Parashat Lech Lecha 5762
Rabbi Fishel Todd
What is the teva of our father Abraham?
lech lecha (Gen. 12:1) (‘go’) ‘…that I spread the knowledge of your teva in the world’. (Rashi, ad loc, based on a Midrash, Tanchuma Lech Lecha 3.) What does this mean? The development of changes in Hebrew throughout the generations is too large a subject for this column, but the Sages said ‘the language of Torah is distinct, and the language of the Sages is distinct’ (Hulin 137b). Since Talmudic times many more changes have taken place in the language. Here we will limit ourselves to looking at the changes that have occurred in words derived from the root Tet, Bet, Ayin.
In the Tanach we find verbs derived from this root and it means sink, immerse, drown. The noun taba’at (‘ring’) also appears frequently and it would seem that it was called so because rings were made with symbols on them to impress (or sink) into a seal. In the language of the Sages words derived from this root are matbe’a (‘coin’), tiv’a (‘authority’ the thinking here may be that one who has authority can mint coins), and also tiv’ah (a particular coin) (Jastrow). The Gemara in Nidda (20b) uses the word tiv’a; the two major Talmudic dictionaries explain the word differently; Jastrow explains it as ‘a coin’, Melamed as ‘Nature’.
In 1705 the Chacham Tzvi wrote (Responsa No. 18) to the leaders of the congregation Sha’arei Shamayim (London) about the sermon delivered by their rabbi, R’ David Nieto, who said ‘Hashem Yitbarach and Nature, and Nature and Hashem Yitbarach are all One. I say that I said this and I confirm this and prove it, as David haMelech supports it in Psalm 147 “…He covers the heavens with clouds and prepares rain for the earth and causes the grass to sprout on the hills”; but you need to know (pay heed Jews, for it is the first principle of our faith) that the noun teva was coined relatively recently – some four or five hundred years ago, close to our own era, and is not to be found in the works of our early Sages’. After quoting this passage from R’ D. Nieto’s sermon, the Chacham Tzvi refers to him as ‘the exalted Sage, our Master and Rabbi, David Nieto’ and praised his opinions. These rabbis are saying that teva meaning ‘nature’ was coined in the Middle Ages, and teva in the Gemara in Nidda cannot mean nature.
The period when Rabbi David Nieto indicated that the word teva (‘Nature’) originated is that of the Ramban and indeed the Ramban uses the word teva in this meaning. He writes ‘No man has a share in the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu until he believes that all our matters and happenings are all miraculous and are not teva or the way of the world. Rabbi Yehuda ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew translation of Sefer Kuzari also provides examples of this new meaning of the word teva, ‘there is a cause for something which moves of itself, and comes to rest of itself, and that cause is teva’. Clearly in both of these cases teva means Nature.
In the Chumash with Rashi translated into English (Rosenbaum and Silberman, Jeruslaem 1973) ‘your teva’ is translated as ‘your character’. After discussing the various meanings of teva in the Talmudic period, Jastrow, out of character with the goal of his dictionary, adds ‘[In later Hebr.: nature, character, Nature.]’. We can see that Jastrow agrees with the opinion of R’ D. Nieto as reported by Chacham Tzvi. In accordance with the 18th century rabbis, and in accordance with Jastrow a 20th century scholar, a preferred translation of Rashi’s comment of ‘…that I spread the knowledge of your teva in the world’ would be ‘…that I spread the knowledge of your authoritative [opinions] in the world’.
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uvein ha’ai (Gen. 13:3) (‘And between the Ai’) The Mislol (a widely quoted Hebrew grammar book, first published in Hamburg, 1788, my edition Vilna, 1858 p.165) states:
A proper noun is a noun which is known and recognized as being that and no other; like the names of men and women such as Avraham … Sara … and the names of mountains … and rivers … and peoples and the like. A proper noun is distinct from other nouns by virtue of four features: 1. it cannot be used in the plural to say “Avrahamim” … because a proper noun only refers to a specific single item; 2. it does not accept the definite article Heh to say “haAvraham” …; 3. it does not accept pronominal suffixes to say “Avrahamcha” … 4. it does not accept the construct state (semichut) to say “Avraham Yerushalayim” where the intention is Avraham of Yerushalayim; for all of the above denote definition, and there is no need for definitive information for this noun as it is known to be specific.Although this rule applies throughout the Tanach, here there is an exception. Ai is a proper noun naming a city but nevertheless comes with the definite article. It seems to me that in spoken Hebrew the rule is not binding.
Rabbi Fishel Todd
The story is not one of a person who is born from the land but one of always already coming from somewhere else.”
Paraphrasing Boyarin, the key value of the Jewish people is in ongoing journey. Perhaps, we should take the advice and try to continue our journey, keep developing rather than staying at the same level of our education, worldview and spirituality. Or, perhaps, it can have a more literal meaning. Maybe we always need to have a fresh look at the world from outside. One of the advantages of constantly being on the way is that it allows the person to be outside all the time and see what local people usually ignore. What if Jews are being constantly commanded ‘Lech lecha’, ‘go forth’?
Rashi, however, understood ‘Lech lecha’ differently. ’Lech Lecha’, according to his interpretation, the phrase means ‘go for you, for your own benefit, for your own good’. Following Rashi’s understanding, we should always look inside ourselves and trust our feelings when we make decisions. In the famous Hasidic teaching “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?” Perhaps, the phrase ‘Lech lecha’ is a reminder for us to stop for a moment and to listen to ourselves and ask ‘What is good for me? What would be a good decision for me?’
The two meanings of ‘Lech Lecha’ are thus two human dimensions – our inner world which calls ‘Lech lecha’ (go for you) and the world around us, which calls ‘Lech Lecha’ ‘go forth’. Each of us is in the middle of the two worlds, a coincidence of two contradicting dimensions of the whole.
Another coincidence is that this Tuesday, 7th of the Jewish month Cheshvan, there was a brand-new Jewish festival, which is called ‘Diaspora Israel Day’. It was introduced to the Jewish world by the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism and it is beginning to be marked in some synagogues’ calendars.
The 7th of Cheshvan is chosen for the festival because in the Mishnah, Ta’anit 1:3 it is written that Israel-based Rabbis didn’t recite prayers for the rain for fifteen days after the Festival of Sukkot to let Diaspora Jews come back home safe and dry. This is an ancient example of the bond and care between Israel and the Diaspora. The Torah portion ‘Lech Lecha’ has a key role in the special Haggadah made for this ‘start-up’ Jewish festival. It begins with the following commentary on the first verse of the Torah portion ‘Lech Lecha’: ‘The Hebrew people did not begin its life in the Land of Israel, but outside. From this first journey down to the present day, the Jews have maintained their character as a wandering people, to and from the Land of Israel.’ The connection between Israel and Diaspora is deeply rooted in our tradition. There is even a traditional food for the day – marzipan. It is sweet, it has been made and used in different cultural settings and it symbolizes the rich diversity of Jewish life.