Found through Alter’s Translation

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Last week, URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs offered a podcast focusing on Robert Alter’s newly published bible translation. In response, I argued that Jacobs praised what isn’t new in Robert Alter’s bible translation while missing what is. My previous post focused on verses — highlighted by Jacobs in the podcast — wherein Alter’s translation was nearly identical to much older versions. Here, I share just a few of the verses in the same chapter of Exodus which do strike me as different and noteworthy.

I Myself Toyed

Exodus 10:1
…כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ…
…for I have hardened his heart,… — “Old JPS” (1917) and “New JPS” (1985)
…for I Myself have hardened his heart,… — Alter 2004

Exodus 10:2
…אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם…
…what I have wrought upon Egypt… — Old JPS
…how I made a mockery of the Egyptians… — New JPS
…how I toyed with them… — Alter 2004

Alter’s “I Myself” reflects the Hebrew’s use of “ani” along with the first-person singular verb. And his choice of “toyed with” for “hit’alalti [הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי]” captures much earlier commentary on this expression in God’s speech:

I made a mockery. The Torah is speaking in human idiom, as if Hashem were a human being toying with another for revenge. — Ibn Ezra (via Sefaria.org)

Alter’s translation and commentary work together to form a powerful opening to this crucial chapter in the Exodus story:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh, for I Myself have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, so that I may set these signs of Mine in his midst, and so that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son how I toyed with Egypt, and My signs that I set upon them, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

for I Myself have hardened…This is the first time that God informs Moses before his audience with Pharaoh that He has hardened (one again, the literal sense is “made heavy”) the heart of the Egyptian monarch. This is a signal that the elaborate “toying” (verse 2) with Egypt is approaching endgame. Pharaoh is showing himself ever more fiercely recalcitrant, and the plagues are becoming more fearful as we draw near the last plague that will break Pharaoh’s will.
— Exodus 10:1-2 and commentary
Alter, The Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004), p.365

 

The Men

Exodus 10:11
…לֹא כֵן, לְכוּ-נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת-יְהוָה…
…Not so; go now ye that are men, and serve the LORD… — Old JPS
…No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD… — New JPS
…Not so. Go, pray, the men, and worship the LORD…. — Alter 2004

Alter’s commentary explains his choice and why it matters in the context:

the men. The word used here, gevarim, is a different one from ‘anashim, the one used by the courtiers in verse 7. It has a stronger connotation of maleness (‘anashim can also mean “people”), but “males” will not do as an English equivalent because the Hebrew term means adult males, definitely excluding the “little ones.”

I personally favor “menfolk,” as an expression that had, in my youth, the exact understanding of “gevarim” that Alter is trying to convey, while “ye that are men” has its own sort of “maleness” ring if read with the right intonation (with echoes, for better or worse, of the 1978 “Are we not men? We are Devo.”) And, for the record, Rashi tells us that “gevarim” means “adult males.” But it’s Alter’s translation that prompted me to notice this particular stage of the pseudo-negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh.

Hard, Stiff, and Tough

Exodus 10:20
…וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה…
…But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart… — Old JPS
…But the LORD stiffened Pharaoh’s heart… — New JPS
…And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart…. — Alter 2004

The Old JPS uses the same English word for both “hikhbadeti [הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי]” in 10:1 and “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” here, while the New JPS has “hardened” and “stiffened,” respectively.

When the verb “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” was used in Exodus 9:12, Alter added this comment:

And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart. For the first time, it is not Pharaoh, or his heart, that is the subject of the verb of obduracy but God. However, in the biblical perspective this may amount to the same thing because God is presumed to be the ultimate cause of human actions, and Pharaoh’s stubborn arrogance can still be understood as the efficient cause. It is striking that Pharaoh persists in his resistance even as his afflicted soothsayers, the experts up whom he has been depending, flee the scene.

This comment is just one example of how Alter’s careful attention to the text’s entwined literary and theological characteristics makes his translation both extremely useful and a delight to read.

Verb of Obduracy

The phrase “verb of obduracy” above is just one of the many reasons that I whole-heartedly agree with Rabbi Rick Jacobs when he says, “You hear in the comment that this is a literary genius at work….” (Here’s the podcast link again.)

I’ll return to my own obduracy, however, and repeat a few of points I wish Jacobs and others would acknowledge for the sake of clarity and sensible comparison:

  • The three-book set of Alter’s bible translation, just issued by W.W. Norton, includes his 2004 The Five Books of Moses without change. Many of us have been using this volume for 15 years. If someone is just seeing his work for the first time, that’s wonderful; but it doesn’t make it fresh in late 2018.
  • That means, through simple arithmetic, BTW, that Robert Alter (b. 1935) was not yet 70 when he published The Five Books of Moses. Yes, he is vigorously translating in his 80s, and the complete bible translation — the first by a single individual — is a truly remarkable accomplishment. That doesn’t alter (no pun) the fact that his Torah translation came out in 2004 — and the Book of Genesis before that.
  • Alter’s work is full of amazing insights and extraordinarily powerful and beautiful language. But his work is not the first new translation since the 1611 King James Version. Compare the two if you think that’s useful, but don’t neglect to mention that there were many other translations in the 400 years between KJV and Alter.
  • Please, please — especially if you’re the head of the Union for Reform Judaism — be sure to compare Alter’s work with more recent Jewish translations, including those published by the URJ! There is so much that is new and insightful in Alter’s work; don’t dilute that by ignoring spots where his translation is identical to other, older ones.

Exodus Chapter 10 concludes with Moses and Pharaoh declaring that they will never see one another again (10:28-29). Alter calls this the “final squaring-off between the adversaries.” Together with his opening comment on “the elaborate ‘toying’…with Egypt,” these are fitting and powerful bookends for the chapter. Alter’s commentary on this chapter is a work of art, on its own, even as it serves to illuminate the work of literature that is Exodus. His commentary and translation of the Exodus hasn’t changed in 15 years, but perhaps the re-release in the new set will recapture the attention of some readers and bring it to a new audience.

Psalms Near 30

The last post discussed various divisions of the Book of Psalms, for study and recitation, as well as arrangement by “juxtaposition.”

Book One
In his introduction to The Jerusalem Commentary on Psalms, Amos Hakham writes:

The question about the order of the psalms was attributed in the Talmud to a heretic….But the conclusion stands regarding the system behind the arrangement of the psalms and it shows us the right way to examine the relationships between them” (p.XXXIV; see also previous post)

Juxtaposed Expressions
Hakham notes that “many psalms were juxtaposed because they contain similar expressions,” offering an example of the shared expressions — עֹז or מָעוֹז of strength, refuge, or stronghold — in Psalms 27-31:

  • Psalm 27:1 — יְהוָה מָעוֹז-חַיַּי
    The Lord is the refuge of my life
  • Psalm 28:8 — יְהוָה עֹז-לָמוֹ; וּמָעוֹז
    The Lord is their strength and refuge…
  • 29:11 — יְהוָה–עֹז, לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן
    The Lord will give strength to His people
  • 30:8 — בִּרְצוֹנְךָ, הֶעֱמַדְתָּה לְהַרְרִי-עֹז
    O Lord, by Your favor You made my mountain stand strong
  • 31:3 — הֱיֵה לִי, לְצוּר-מָעוֹז
    Be for me a fortified rock
  • 31:5 — כִּי-אַתָּה, מָעוּזִּי
    …For You are my stronghold
    The Jerusalem Commentary, p.XXXIV

Moreover, Hakham says, “Three consecutive psalms may be connected to each other in a ring (a-b, b-c, c-a).” In that spirit….

Ring of Connection

A>>B
Psalm 28 opens with a plea and a worry:

אַל-תֶּחֱרַשׁ מִמֶּנִּי
פֶּן-תֶּחֱשֶׁה מִמֶּנִּי

  1. be not Thou deaf unto me; lest if Thou be silent unto me
  2. do not disregard me, for if You hold aloof from me
  3. be not deaf to me, lest You remain idle regarding me
    — respectively: JPS 1917, JPS 1985, Jerusalem Commentary

Then criticizes those who

  1. give no heed to the works of the LORD, nor to the operation of His hands do not
  2. consider the LORD’s deeds, the work of His hands
  3. do not pay heed to the deeds of the Lord and to the work of His hands
    — respectively: JPS 1917, JPS 1985, Jerusalem Commentary

Psalm 28:6 uses the expression “שְׁמַע קוֹל תַּחֲנוּנַי — Hear the voice of my supplications.” Then, as if in response to fears of God’s silence or idleness, Psalm 29 extols God’s voice [קוֹל] seven times: upon the waters, powerful; majestic; breaking cedars; hewing flames of fire; shaking the wilderness; causing hinds to tremble and stripping forests bare.

None of this is a direct answer to the psalmist’s personal plea, of course. In fact, it is powerfully reminiscent of God’s outsize response to Job. But Psalm 29 is the antithesis of silence, surely, as well as a proclamation of the work of God’s hands.

B>>C
As Psalm 29 concludes, the scene is “His Temple” (v.9) — with images of God on the throne, giving “strength to His people” and blessing them with peace (vv.10-11) — while Psalm 30 is associated with the bringing of First Fruits.

The term “כָּבוֹד [glory]” appears four times in Psalm 29: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory and strength” (v.1), “Ascribe to the Lord the glory of His name” (v.2), “The God of glory thunders” (v.3), and “…His Temple all say: Glory.” (v.9). Psalm 30 concludes with “כָּבוֹד [glory]” singing praise to God. In addition

C>>A
Images in Psalm 30 draw back toward Psalm 28: God as strength and help, crying out to God, and “those who go down into the pit” (30:4 and 28:1).

Moreover, Psalm 30:9 uses the expression “אֶתְחַנָּן — I made supplication,” while, as noted above, Psalm 28:6 uses the expression “שְׁמַע קוֹל תַּחֲנוּנַי — Hear the voice of my supplications.”

Thus, it seems to me, Psalms 28-30 form the kind of ring — A>>B>>C>>A — Hakham describes. I think perhaps the loop is also more complex, leading us to weave in other texts…. (more to come).


26 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).

NOTE:
Five Books:
1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150.
Weekly Recitation:
Sunday: 1-29; Monday: 30-50; Tuesday: 51-72; Wednesday: 73-89; Thursday: 90-106; Friday: 107-119; Saturday: 120-150.
Monthly Recitation:
…Day 4 of 30: 23-28; Day 5: 29-34….
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Locating Psalm 30

The Book of Psalms is divided in several different ways: into five books, into seven and thirty sets for recitation over the course of a week or a month, and by attribution and other identifiers for the purpose of study. Using these divisions, Psalm 30 has a number of locations.

Book One
Psalm 30 is in the first of the five books — counted as one, not five, of the 24 bible books. Thematically, notes Amos Hakham in The Jerusalem Commentary:

    • “psalms in the first book relate to the kingdom of the house of David at its height,”
    • those in second reflect “times of trouble and defeat,”
    • in the third, a period of humbling of the kingdom, and
    • in the fourth and fifth, exile and rebuilding.
      — p.XXXV-VI

This does not necessarily imply that Psalm 30 and others in the first book are of earlier composition. With the exception of Psalm 137 — which mentions Babylonian Exile — there are no references to extra-biblical events to help in dating; scholars disagree as to whether Psalm 137 itself should be assigned to the period in Babylon, post-Exile — with some choosing to assign it, prophetically, to King David. Generally, scholars date the Book of Psalms, overall, from somewhere between David’s reign in 10th Century BCE and post-Exile, with collection as late as 4th Century BCE.

Some contemporary scholars seek dates based on linguistic aspects, specific biblical connections, or theological ideas. Previous posts in this series have discussed attempts to assign Psalm 30 to the Hasmonean or Levitical periods, based on its superscription. Encounters with the psalm today, however, for individual and communal prayer, can incorporate ideas around Temple service, re-dedication at Chanukah, and other historical associations without dating the psalm to a specific period.


Chronology
The Rabbis discuss chronology in the Book of Psalms when asked why Psalm 3, “when David fled from before Absalom his son” (see 2 Sam 15), appears before Psalm 57, “when he fled from Saul in the cave” (see 1 Sam 22), an event which happened earlier in David’s life:

for us who do derive interpretations from juxtaposition there is no difficulty. For R. Johanan said: How do we know from the Torah that juxtaposition counts? Because it says, [The works of God’s hands] are established [סְמוּכִים] for ever and ever, they are done in truth and uprightness (Ps. 111:8).
— (B. Berakhot 10a)

“סְמוּכִים,” translated in Psalm 118 as “established” (JPS 1917) or “well-founded” (JPS 1985), can also mean “nearby,” as in “adjacent (in space)” or “around (in time).”

The passage from Berakhot continues:

Why is the chapter of Absalom (Ps. 3) juxtaposed to the chapter of Gog and Magog (Ps. 2)? So that if one should say to you, is it possible that a slave should rebel (“nations shout, people plan in vain”) against his master, you can reply to him: Is it possible that a son should rebel against his father? Yet this happened; and so this too.

Hakham calls this a “polemical answer,” adding: “But the conclusion stands regarding the system behind the arrangement of the psalms and it shows us the right way to examine the relationships between them” (p.XXXIV).

Stay tuned for some juxtapositions around Psalm 30 — as this series winds down.


25 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).

NOTE:
Five Books:
1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150.
Weekly Recitation:
Sunday: 1-29; Monday: 30-50; Tuesday: 51-72; Wednesday: 73-89; Thursday: 90-106; Friday: 107-119; Saturday: 120-150.
Monthly Recitation:
…Day 4 of 30: 23-28; Day 5: 29-34….
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Adulting through Chanukah, part 1

In “Hanukkah for Grown-Ups,” Marianne Novak describes differences between Purim — another holiday that is not commanded in the bible but delineated later by the Rabbinic tradition — and Hanukkah (I’ll uses JOFA’s spelling here for simplicity):

With Hanukkah, Antiochus enforced severe decrees but didn’t chose a specific doomsday for the Jewish people, as Haman does in Megillat Esther [the Purim story]. The Jews in the Persian Empire had no choice to but act. It was do or die. but with Hanukkah, it took the understanding of a small section of the Jewish community to see that the situation was indeed dire. They had to make the decision alone: There was no clear voice from God…It took adult initiative to comprehend why rebellion was the only viable option for the future of the Jewish people.
— “Shema Bekolah: Hear Her Voice series
from The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance

This reminds me of Psalm 30, verses 7-8, in which the psalmist describes terror when God’s face is hidden:

וַ֭אֲנִי אָמַ֣רְתִּי בְשַׁלְוִ֑י בַּל־אֶמּ֥וֹט לְעוֹלָֽם׃

When I was untroubled, I thought, “I shall never be shaken,”

יְֽהוָ֗ה בִּרְצוֹנְךָ֮ הֶעֱמַ֪דְתָּה לְֽהַרְרִ֫י עֹ֥ז הִסְתַּ֥רְתָּ פָנֶ֗יךָ הָיִ֥יתִי נִבְהָֽל׃

for You, O Lord, when You were pleased, made [me] firm as a mighty mountain. When You hid Your face, I was terrified.

The expression is sometimes employed to mean that God is not apparent to the individual due to their own or the community’s sin. In the Purim story and some other narratives, common readings see God’s hand throughout, however lost and frightened the actors within the story may be. In the Joseph story, as well, Jacob and his sons take many actions — including selling Joseph into slavery — without narrative direction from God. But eventually Joseph declares that it was all God’s doing: “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance” (Genesis 45:7).

In her piece on Hanukkah, Novak concludes:

…It was truly a miracle that a small group of Jews from within a Jewish community was able to rededicate Israel to Judaism. When we publicize the miracles of Hanukkah, we not only note God’s hand in the story but also remind ourselves that we can take responsibility for the survival of our people. By being conscientious and thoughtful Jewish adults, we also have faith that God will then come and help us.

This is a powerful, troubling conclusion. In the times of Antiochus and the Maccabean revolt, as at most other times in Jewish history, I suspect, there are a number of small groups seeking to rededicate Israel to Judaism. Yes, we must take responsibility for the survival of our people, but — without direct command from God — we must tread very carefully as none of us know WHICH of our many small groups has chosen the direction that will succeed or how any damage we do to one another on the way may not be repaired.

23 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).



NOTE: This new piece — which arrived through snail mail! — was not yet posted on their website, as of Dec. 7, although there are plenty of other fine teachings on this holiday and many other topics. I suspect this piece will be posted soon. And anyone interested can join their snail-mail list.
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The Pits and the Lights

There are several parallels between Psalm 30 and the Joseph story, including their pits.

Psalm 30 praises God for having “preserved me from going down into the Pit [bor, בֽוֹר]”:

יְֽהוָ֗ה הֶֽעֱלִ֣יתָ מִן־שְׁא֣וֹל נַפְשִׁ֑י חִ֝יִּיתַ֗נִי מיורדי־[מִיָּֽרְדִי־] בֽוֹר׃
O LORD, You brought me up from Sheol, preserved me from going down into the Pit.

In this week’s Torah portion (Mikeitz, Gen 41:1-44:17), Joseph is finally brought up from the dungeon [min-habor, מִן־הַבּ֑וֹר] (Gen 41:14), while Joseph is earlier thrown into a pit by his brothers (Gen 37: 23-24).

During the earlier incident, Judah says, “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” (Gen 37:26) — language that is similar to Ps 30:10: “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit?” And then Jacob, upon learning of his son’s apparent demise, says he will go down to Sheol in mourning (37:35), like the psalmist in verse 4.

In addition to these language echoes, Psalm 30 and the Joseph story share basic themes of extreme reversals from despair to joy, from strength to terror and back again. Many teachers have noticed the parallels, although no favorite dvrei torah on the subject come to mind. (Please share any that you find helpful.) Moreover, the context of Chanukah brings additional light-and-darkness focus to Psalm 30.

Does Psalm 30 sound different while we’re reading the Joseph story? During these festival days?

22 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).

Lament for Mismatched Glassware

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 16.1

At several points in the Megillah reading, the chant for the Book of Esther shifts to the Lamentations chant. The lament behind some verses seems clear: Mordecai’s introduction as a descendant of Babylonian exiles (2:6) and the decree telling all provinces to destroy the Jews (3:15), for example. It’s less obvious what is lamentable about three words — the whole verse does not change trope, just the three words — describing how banquet guests were served wine:

…וְכֵלִים מִכֵּלִים שׁוֹנִים…
“…the vessels being diverse one from another…” OR
“…beakers of varied design…”
— Esther 1:7

An explanation based on Esther Rabbah 2:11 brings us back to Babylon — although the spirit of Purim seems to cry out for a brief detour to consider the heartbreak of mismatched glassware. (See also note on publication schedule.)

Vessels at the Feast

The Megillah describes the decorations in the palace, the ornate couches, and “vessels of gold” used at the king’s seven-day feast. The text then adds: “Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women in the royal house which belonged to king Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:8).

There is no mention of the vessels’ origin, beyond the enigmatic “shonim” [“different” or “diverse”]. (Many other explanations have been offered, over the centuries, to explain how the vessels were “different” — a topic, perhaps, for another day.) But Esther Rabbah says the vessels are “different” from ordinary ones in that those used at this feast are the same ones that Nebuchadnezzar took from the Temple in Jerusalem. The passing along of the Temple vessels is also linked in midrash to Queen Vashti.

The Megillah includes nothing about Queen Vashti’s background, although midrash has much to say about her. In terms of lineage, she is described midrashically as Babylonian royalty. She is sometimes identified as Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter (B. Megillah 10b). In one account, she is married to Ahashverus, who was her father’s steward (Esther Rabbah 3:14). Alternatively, she was the daughter of Belshazzar, and Darius married her to his son, Ahashverus, after her father was killed (Esther Rabbah 3:5). The latter story also provides a direct link between Vashti and the vessels in her palace, on the one hand, and, on the other, Belshazzar and the vessels at the “writing on the wall” feast (Daniel 5).

Daniel 5 opens with Belshazzar calling for “the golden and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem.” It is clear, from the text (and midrash) that the party is meant to show contempt for Hebrews and all they hold sacred. The Megillah, in contrast, describes the feasting at the palace of Ahashverus in more neutral terms, while more negative connotations have been added by layers of midrash.

Offspring of Babylon

A strong thread in the negative midrash related to the Megillah stems from identification of Vashti as the “offspring” of Babylon:

וְקַמְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם, נְאֻם יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; וְהִכְרַתִּי לְבָבֶל שֵׁם וּשְׁאָר, וְנִין וָנֶכֶד–נְאֻם-יְהוָה.
And I will rise up against them, saith the LORD of hosts, and cut off from Babylon name and remnant, and offshoot and offspring, saith the LORD.
— Isaiah 14:22.

R. Jonathan prefaced his discourse on this section (Book of Esther) with the text, And I will rise against them… (Isa 14:22) [which he expounded as follows]: ‘Name’ means script; ‘remnant’ is language; ‘offshoot’ is kingdom, and ‘offspring’ is Vashti.
— B. Megillah 10b

R. Jonathan’s interpretation of the Isaiah verse can also be linked to the decree about households using the husband’s language (Esther 1:22 — midrash citation to come). Meanwhile, however, Vashti’s brief appearance and then exile have a powerful influence on the rest of the story. (See, for just one example, “The Role of Vashti in the Purim Story,” by Deena Rabinovich — PDF here.) At least one midrash suggests that the language decree, a response to suspicion about Vashti, set up opposition to Ahashverus, resulting, ultimately, in preservation of the Jews (again, citation to come). So perhaps Vashti, as offspring of Babylon, comes to tell us that the past is not so easy to eradicate, and that we are strengthened by preserving lessons — and cultural diversity — brought to us by the past.

Lamentable Banquet Service

This is based very loosely on the “Poetry Game,” created by Zahara Hecksher (9/12/64-2/24/18; her memory for a blessing), and offered in her honor and memory.

Vessels
Instructions:

  • Something in your poem occurs in an alley
  • Refer to a problem in a factory
  • Include the phrase “I remember ____” in your poem

Resulting poem: “Lament for Mismatched Glassware”

Goblets special ordered.
The king wants his display.
“It is time for us to host
A palace feast awash with wine
fine vessels for a toast.”

The queen cannot shake misgivings.
“I remember,” she explains,
“that writing on the wall.
A lavish party, I suspect,
may not end well at all.”

As the date grows near
workshop staff reports the order gone awry.
It appears that no two goblets match.
And not just one odd barrel,
batch after hodgepodge batch.

Palace staff is in the alley
unpacking mismatched wares.
Amid his duties the steward fears.
Royal wrath is a grave concern
as are faux-pas-related tears.

Royal banquet time is nigh.
Guests arriving at the gates.
Will history this night malign?
In trepidation the palace serves
with beakers of varied design.


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Note to subscribers and other followers of “Exploring Babylon” —
Apologies for the hiatus born of flu and weeks of scrambling to catch up with all that was left undone.
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The Treasure and the Favor

Exploring Babylon Chapter 15.2

Just as the stories of Exile and Return include people of quite different mindsets, Exodus peoples are not monolithic, Rabbi Gerry Serotta told me recently. He suggests that #ExploringBabylon could profitably consider some differences among Egyptians in the Exodus tale and look at related texts, in this portion and earlier, about Egyptians becoming “favorably disposed” toward the Israelites.

Difference

Rabbi Serotta points to three groups of Egyptians:

  • those who left with the Israelites — וְגַם-עֵרֶב רַב — “and also the erev-rav [often “mixed multitudes”; Alter uses “motley throng”]” (Ex 12:38);
  • those who did not join the Israelites but gave gold and silver and “raiment/cloaks” (Ex 12:35; see also “The Powers and the Wealth“); and
  • Pharaoh (and, perhaps, other unrepentant oppressors).

 
He adds that it’s good practice to look for the variety of people and perspectives in biblical narrative because “variety is God’s plan.” We see this in the story of Bavel (Genesis Chapter 11) and in many later teachings about the value of galut [exile] and dispersion.

God’s preference for variety is a hard concept to hold in the midst of a tale with the themes “You are MY people and I am YOUR God” and “Let My people go that they may serve ME.” But it can be found in the Exodus tale and in centuries of Jewish teaching centered around it. Seeking out and naming variety within biblical stories helps us avoid pigeonholing people and stereotyping groups in the text, in history, and in contemporary life. Exploring and amplifying difference-celebrating strands of Jewish teaching, from ancient times to the present, provides a foundation for inter-group understanding and cooperation.

…It is no accident that Rabbi Serotta, who has dedicated his career to interfaith, religious freedom, and peace and justice work, is drawn to teachings on diversity and galut [exile]. He offers additional ideas for #ExploringBabylon that will take some time to research; this week, we gratefully continue to pursue his suggestion to “follow the treasure,” so to speak, which appears in this week’s torah portion (Bo: Exodus 10:1-13:16), and its implications….

Boundaries

As discussed in the last episode, ancient commentaries on the gold and silver — mentioned in Ex 3:21-22, 11:2-3, and 12:35-36 (see below) — included the ideas of back wages/reparations and prior ownership of the wealth given to the fleeing Israelites. One important extension to the latter theme focuses on the prominence of women in this exchange to suggest that women used jewels and other portable wealth to bribe neighbors to overlook, or perhaps hide, their infant boys when Pharaoh decreed they be tossed into the river (exact citation temporarily AWOL, sorry).

Robert Alter notes, in his 2004 Five Books of Moses (see Source Materials), that “neighbor” and “sojourner” in 3:22 are feminine nouns, adding:

[The verse] reflects a frequent social phenomenon–also registered in the rabbinic literature of Late Antiquity–in which women constitute the porous boundary between adjacent ethnic communities: borrowers of the proverbial cup of sugar, sharers of gossip and women’s lore.

Alter goes on to insist, however, that exegesis which sees Egyptian women as lodgers in Israelite houses doesn’t match the plague narrative. (He then describes the overall tale as one of “Israelite triumphalism.” More on this below.)

Benno Jacob (1862-1945) also explores boundary crossing and long-term relationships which he sees as hidden in plain sight in Exodus:

The Israelites had settled as herdsmen, a necessary but disdained occupation in Egypt. The details of our story suggest that they were scattered throughout Egypt, which must have led to many personal friendships; only a systematically encouraged hate propaganda was able to change this.
Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible p.343


Protest and Change

Jacob extensively discusses the wealth exchange in Parashat Bo. He uses linguistic and narrative analysis to support his view that God wanted the Israelites and Egyptians to part on good terms and had repeatedly told Moses that was to be the end result. He argues that the Egyptians had already, before Pesach night, come around to seeking compassion and justice for the Israelites, and the farewell gifts are part of the evidence of a change in position:

The Egyptians’ gifts to the Israelites were a clear public protest against the policies of the royal tyrant. They demonstrated a renewal of public conscience…a moral change; the receptive heart of the Egyptian people was now contrasted to the hard heart of Pharaoh.
— Jacob, p.343

He goes further, insisting that this must be a mutual change of heart, from peoples on both sides of the conflict. Jacob links the opening phrase of Ex 11:2 to the similar expression Joseph used in requesting burial for his father (Gen 50:4) and suggests that this link means God was trying to trigger positive feelings:

[God] knew that some Egyptians recalled Joseph, others would have been impressed by the miracles they had witnessed or now had a high a regard for Moses, so they would seek a friendly farewell….

God’s command Moses [Ex 11:2] simultaneously threatened Pharaoh and searched for peace between the two peoples. These peaceful relations were God’s principal concern during Israel’s last hours in Egypt. This was the true meaning of the farewell gifts which the Israelites sought and the Egyptians willingly gave.
— Jacob, p. 344 (emphasis in original)

Rabbi Shai Held, of Mechon Hadar, includes a poignant addendum on this teaching in “Receiving Gifts (and Learning to Love?): The “Stripping” of the Egyptians.” Held quotes Jacob calling this episode “the most elevated and spiritual reconciliation among people; it was full of wisdom and love of fellow man” (p.339 in the above cited Jacob commentary). He then confesses skepticism as to whether Jacob’s story jives with the plain sense of the text but concludes:

One senses in Jacob’s words the insights of a brilliant exegete but also the pain of a rabbi and teacher in a Germany consumed by hate**….In a world suffused with bigotry and hostility, a world in which people of faith often marshal sacred texts to legitimate acts of cruelty and to extol hatred as a virtue, there is great power in reading Jacob’s words and being reminded: At the heart of the religious enterprise is the attempt to soften, and open, one’s heart, to God and to one-another. If even the Egyptians and the Israelites can be (successfully!) called to love one-another, then perhaps, even in the darkest of times, slim glimmers of hope are available to us.

**Held includes a footnote citing personal communication with R. Walter Jacob (Benno’s son) to confirm that his father was working on the Exodus commentary between 1934 and 1939, while still in Germany.

Two Final Comments

Just so we don’t lose sight of the triumphalist nature of the Exodus story in its basic literary form, here are a few more comments from just one scholar:

Denizens of simple farms and the relatively crude towns of Judea would have known about imperial Egypt’s fabulous luxuries, its exquisite jewelry, and the affluent among them would have enjoyed imported Egyptian linens and papyrus. It is easy to imagine how this tale of despoiling or stripping bare Egypt would have given pleasure to its early audiences.
— Alter, on Ex 3:22

Alter adds that the three “sister-wife stories” of Genesis — Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (12:1-10), Abraham and Sarah in Gerar (Gen 20:1-18), and Isaac and Rebecca in Gerar (26:1-16) — “adumbrate the Exodus narrative,” by portraying the couple as arriving with little and leaving with much. Despoiling, he argues, is “an essential part of the story of liberation from bondage in the early national traditions.”

And, finally, also from Benno Jacob:

The Israelites received gifts from their neighbors when they left the Babylonian Exile in a manner parallel to our narrative; these consisted of gold, silver, etc. Some were in response to the royal mandate and were intended for the rebuiling of the Temple while others were freely given (Ezek 1: 4,6)
— Jacob, p.341




TEXTS

And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. And it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty;
וְנָתַתִּי אֶת-חֵן הָעָם-הַזֶּה, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם; וְהָיָה כִּי תֵלֵכוּן, לֹא תֵלְכוּ רֵיקָם.
but every woman shall ask of her neighbour, and of her that sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment; and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.’
וְשָׁאֲלָה אִשָּׁה מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ, כְּלֵי-כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת; וְשַׂמְתֶּם, עַל-בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל-בְּנֹתֵיכֶם, וְנִצַּלְתֶּם, אֶת-מִצְרָיִם.
–Exodus 3:21-22

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.’
דַּבֶּר-נָא, בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ, וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ, כְּלֵי-כֶסֶף, וּכְלֵי זָהָב.
And the LORD gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people.
וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-חֵן הָעָם, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם; גַּם הָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, גָּדוֹל מְאֹד בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּעֵינֵי עַבְדֵי-פַרְעֹה, וּבְעֵינֵי הָעָם.
–Exodus 11:2-3

Exodus 12:35-36 was copied in “The Powers and the Wealth
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Benno Jacob

The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus, Interpreted by Benno Jacob. Walter Jacob and Yaakov Elman, trans. (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1992).

Benno Jacob was a rabbi and scholar born in Breslau and active in German Jewish life through the 1930s. He spent his last five years in England, where he completed his Exodus commentary in 1940 and continued to revise it until his death, at age 83, in 1945. See short biography (by his son, Walter Jacob) in the Exodus commentary.

We learn know this biography that Jacob was still in Germany when most synagogues were burned; he watched the German Jewish community to which he’d dedicated his life destroyed; he witnessed the deportation (and eventual return) of his son, R. Ernst Jacob, to Dachau; and he lost nearly everything in moving to England in his late seventies.

Jacobs also produced a commentary on Genesis, which is, as I understand it, not fully available to English readers. Nechama Leibowitz, in her New Studies series, often quotes Benno Jacob, based on unpublished manuscripts. Her chapter on the wealth exchange in Bo makes use of Jacob’s 1924 article, “Gott und Pharao.”
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