Thursday, March 01, 2007

Beshalah (Rashi)

“Twelve Founts of Water and Seventy Palm Trees”

It is now official—the name of my new granddaughter is Tamar, as announced at her great-grandmother’s memorial service (sheloshim, itself held almost a month ago). Tamar refers both to the date-palm (sometimes also known as dekel) and to the fruit of that tree. It is thus a symbol, both of strength and steadfastness, and of sweetness and sustenance. Together with her sister Ma’ayan, born fourteen months earlier, whose name signifies a well or spring of water, the young Chipman family now has daughters whose names embrace the areas of food, drink, and shelter: the tall palm tree produces shade, and its fronds are often used for the shkakh (thatching) of the sukkah here in Israel. It seems particularly appropriate to this season, dates being among the characteristic fruits of Eretz Yisrael eaten on Tu Bishevat. The Talmud also has several discussions of dates and figs as fruits eaten in pressed form, including the possibility that, if these are eaten to satiety, one ought to recite Birkat Hamazon rather than the shorter blessing. Berakhot 37a records that Rabban Shimon b. Gamaliel would recite the full Birkat Hamazon after a “date cake” (kotevet temarim). In addition, there is a view in the Midrash that the Tree of Life planted in the Garden of Eden, alongside the fateful Tree of Knowledge, was a date palm.

Tamar is, of course, a woman’s name—and, one must add, one over which there is much ambivalence. There are two biblical women bearing this name, and both were involved in unfortunate incidents related to their sexuality. In the Torah, two of the husbands of Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, die one after another, and she was forced to pose as a harlot so as to get her father-in-law to impregnate her, that she might have children (see Genesis 38). The Tamar of 2 Samuel 13, daughter of King David and sister of Abshalom, is raped by her half-brother Amnon, prompting a revenge murder. But note the difference in the response of the two women: Tamar of the Torah exhibits courage, resourcefulness, and the ability to stand up for herself and to defend her unconventional actions; the other Tamar (a direct descendant of the former, eleven generations later) feels shamed and ruined by this attack and never really seems to recover, but lives out her life as an outcast or semi-pariah.

May my new-born granddaughter Tamar never have to know such things, but if she is ever unjustly shamed, may she know how to hold her head high, with courage, pride and forbearance.

One of the first things that occurred to me upon hearing this name was that, quite serendipitously, the parsha for the week following the announcement contains a verse which alludes to the names of both my granddaughters:

Exod 15:27: “And they came to Eilim, and there were twelve springs of water [‘einot, cognate to ma’ayan ] and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.”

Rashi: “Twelve springs.” Corresponding to the twelve tribes. “And seventy palms.” Corresponding to the seventy elders.

Thus, immediately following the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds, which completed their liberation from the threat of Egyptian pursuit, the people came to a place where they found both food and water in abundance. Interestingly, food and water are also major concerns of the sections that immediately follow this passage: the lengthy account of the manna, which provided the Israelites with their food needs for the next forty years (Exod 16); and the incident at Rephidim, where Moses struck a rock to produce water (17:1-7).

What is the point of this Rashi? As I see it, his starting-point is one which sees numbers as carrying symbolic significance. There is a tendency of many modern Jews to dismiss gematriot and numerology as mere games, pastimes, “play”—if not worse, in the sense of reading profound meaning into something which is arbitrary. But it is important to remember that number as such is a universal language, possibly the only “language” not dependent upon a specific culture or spoken language. Even if base ten, the basis for our system of number, is based on human anatomy, the interrelations of the numbers themselves are not dependent upon any particular base (as may be seen by observing our ubiquitous home computers, which do the most complex complications with great rapidity, using a machine language based on the binary system).

Certain numbers—such as 70 and 12—are of deep symbolic resonance. The number 12 is suggestive of wholeness: the twelve tribes, the twelve months of the lunar year, the twelve signs of the zodiac; etc. There is a mandala-like quality of wholeness suggested by the four sides of camp formation arranged by the four compass points, with three tribes on each side—three in turn being the smallest number of real multiplicity, or plurality.

BO: Postscript—“All the Congregation of Israel”

An interesting point worthy of reflection. Following the opening two verses, which deal with the sanctification of the New Moon, addressed to Moses and Aaron, Exodus 12—the passage about the Passover, which Rashi describes as the “should-have-been” beginning of the Torah—begins with the unusual phrase, “Speak to the entire congregation of Israel…” (דברו אל כל עדת ישראל לאמר). As far as I can see, this is one of only three places in the Torah in which the address to the community is couched in such a manner. Leviticus 19 (Kedoshim) uses almost identical language, Rashi commenting there that the Torah used language of “gathering together” because many basic laws of the Torah (גופי תורה) are found there. The third passage which speaks of Moses gathering together the entire edah to speak with them is in Vayakhel, at Exodus 35, first about Shabbat, and then about the building of the Sanctuary. My question is: what is it about these three passages that make the Torah use this type of language; and why doesn’t Rashi make note of this fact here as well as in Lev 19? A question to think about; maybe by Shabbat Kedoshim I’ll have an answer.


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