 and 32, he writes only takif, strong or mighty, for tzur.

In 32;21, hem kine’uni be-lo el, they incensed Me with no-gods, Onkelos brings up fear/awe again, writes be-lo dahala, with non-fear/awe-creating beings.

The crucial blemish of the Jewish people, for Onkelos, comes in their forgetting their relationship with a dahala, a true and ultimate Source of fear/awe, turning instead to powers without any power, who have no call on Jews’ fear or awe.

The Significance of Torah Study

The remedy, for Onkelos, seems to be Torah study. When 32;6 berates them as an am naval ve-lo hakham, dull, foolish, witless people—the qualities underlying their lack of gratitude to Gd, their ignoring all the wonders Gd did for them and turning elsewhere– Onkelos has de-kabilu oraita ve-la hakimu, you have received the Torah and did not become wiser. (In 32;21, goy naval is simply ama tafsha, a foolish nation, showing Onkelos made a choice in the earlier verse, when he inserted the Torah in the equation). The idea Torah was supposed to make us wiser comes up again in 32;10, where the verse says yevonenehu, according to Sefaria [Gd] has watched over him, other translations have cared for, watched over. One has “instructed,” closer to what Onkelos wrote.

Onkelos has alfinun pitgamei oraita, taught them the words of the Torah. Because for Onkelos, the Jewish people fall prey to the foolishness and ingratitude of worshipping powers other than Gd, an error they could have avoided had they only allowed Moshe Rabbenu’s words to penetrate, had they gained the wisdom the Torah strives hard to teach.

When It Will All Come Together

Onkelos’ read of the Song as about rejection of worship of other powers (preventable by Torah study) seems to me best expressed in his translation of 32;12, where the verse most simply says Gd alone guided the Jewish people, without any alien god. The word yanhenu seems to be a past tense, did lead them, where Onkelos throws in the word atid, in the future, and then adds—with no obvious indication in the text itself—be-alma de-hu atid le-ithadeta, in the world Gd will in the future make anew.

The phrase caught my eye because we insert it into the first Kaddish after burying someone, as well as when we celebrate the completion of a piece of Torah study, at a siyyum. Both good and distressing events remind us the world we live in will not always be the world as it is, we will one day see a world Gd creates anew, with Gd leading us alone.

For Onkelos, Moshe Rabbenu wasn’t just rehashing the past, saying Gd once upon a time took us out of Egypt all alone, as it were, he was making sure we knew there is a better world out there, a future where the entire world knows Gd’s role.

That element as well seemed to me worth remembering, we currently live in a world where Gd has many competitors, as it were. For an example we would all benefit from considering more often, many people—I worry this includes even Orthodox Jews—believe Nature (or Science) runs the world, and their reaction to physical events is solely shaped by looking for the natural or scientific way to deal with it. For them, too, Gd is not leading badad, Gd is being “forced” to lead them in partnership with the power they really believe in.

Onkelos to Ha’azinu repeatedly reminds us this is the essential message of the Song: Jews turn to other “powers,” when if they only studied enough Torah, and absorbed its lessons, they would come closer to the future world, where Gd will lead Alone, ve-ein imo el nekhar, no other foreign or strange power with Gd.

About Gidon Rothstein

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