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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Parshat Vayishlach

פרשת וישלח

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל עֵשָׂו אָחִיו אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם

Parshat Va'yishlach:

And Yaakov sent malachim to Esav his brother, to the land of Seir, the plain of Edom.

The word malachim (the plural of malach) is a curious term. The first instance of the word malach is found in Genesis 16:7. Hagar is met by a malach Hashem. Malach is usually translated as 'angel.' The word can also be used to refer to a human who is an emissary or an agent such as we find in Kings I 19:2:

מלכים א פרק יט

(ב) וַתִּשְׁלַח אִיזֶבֶל מַלְאָךְ אֶל אֵלִיָּהוּ לֵאמֹר כֹּה יַעֲשׂוּן אֱלֹהִים וְכֹה יוֹסִפוּן כִּי כָעֵת מָחָר אָשִׂים אֶת נַפְשְׁךָ כְּנֶפֶשׁ אַחַד מֵהֶם:

And Jezebel sent an agent to Elijah saying: Thus will the gods do and thus they will do (even) more, for at this time tomorrow I will place your life as the life of one of them.

I am pretty sure that this latter passage is the first clear instance of the word malach not referring to an angel. I think it is safe to assume that Jezebel was not in command of God's angels!

Every other instance of the word malach in the Torah is clearly referring to an angel of God.

Nonetheless, Rashi here comments that Yaakov sent actual angels to Esav! Rashi's source is the midrash in B'reishit Rabbah where we find two opinions about this matter. One opinion states that Yaakov sent human agents and the other states that he sent actual angels!

Some questions to consider:

    1) From the context in the Torah, what indications do we have for each of these opinions?
    2) According to the opinion that Yaakov sent actual angels: Why would Yaakov have sent actual angels instead of human agents?

Another thing that has crossed my mind is what is the root meaning of the word malach? Upon consideration, the only other word I can see which is related is מלאכה m'lacha.

The word m'lacha is used first to describe the acts that God did to create the universe.  How do you see that word as being related to malach?

What This Blog's About

This blog aims to give the reader some food for thought about various aspects of each weekly Torah portion. While not averse to giving a comprehensive view of any given topic, I am more interested in pointing out some of the smaller things which the reader may have overlooked or, due to lack of familiarity with the Hebrew text, may be altogether unaware of.

The Talmud (TB B'rachot 8a) tells us that “One should always complete their (Torah) portions with the community (by learning) the text of the Torah twice and the Aramaic translation once.” The basic idea of this passage is clear: By the time the Torah portion is read in its entirety in shul on Shabbat, each person should have already read the Hebrew text twice and the Aramaic translation once. At the time this practice was instituted in Babylonia, Aramaic was the common language whereas not everyone was fluent in Hebrew. So reading the Aramaic translation would have been essential for the masses to comprehend the text. However, the emphasis was still on reading the original Hebrew text.

To what purpose was reading the Hebrew text if it wasn't understood by the reader? I can offer a couple of explanations. One is that reading the text of the Torah, indeed of Tanach, even without comprehension, is seen as an act of Talmud Torah, of learning Torah. Halacha states that simply reading the text of Tanach is an act of Talmud Torah whereas only by learning Mishnah or Gemara does one accomplish an act of Talmud Torah. This is indicated by the term used by the sages for Tanach: מקרא (mikra) which derives from the Hebrew root קרא (kara) meaning 'to read.'

I think there is at least one more reason, as well. I believe that the sages wanted to emphasize the importance of learning the text of the Tanach in the original Hebrew, particularly the Torah. Any translation, even in a cognate language such as Aramaic, is not more than a commentary. By reading a translation, the reader is ultimately a slave to the particular outlook of the translator.

In the last thirty or so years we have witnessed an explosion of English translations of classic Jewish texts; not just the primary texts, such as Tanach or Talmud, but many secondary and tertiary texts, as well, such as the classical commentaries on these seminal works. On the one hand, this publishing phenomenon has exposed countless numbers of people to works they might otherwise have never seen, much less read or learned. On the other hand, though, the translators in each case are the ones doing the learning for the reader. These translations generally do not provoke critical thought on the part of the reader—just the opposite is often true! The reader is to understand the translation as received wisdom, not to be questioned.

By making the individual read the Torah portion each week twice in Hebrew, the sages were thereby encouraging an intimate familiarity with the original text. By complementing that reading with the Aramaic translation, they were supplying a basic course in teaching one's self Hebrew.

(Ironically, perhaps, I learned Aramaic mainly by reading the Torah portion first in Hebrew, which I already understood, and then deriving the meaning of the Aramaic translation by reading it side by side with the Hebrew.)

I understand that not every reader here will take the time to read the parsha in Hebrew. However, I will be pointing out certain aspects of the Hebrew text in my comments and encourage the reader delve further.