Random Musing Before Shabbat-Chukat 5767
What A Difference A Vowel Makes
Our parasha, Chukat, is replete with interesting things on which to comment. We have (not in the order of the text) our sympathetic magic with the copper servant. We have the strange incident of the Israelites being refused passage through Edom, and simply turning away to follow another route (what makes it strange is the fact that the rest of the parasha and much that preceded and follows it show Israel not avoiding conflict, assured of victory by G"d’s presence and assurance. Is it because the Edomites were descendants of Esau?) We have the bizarre ritual of the red heifer. The striking of the rock at Meribah. Miriam’s death. Aharon’s death. Fodder for lots of debate and discourse.
Yet what caught my attention this year was a small orthographic notation by the Masoretes. Interestingly enough, it occurs in verse 32 – the lamed-vav verse of chapter 21. That coincidence enough gives me pause to consider it’s often overlooked importance. We have here one of those "written vs. said" words, vowelized one way but read another. The words is vav-yod-yod-resh-shin. It is vowelized as the verbal form "vayirash" which would mean inherited, but it is read as "vayoresh," meaning "dispossessed." Both are variations built on the same verbal root – yod-resh-shin. Like so many Hebrew roots, it has a multiplicity of related yet different meanings. From this simple root we get words meaning "take possession of," "inherit," and/or "dispossess." That simple fact in and of itself is worthy of discussion and inquiry. Is it a reflection of the biblical notion that we are but tenants on G"d’s land? That which we possess or inherit is also that from which we can easily be dispossessed, because it is not truly ours, but belongs to G"d.
The entire verse reads: (Numbers 21:32) "Then Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its dependencies and dispossessed the Amorites who were there."
Think of the difference, momentarily, if it were translated as "…and inherited the Amorites who were there."
It is perhaps easier, as an invading force, to simply kill off the people whose land you are taking, rather than dealing with all the logistics of providing for the native peoples of the land you just occupied. In ancient times, and often enough in the Torah, the Israelites often simply wiped out the native occupants. (Of course, is this really what happened, or simply a fanciful re-imagining? And if it is a re-imagining, why, exactly, would we want to re-imagine it in such an awful, horrible, murderous way? Oh, that’s right, we can put the blame on G"d. Perhaps the reality was that the Israelites didn’t do such a good job dealing with the needs of the native peoples of the lands they conquered and possessed, and it was simpler and easier for the redactors of the text to simply rewrite history so that the natives were wiped out, rather than relate the whole sorry story of the Israelite failures to deal with the native occupants of the lands they occupied.)
Is all this starting to sound a little too familiar. If we shift ahead three thousand years, might wee not find the Israelites in a similar quandary? In its almost 60 year history, medinat (the state of) Israel has been both dispossessor and inheritor. Being a dispossessor certainly hasn’t won Israel and points in the popularity arena. Sadly, being an inheritor, and having to deal with Palestinians and others now living with them in they land they have conquered, they don’t exactly have a stellar track record either. Oh, no doubt, Arabs, Palestinians and others living in Israel and under Israeli rule probably have rights, services, and possibilities that might not be available to them elsewhere. Still, there’s little denying that it’s no picnic for Israel’s Arabs, Muslims, and other minorities. Israel’s neighboring Arab and Muslim states haven’t exactly stepped up to help their Palestinians brothers and sisters either. There’s plenty of blame to go around.
I’m not here to be political, to Israel bash, or Arab bash, or anything of the sort. I’m simply suggesting that, as "Israelites," we ought to consider what we might learn from this particular orthographical oddity in the Torah, this fine line dividing taking possession, inheriting, and dispossessing. There’s something here, and it niggles at me. It could be as simple as understanding that we are all but tenants on G"d’s land, yet somehow I think there is more to it. When we go out and conquer a land (and perhaps even when land is given to us by an agreement of other nations) we ought to be mindful of whether or not we want to dispossess all those who live there, and mindful that, if allowed to remain, that we become inheritors of the responsibility of caring for the people whose land we have conquered. And I would remind our Muslim brothers and sisters of the same. When we seek to remake in our own image lands and people we have conquered or subjugated, we only sow the seeds of failure and perhaps our own overthrow or destruction.
This orthographic oddity appears in verse 32 of chapter 21. The lamed-vav verse. The verse of the lamed-vav-the leiv, the heart. If we but look in our hearts, then perhaps we can know what to do – what is right, what is wrong. Then perhaps we can learn how to truly love our neighbors as ourselves.
©2007 by Adrian A. Durlester
For other musings on this parasha, visit: www.durlester.com/musings.htm