Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Parshat Nitzavim - Enlarged Letter Lamed in וַיַּשְׁלִכֵם


This week's Parashah, Nitzavim, runs from Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20. What I'd like to show you in Devarim 29:27 is the enlarged letter Lamed in the word וַיַּשְׁלִכֵם - va-yash'likheym, which means "and throw them out". This word has the same shoresh/root (שלכ) as tashlikh, what we do the afternoon First Day Rosh Ha-Shanah with our sins.

וַיִּתְּשֵׁם יְהוָה מֵעַל אַדְמָתָם, בְּאַף וּבְחֵמָה וּבְקֶצֶף גָּדוֹל; וַיַּשְׁלִכֵם אֶל-אֶרֶץ אַחֶרֶת, כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה.

and the G@D rooted them out of their land in anger, and in rage, and with great indignation, and cast them into another land, as it is until today.

Now, what is this verse talking about? Who is "them"?
"Them", unfortunately, is us. The Jewish People. The context of the pasuq/verse is this: just as we're preparing to enter the Land of Israel, the Eretz Ha-Qodesh, for the first time since Ya'aqov and our people left it so many generation previoulsy, G@d is foretelling of a future generation consisting of our descendants who rise up, along with foreigners from a distant land, and that they shall see the punishment directed against the Land (Israel), and the plague with which G@d has struck it...

A loose translation of the pasuqim/verses leading up to verse 27 read as follows:
29:23 "All the nations will ask, 'Why did G@d do this to the Land? What was the reason for this great display of anger?'"
29:24 "They shall answer, 'It is because they (the Jews) abandoned the covenant that G@d, L@rd of their ancestors, made with them when He brought them out of Egypt.'"
29:25 "and went and served other gods, and worshipped them, gods that they knew not, and that He had not allotted to them;"
29:26 "therefore the anger of the L@RD was kindled against this Land, to bring upon it all the curse that is written in this book;"

So we're being warned that even though we have finally merited national and individual redemption from G@D, and are about to come home, like being on the brink of our wedding night, that in the future our descendants will be exiled because they will turn away from The Holy One and give their focus away. How sad.

So...why the word Sh-L-Kh? And why the letter Lamed?
The pictographic shape of Lamed is that of a goad - that's an instrument with which we coax animals to go in the direction we want, rather than the direction that they want. Sort of a non-electric cattle prod. So here we see that Ha-Shem is goading us away from the direction we would choose to go and instead take the better path which G@d wants for us.

The shoresh/root of "Lamed" (למד) is talmud or limmud, to learn or teach. And this is a big teaching, as my Holy/wholly good friend Chayim Rothschild Lev once said to me about this. What is the teaching?

R' Chayim Dovid Ha-Levy, z"l, the former Chief Sefardi Rabbi of Tel Aviv, was a great scholar, posek & Kabbalist. He said that anytime we see an enlarged letter in our writings, that is a place where G@d takes over the direction. That Ha-Shem steps out of the status quo and is proactive about something, always with great kindness and benevolence.
Example: the enlarged letter Bet which begins the Torah. Be-reyshit bara Eloqim...

So how is cursing our Holy Land of Israel so that we're forced to flee into exile an act of kindness?
The rabbis in Talmud Bavli Masechet Sofrim argue that this word should be read as lakhem, to you (plural), implying that G@d will be a personal G@d to the individual exiled Jews even after we're vomited out of the Land. Why is this relevant? Because in the ancient religions of the Fertile Crescent the gods and idols were very much tied to the local area where they were worshipped, and were only believed to have power in their own neighbourhood, so to speak. But we wouldn't have to worry, because wherever G@d scattered us, the Holy presence of the Shekhinah would be there too.

So this image of The Holy One driving us out is a violent one, but remember that Lamed is a goad, not a whip, it doesn't just punish, it coaxes. We would be taught a very hard lesson by our exile from our home, the Land of Israel, but only because we had first exiled G@d from our hearts.

Talmud Bavli Yoma 29a refers to 22 saintly women in our history, each with a quality which represents a letter of the Hebrew alefbet. The letter Lamed is the symbol of Devorah (Haftarah Beshallach, Shofetim/Judges 4:4-5:31). Who was Devorah? She was named after Rivqah's wet nurse, who died at the same time as Rivqah (Be-reyshit/Genesis 35:8 Par'shat Va-yishlakh) and was buried in that area.

And what did Devorah do?
She judged us and decided questions of law for the whole nation - a posek, or poseket. She was considered to have been a vessel for the ru'ach nevu'ah/spirit of prophesy. She also goaded Baraq - who was commanded by G@d to go to war with Sisera. Ha-Shem guaranteed Baraq would be victorious and yet he, feeling unworthy of such a miracle, refused to go to war unless Devorah accompanied him.

Baraq felt that only her merit would guarantee his success. Devorah's response:
"I will go with you, but the path you have chosen to go will not be for your glory. Ha-Shem will deliver Sisera into the hand of woman." Silly Baraq. You always get second best when you deviate from what G@d asks you to do.

In Devorah's song, Shofetim/Judges 5:1 - 31, she sings of how when the people of Israel devote themselves to Ha-Shem, they travel safely, the land blossoms and there was no war made against us. But when we forget G@d, we experience calamity.

This enlarged Lamed prophesies the coming of Devorah ha-Neviyah. Just to remind us about being very careful of the path that we choose.

Copyright © A. Barclay

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