LITERARY STUDY OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE
By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman
Leitwort, Part III
As I have noted in previous
lectures, in most cases the reader notes the theme of the unit without paying
attention to the special emphasis of the
mila mancha (guiding word, or leitwort).
A reader may also note an additional theme which becomes clear throughout the
length of the narrative without specifically relating to the
leitwort itself. However, sometimes tracing the
mila mancha can unearth one of the
hidden messages in the narrative, and in these cases a reader who does not
respond to the unique repetition of a special word is likely to miss one of the
veiled aims of the narrative.
A Dynamic Mila Mancha
Many times, the reader
can find the thread of an important process within the narrative by tracing the
leitwort. In such a case, part of the
power of the mila mancha is the very
metamorphosis which it undergoes as it appears at different stages.
In Buber's language:
It is as if there is continuous movement, as one passes through these mutually
related sounds. One who compares them throughout the text, in its entirety, can
the waves going back and forth between them.
In fact, sometimes the last appearance of the word in a narrative
retroactively clarifies the meaning of the word as it appears throughout the
length of the unit.
This may be the key to understanding the passage of the Amalek War (Shemot
17:8-16), as Cassuto points out in his commentary. Throughout the length of the
story, the hands (yadayim) referred to are those of Moshe, while in the
final (and seventh) appearance of the word, the reference is (perhaps) to the
hand of God: "And he said, The hand (yad) is upon God's throne; God's
war with Amalek is from generation to generation" (v. 16). Rashi writes (and R.
Avraham Ibn Ezra concurs):
The hand of the Holy One, Blessed be He, has been raised to take an oath by His
throne that the war and enmity with Amalek will continue forever.
Thus, the reader is invited to understand that although it is only when
Moshe's hands are raised skyward that the Israelites begin to win the battle, it
is in fact the "long arm" of God which allies itself with the Israelites in
their war with Amalek and allows them to be victorious.
relevant for larger units as well. The root pakad, to take account,
appears ten times throughout the saga of Yosef in Egypt, over the course of a
dozen chapters, in various forms: the simple conjugation (pakad), the
causative conjugation (hifkid,
appoint), and the nominal form (pakid,
agent). It accompanies Yosef from the moment his life in Egypt begins and until
his death there. Let us follow the uses of pakad in the narrative to see
how this may enlighten the reader.
The root is
first mentioned when Yosef is in the house of Potifar:
Yosef found favor in
his eyes, and he served him, and he appointed him (va-yafkidehu) over his
house, and he put in his hand everything he had. And it was, from the time he
appointed (hifkid) him in his house
and over everything he had, God blessed the Egyptian's house on Yosef's behalf;
God's blessing was in everything he had, in the house and in the field. (Bereishit
fact that Yosef attains a position of authority, (becoming a
pakid an agent, a delegate, a
he does not merit realizing his dreams in terms of dominion and rulership (to
the disappointment of Yosef and the reader).
afterward, he is cast into prison, and even there, Yosef receives a position of
authority: "The captain of the guard took account (va-yifkod) of Yosef
with them, and he served them, and they were some days in the guardhouse"
(40:4). Here, it is clear that the verse goes out of its way to use an unusual
form, using the simple conjugation alongside "with them" (va-yifkod imam)
instead of the more common causative conjugation alongside "over" (hifkid
aleihem). Is Yosef in charge of these ministers, or is he their servant, as
the end of the verse seems to indicate?
this problem, Rashbam explains: "He appointed him over all of the prisoners'
needs there." The Rashbam stresses that
Yosef is made responsible for "all of the prisoners' needs," not the prisoners
themselves. Other alternative readings have also been suggested (see, for
example, R. Avraham Ibn Ezra's comments). For our discussion, it is important to
note that is specifically the avoidance of the causative form here that draws
the reader's attention further. Moreover, it gives the impression that the verse
specifically integrates the verb in its usual form into the scene in which Yosef
interprets Pharaoh's dreams.
As we know,
even though Yosef properly interprets the ministers' dreams, this scene ends
with disillusionment (disappointing both Yosef and the reader); the chief butler
forgets the Hebrew slave who interpreted his dreams, and Yosef does not merit
realizing his dreams of dominion and rulership for another two years.
Unsurprisingly, in the next scene, when Yosef stands before Pharaoh, the verse
once again invokes this root, but for the first time it is Yosef himself who
does so not to refer to himself as the presumptive appointee, but rather to
the king's emissaries and aides:
Now, Pharaoh shall look
for an understanding and wise man and place him over the land of Egypt. Pharaoh
shall act and appoint agents (ve-yafked pekidim) over the land, and take
a fifth of the land of Egypt in the seven years of satiety. (41:33-34)
the root of pakad in this verse does not refer to the "understanding and
wise man," but rather to the agents who will be responsible for collecting the
grain. It is interesting that specifically in the place in which the root of
pakad does not refer to him, Yosef merits ultimately to begin to realize his
dreams, and he himself becomes the viceroy.
can feel subterranean rumblings in the narrative, and they, in some ways,
indicate the opposite of the revealed reading. In the two previous scenes, at
the level of the revealed plot, Yosef is appointed as a pakid, but this
does not help him, at least not in the immediate sense. It is specifically in
the scene in which Yosef mentions the title of
pakid (in the interpretation of
Pharaoh's dreams) that Yosef merits an authoritative position.
journey of the reader does not end here.
The root of pakad returns at the end of the saga - but with a
different meaning - in the last sentences that issue from Yosef's mouth:
And Yosef said to his
brothers, "I am dying, but God will certainly take account (pakod yifkod)
of you and bring you up from this land to the land about which He swore to
Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov." Yosef made the sons of Yisrael swear, saying,
"God will certainly take account of you, and you will bring up my bones from
In these two
sentences, Yosef returns twice to the language of pakad, here in the
sense of remembering and paying special attention to. Nevertheless, the common root
serves as another dramatic station in the process that the reader undergoes via
this root: here God is the one doing the action of pakad.
well-known, the narrative of Yosef and his brothers is one of the most prominent
biblical narratives that express the idea of dual causality. The plot progresses
based on human decisions, and in parallel, in light of the divine will and its
aim. It appears that the guiding root, pakad, in this narrative is
integrated in numerous forms in order to beg the question: Who is the ruler? Who is the agent? At first, Yosef thinks that he is the
one who is supposed to reach a position of supreme rulership. However, over the
course of the story, Yosef undergoes a process (as does the reader alongside
him), eventually realizing that it is incumbent upon him to clear a path for the
King who rules over the entire universe; He is the one who takes account and
makes regal appointments. It is specifically in the scene in which the root
pakad is applied to others and not to Yosef that he ascends to greatness.
Ultimately, Yosef himself must coin the famous motto of redemption, stressing
with his formulation that God is the Ruler who is destined to take account of
the Israelites and redeem them.
Unique or Unusual Writing
As we said
above, the central criterion for defining a particular literary expression as a
leitwort is the question of whether the word captures the attention of
the reader. If a word is special, unusual, or strange, it is reasonable to
assume that its recurrence becomes what Buber defines as a "very significant
let us take the term malakh in Bamidbar 22. This term is usually used to refer to
an angel. Surprisingly, the messengers that Balak sends to Bilam are described
by the Torah as malakhim: "And he sent
malakhim to Bilam son of Beor, to
Petor" (Bamidbar 22:5). This in itself is not that unusual, and there are
a number of additional narratives in which the term "malakh" means "the emissary of a
human." However, the Torah suddenly changes the terminology in the next scene;
Balak's emissaries are not referred to again with this nomenclature, but are
rather referred to as "Balak's officers." The reader is thus compelled to notice
the wordplay in this passage.
contribution of the term malakhim, at
the beginning of the narrative, is tied to its cohesion with the preceding
narratives. In the previous stories, the Israelites send
malakhim to the king of Edom and to
Sichon, king of the Amorites (ibid. 20:14, 21:21), so that Balak's sending
malakhim to Bilam gives the reader the
feeling of encountering yet another chapter in the saga of the relationships
between Israel and the kingdoms of the East Bank of the Jordan. However,
Scripture's essential aim in mentioning
malakhim in the beginning of the story is not to tie this story to the
stories that precede it, but rather to lay the groundwork for the story of Bilam
that follows. The word malakh is integrated many more times in the Bilam narrative. On Bilam's
journey to Balak, he once again encounters a
malakh, but this one is divine
and stands in the way, preventing him from proceeding. This
malakh is related to the
malakhim that Balak sends to Bilam,
and through the use of this connecting word, there is an ironic association
forged between Bilam's agreement to the request of Balak's
malakhim to curse Israel and the malakh who does not allow him to proceed on that path.
Bilam encounters two sets of malakhim
who are only their masters' emissaries will Bilam understand that it is
incumbent upon him to listen to the voice of God's
malakh and to reject the request of
Different Points of View
repeating the same word is done from different points of view in a narrative.
Tracking the use of that word in the mouths of other speakers may allude to
disputes between the speakers expressed through the ironic and sarcastic barbs
contained in their words. A good example is the use of the verb halakh, which is repeated in the
dialogue between Moshe and Aharon with Pharaoh:
said, "The God of the Hebrews has revealed Himself to us. Let us go three
days' journey into the desert, and
we will sacrifice to Lord our God, lest He strike us down with the pestilence or
with the sword." But the king of Egypt said, "Why, Moshe and Aharon, are you
taking the people away from what they do? Go to your burdens!"
That same day,
Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and foremen in charge of the
people: "You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks;
let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the
same number of bricks as before; do not reduce the quota. They are weak; this is why they are
crying out, 'Let us go and sacrifice to our God.'"
taskmasters and the officers went out and said to the people, "This is what
Pharaoh says: 'I will not give you any more straw. Go and get your own
straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.'"
And he said,
"Weak, you are weak this is why you say: 'Let us go and sacrifice to
God.' Now, go work; straw will not be given to you, but you must give the
quota of bricks." (Shemot
5:3-4, 6-8, 10-11, 17)
and Pharaoh use the root halakh, go,
and this verb becomes the mila mancha
of the narrative. Tracing the use of this word, the reader feels that Pharaoh is
represented as responding derisively to Moshe and Aharon's request to journey
into the desert and worship God. His response comes in the form of intensifying
the servile work that the Israelites perform in his service. His response to "Let
us go three days' journey" is "Go to your burdens... let them go
and gather their own straw;" in response to "Let us go and sacrifice"
(mentioned twice), Pharaoh declares, "Go and get your own straw... let them go and gather their
one may track the word (trivial on its own) of davar in chapter 1 of
Esther. The special use that the author of Esther makes of this word is
prominent specifically in light of the changing points of view. Davar
itself can, depending on context, mean word, matter, manner, or order (among
Scripture first uses davar (devar, the word of), it comes from the
king, taking the form of a royal edict, but already in its first appearance in
the chapter, the reader hears of the violation of the king's word. "But Queen
Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment (devar ha-melekh) by the
chamberlains; and the king was furious, and his anger burned in him" (Esther
distress, the king gathers all of his wise men, and here as well the narrator
repeats the phrase "devar
ha-melekh:" "Then the king said to the wise men, who knew the times for so
was the king's manner (devar ha-melekh) toward all that knew law and
representative of the wise men who responds to the king's disappointment is
Memukhan, and here the reader encounters a great surprise; he too uses the same
term, but with a twist. There is
another factor in the right of the king to issue commands: "For this deed of the
queen (devar ha-malka) will come abroad to all women, to make their
husbands contemptible in their eyes" (1:17). After
devar ha-melekh is mentioned
twice, the reader encounters devar
ha-malka; when the queen refuses to
obey the king's command, she is issuing her own command, as it were:
ha-malka. Initially, one might be tempted to explain
ha-malka differently, in the sense of "the events that happened with the
queen," and not as a command at all. However, Memukhan immediately repeats this
phrase, and the feeling that we are discussing a sort of command becomes
stronger: "Today will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the
deed of the queen speak to all of the king's princes and enough contempt and
fury!" (1:18). There is already an address for the
ha-malka (all of the king's princes);
naturally, the feeling is that Vashti, by her deeds, is issuing a royal command
to all wives to defy their husbands' requests.
closes his words with another use of the
leitwort, seeking to return to the king his honor as the commander in chief
of the kingdom, even if this is done delicately:
If it please
the king, let there go forth a royal commandment (devar malkhut) from
him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it
be not altered, that Vashti come no more before King Achashverosh, and that the
king give her royal estate (malkhut) to another that is better than she.
not go back to the phrase devar
ha-melekh, but alludes to it with the
malkhut (literally, word of kingship) which Achashverosh is meant to
issue. The "devar
ha-melekh" must be revitalized, and so
Achashverosh must issue a devar
malkhut which will restore his status
to him and to all men their status.
this mila mancha were to conclude with
this point, its essential aim would be rhetorical: to explain how Memukhan
manages to convince the king that indeed a great danger is crouching at his door
in the refusal of Vashti to come before him. However, the unique sarcasm of this
word is integrated once again in the concluding verse of the unit: "And the
matter (davar) pleased the king and the princes; and the king did
according to the word of (devar) Memukhan" (1:21). The king is indeed
convinced by Memukhan's words and takes his advice, but without anyone noticing,
there is a new legislative authority in the kingdom: "the king did according to
the word of Memukhan." The adviser becomes the commander and the lawmaker.
of the king and his authority that is alluded to in this chapter through the
leitwort is one of the broad topics in
Esther, and some in fact view in it the essential theme of the narrative.
As Henshke puts it:
subject of the Book of Esther is not the struggle between Haman and Mordekhai;
this struggle is only a test case, through which the book's author paints the
character of the kingdom of Achashverosh that is, a human kingdom. The king, as such, is the true
subject of the book, which only comes to mock, by way of sharp satire, the
hubris of human kingship.
the first encounter with the king, the reader discovers a hint to the author's
derision towards King Achashverosh, who may indeed occupy the throne, but is
himself controlled by others throughout the expanses of the kingdom.
In our next
lecture, we will continue to examine the many uses and forms of the mila
by Yoseif Bloch)