Friday, September 11, 2009

Parashat Nitzavim - the Mysterious Dotted Letters ...לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ, עַד...


Sefer Ba'al Ha-Turim notes that Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:28 has letters which are מְנֻקָּד menuqad (dotted), despite the general rule that a Torah scroll must be without vowel points, any punctuation marks, cantillation symbols, etc., a dot is inscribed above certian letters:

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת--לַיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ, עַד-עוֹלָם--לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.
The secrets belong to the Ad@nai our G@d, but that which is revealed are for us and also for our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.

The phrase "...lanu u-le-vaneynu ad..." (...for us and also for our children until [forever]...) exhibits a total of eleven dots, one over each letter of these three words with the exception of the last letter, Dalet (ד).

What does this teach us, and why is the last letter not dotted?
Some commentary in Midrash Numbers Rabbah 3, 13 states that these eleven letters are dotted because they are not the ones which should be dotted. One popular interpretation of why some particular letters are dotted in our Sifrei Torah says these dots mean effacement, ie. that the dots indicate there is either a scribal error which has been incorporated into the traditional text or that there is a disagreement about whether these letters or words belong in the text at all.

Avot de-Rabbi Natan 30b explans that these dots were written to call attention to extrapolations on the words, however, they may indicate that the words or letters were doubtful and were to be deleted, presumably when Eliyahu Ha-Navi comes to resolve all the scribal variations before the coming of the Moshiach..

Ezra the Scribe is quoted as saying that if Eliyahu asks, “why have you written these words?”, indicating that they are incorrect, Ezra will reply, shrugging, “well, at least I've placed dots over them”, but if Eliyahu says, “you have written them correctly” then Ezra will remove the dots!

So when Midrash Numbers Rabbah 3, 13 states that these letters are dotted instead of the actual ones which should be dotted, what letters or words were meant to be dotted in the first place? And why can't they be dotted themselves? Why do these words carry the dots instead?

Because the letters which should be dotted are לַיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵינוּ. And because the dots are meant to efface, cancel, or annul, you can not cross out the Name of G@D...

So ChaZaL teach this pasuq, verse, is telling us of our accepting responsibility for each others' public sins, and to agree to be punished for not preventing them or not supporting each other sufficiently to avoid committing those sins.

Rashi explains that the way these letters are dotted means this deal we made with The Holy One only came into effect after Am Yisra'el crossed over the nehar ha-yarden, the River Jordan, and made the vow at the mountains of Har Gerizim and Har Eival.

So why is this last letter not dotted?
The Ba'al Ha-Turim writes about why there is a lonely dot over the letter Ayin (ע) of the word עַד ad, but not the Dalet (ד). It is because from the time that Moshe Rabbeynu began to expound the Torah at Arvot Mo'av, the Plains of Mo'av, until we crossed the Yarden was a total of seventy - the numerology of Ayin is 70 - days. This also hints at the seventy years of galut (exile) we would experience in Babylon, the collective punishment that the whole Nation of Yisra'el had to suffer for the shortcomings of those who were unrepentantly guilty.

But wait a second. If the letters are effaced by the dots, then we're off the hook, right?
No, sorry. G@d wanted to emphasise how much we could help our fellow Jews, and how important that is. We must learn from the very human mistake made by Qayin, Cain, in Be-reshit/Genesis 4:9: we are our brother's (and sister's!) keeper. We're all Jews and we must take responsibility for each other. We must take up the slack when they can't continue, help them when they're falling away from G@d. Kol Yisra'el areyvim zeh ba-zeh, each one of Israel is responsible one for the other. Go Team Jew!

And by embodying this directive of kindness, we can raise our interactions with each other, according to the mitzvot of beyn adam la-chaveiro (between a person his/her friend), and hopefully provide a security network for our family which is all Israel.

Copyright © A. Barclay

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