Seven years ago I wrote about this interesting bit of orthography in Chukat. I had an entirely different topic in mind to write about for this year, but upon reflection, decided I wanted to revisit and revise the musing I wrote about this just seven years ago. That seems an appropriate interval.
Our parasha, Chukat, is replete with interesting things on which to comment. We have (not necessarily 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-bet verse לב of chapter 21. That coincidence enough gives me pause to consider its often overlooked importance. We have here one of those “written vs. spoken” words, scribed in the scroll one way but read another. The words is vav-yod-yod-resh-shin. In the raw Torah scroll text, one might easily read this word as “vayirash” which would mean inherited, but it is read and then vowelized as “vayoresh,” meaning “dispossessed.” (Even so, the vowelization itself is odd orthography, forcing the Masoretes to note it as such.) 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:
“Then Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its dependencies and dispossessed the Amorites who were there.” (Numbers 21:32)
In the unvowelized text of the Torah scroll, the scribe writes:
וישלח משה לרגל את־יעזר וילכדו בנתיה ויירש את־האמרי אשר־שם:
The Masoretes vowelize it as
וַיִּשְׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לְרַגֵּל אֶת־יַעְזֵר וַֽיִּלְכְּדוּ בְּנֹתֶיהָ וַיֹּירֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר־שָֽׁם
and then note that it should be read
וַיִּשְׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לְרַגֵּל אֶת־יַעְזֵר וַֽיִּלְכְּדוּ בְּנֹתֶיהָ [וַיּוֹרֶשׁ] אֶת־הָֽאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר־שָֽׁם
is just, by Hebrew orthographical standards a very weird spelling. As I mentioned, just looking at the raw text in the Torah scroll without any other clues, one might likely assume the word was “vayirash” or “inherited.”
Think of the difference, momentarily, if it were translated as “…and inherited the Amorites who were there.” Operating on the assumption that even the weirdest things found in the Torah have a purpose, I began to wonder what this all could mean. (Boy, there’ a great example of an English word with a problem similar to much of the biblical Hebrew. I’m speaking of “mean” of course. As in this example I sometimes use when tutoring students for bar/bat mitzvah:
“The survey data indicates that most mean people don’t say what they mean, which produces a very skewed mean.”
Unkind. Intend. Average. All from one word. And we think Hebrew roots have too much diversity of meaning (pun intended?) I actually think it’s wonderful that the same Hebrew root can mean (there we go again) inherit and dispossess – those, at least, have some connection. In a religion that for me, and I believe others, is largely about finding the balance between opposite forces or intentions, how great is it to have a single root mean effectively opposite things? Yay Hebrew! But I digress…
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.
Ouch, this is hitting close to home. It is starting to sound a little too familiar. If we shift ahead three thousand years, might we not find todays “Israelites” in a similar quandary? In its 64 year history, medinat (the state of) Israel has been both dispossessor and inheritor. Being a dispossessor certainly hasn’t won Israel any points in the popularity arena. Sadly, being an inheritor, and having to deal with Palestinians and others now living with them in the 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. The world speaks harshly of Israel and how it treats the Palestinians and others, internally and externally. However, this same world seems to largely ignore the centuries old yet still current impact of dhimmitude in Muslim countries, and the impact this has on non-Muslims living in Muslim countries.
I’m not the least bit enamored of the idea of the United States sending back in troops to help Iraq with its impending civil war. At the same time, the U.S. has a lot to learn from this orthographical oddity as well. We meddled in Iraq, and we still bear some responsibility as conquerors. For me, the lesson learned is that we should have never gotten involved with Iraq in the first place. Like the Israelites avoiding Edom, maybe we should have done the same. maybe it is not possible to be dispossessors with also having some responsibility/connection to the inheritors. They are intertwined – just like the variable meaning of the Hebrew root
to take possession of, to inherit, to be heir to someone, to be dispossessed, to become impoverished, to dispossess, to drive out.
That, surely, is a reminder that ultimately we are but stewards of G”d’s land. What we can inherit or possess can be taken away from us. We can be both inheritor and dispossessor. Even simultaneously. It is a reminder that these are two sides of the same coin, and we must treat such matters justly.
Yet it is on a more positive, uplifting note that I want to conclude this narrative. As I mentioned previously, this orthographic oddity appears in verse 32 לב of chapter 21. The lamed-bet verse. The verse of the lamed-bet, 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. We can know and understand our responsibility as inheritors and dispossessors. We can understand and sympathize with those from whom we inherit and from whom we dispossess. Then perhaps we can learn how to truly love our neighbors as ourselves.
©2015 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Chukat 5773 – Biblical “Jodies”
Chukat 5772 – Your G”d, Our G”d, and the Son of a Whore
Chukat 5767-What A Difference A Vowel Makes
Chukkat 5765-Not Seeing What’s Inside
Chukat 5764 – Man of Great Character
Chukat 5762-The Spirit of Miriam