Getting Down to Basics


Dr. Avigdor Bonchek demonstrates that “p’shat” is anything but simple!

No area of Torah study is more familiar to us than Parshat HaShavuah, the weekly review of the Torah reading.  From Bereishit through Devarim, we regularly reacquaint ourselves with the characters, events and teachings of Biblical narrative and law.  The advanced student is able to gain additional understanding by delving into the commentaries of Rashi, Ramban, Ohr Hachayim, Malbim and numerous others.  In today’s harried world of the quick fix, many have been assisted by anthologies of easily digested ready-made Divrei Torah for every occasion.  From ArtScroll to Internet, today’s Jew has at his fingertips instant insights, what could be called “Torah without tears.”

This familiarity, however, often breeds complacency.  The beauty of the Torah word, the artful nuance of its textual variation, the powerful insights buried in its subtle word plays, all these and more are lost to the complacent student who has read the Torah dozens of times and must rush to some new vort [pithy idea], to refresh its tired words.  While we faithfully ascribe to the Torah’s Divine origin, we rarely feel the need to weigh its every word or sense its intellectual challenge.

This failing is, I think, because of some basic misconceptions which we hold.  The accepted notion is that Talmudic study sharpens one’s mind, while Chumash study warms one’s heart.  Such a division of labor is unfairly discriminatory to both the Written and the Oral Law.  As the study of aggadita can teach much in the way of musar, likewise the disciplined study of Chumash can offer much in the way of intellectual challenge.

I would like to show the reader that p’shat [direct, unadorned meaning of the words] — what I like to call “in-depth p’shat“– provides more than a superficial understanding of the Torah, that true comprehension of the text is nothing if not stimulating scholarship and that learning the way of the classic Torah commentators is both spiritually and intellectually rewarding.

The centrality of p’shat to the classical commentators has been forcefully and unequivocally stated by a student-friend of Rashi, Reb Yosef Kara.  He gives his view in an aside in his commentary to Samuel.

Anyone who doesn’t know the pshuto shel Mikra (the “plain sense” of the Scriptures) and, instead, inclines toward the midrash for explanation is likened to one who is swept away by the torrent and grabs anything he can to save himself.  But had he paid attention to the Word of God he would have searched after the explanation of the matter and its “plain sense” and found it.  As it says “If you look for it as for silver, and as for hidden treasure you search for it, then you will understand the fear of God and the knowledge of God you will discover.”  (Proverbs 2:4).

His words may strike some as a radical call for the abandonment of midrash.  What he says, in fact, is that midrash and p’shat are two different mediums of interpretation.  And that true p’shat can be understood by studying the words of the Torah, without reference to midrash.  All difficulties in the text can be solved by the text itself, i.e. by close inspection of the problematic text and its surrounding context.

The early Torah commentators (Ramban, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Bechor Shore, Hizkuni and others) and later ones as the Ohr HaChayim, HaK’tav V’HaKaballah, Malbim and others have set p’shat as their central goal in Torah interpretation.  Their commentaries show an internal consistency which are, in fact, fashioned on a series of implicit guidelines.

These guidelines, or rules of interpretation, once understood, enable the student to closely analyze the text in a way that makes it surrender its below-the-surface message.  To my knowledge, no one has explicitly stated the rules of p’shat interpretation, as did, for example, Reb Yishmael with his 13 principles of drash interpretation.

For most of today’s Torah students, the first surprise is that there are rules of p’shat interpretation.  For many students, the Ramban’s or Rashi’s comments are accepted as givens, without realizing that their p’shat interpretations spring ineluctably from the words in the text itself and not from any preconceived attitude of the commentator.  Yet it is not always easy to perceive the interpretive rule which lies at the basis of the comment.

The student who becomes aware that indeed there are clear-cut principles of interpretation can then apply them in two related ways:  firstly, to enable him to answer questions that naturally arise out of the text; and secondly, to sharpen his eye and prompt him to ask questions of the text which otherwise might have eluded him.  He is then able to squeeze from the Torah’s words more and more of its infinite wisdom.  He no longer skates across its surface with innocent abandon.  What looked simple becomes intriguingly complex; what looked complex becomes surprisingly simple!

The sine qua non of the classical approach to Torah interpretation is the axiomatic belief that nothing in the text is extra or accidental; nothing is to be taken for granted, nothing should be glossed over.  Every word, every phrase, every repetition, every irregularity and every nuance are all cause to pause.  Each is reason enough to inspect the words of the Torah more closely to catch what they are whispering to us.

In my book, Studying the Torah, I delineated and illustrated nine keys of in-depth p’shat interpretation.  Among them are Repetitions & Redundancies, Word Order, the importance of Context, the Seven Code and others.  I would like to take one of these keys — Word Order — to give the reader a sense of how this works.  By illustrating its use we can see its potential for helping us get a deeper understanding of the Torah.

Word Order

In our daily conversation we naturally convey many nuances of meaning by the way we order our words.  The listener intuitively senses the subtle messages that are intended.  For example, when I say: “I’m going to the store now,” it has a slightly different meaning than were I to say “Now I’m going to the store.”  By using the same words but changing their order, we convey different ideas.  Let’s see how this works in the Chumash.

In the two examples that follow, the reader will do best to open his Chumash and follow the section under discussion.

Let’s look at Parshat Lech Lecha in Genesis and begin with a question.  Chapter 14 tells of the story of Lot who, because of his growing possessions, separated himself from Abram to live in Sodom.  He was then taken captive in the war between the kings.

Now the question:  Look at sentence 12 in chapter 14.

“vayicach et lot v’et rechusho ben achi avram veylaichu……” 

And they took Lot and his possessions, Abram’s nephew, and they left…

Do you notice anything unusual about that sentence?  Look at the words, what they say and how they say it.  We’ll return to this later.

Now compare the following two sentences.

“vayicach avram et sarai ishto v’et lot ben achiv v’et col rechusham asher rechusho….” 

Abram took his wife Sarai and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their wealth that they had amassed… (12:5)

“veyal avram memitsrayim hu v’ishto v’col asher lo v’lot emo……”

So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that was his — and Lot with him -­ to the south. (13:1)

In what way do these two sentences differ?  You certainly noticed that in the first sentence, Abram, his wife and Lot are all united while their possessions are listed afterwards; whereas in the second sentence, Abram and his wife are united, then come “all that was with him,” and only then, Lot.  He is separated from Abram by the possessions.  Is that just happenstance or does the word order tell us something?

I think it tells us that after Abram became wealthy in Egypt, these possessions stood between him and his nephew Lot.  Perhaps Lot was jealous.  Let’s take a closer look at sentence 13

“vegam lelot hehalach et avram haya tsaon ubakarv…..”

“…and Lot with him (imo).”  Compare this with sentence 5 later on,

“And also to Lot who went with (et) Abram were flocks, cattle and tents.”  Although the Hebrew “im” and “et” are both translated in English as “with,” they are not identical.  “Im” conveys a closer connection than does the word “et“.  The change from “im” to “et” signifies a deteriorating relationship between Lot and his uncle Abram.  All this comes to us by way of very subtle changes of words and word order in the text.

Close reading of the Torah’s words is the necessary and sufficient tool for breaking open its secrets.

Now back to our first, problematic, text, Ch.14:12.  Did you find anything unusual about it?  I did.  And it bothered me for some time.  “And they took Lot and his possessions, his brother’s son…” That’s quite awkward.  Wouldn’t it read more smoothly had it said “Lot, his brother’s son, and his possessions…”?  Why the unusual word sequence?

But once we notice the word order changes noted above, we grasp the significance of this syntactical slip.  The Torah intentionally places Lot’s possessions between him and his relationship to Abram (“his brother’s son”), precisely because Lot’s preference for possessions over Abram is what brought him to Sodom which then led to “Lot and his possessions” being captured.

To show the consistency of this subtle word play, look at Ch.14:16.  “And he returned all the possessions and also Lot, his brother, and his possessions he returned…”  Now Lot is reunited to “his brother” Abram.  The Torah puts them together in this sentence since only through Abram’s help did Lot regain his possessions.  Without his being Abram’s relative, Lot would have been separated from his possessions forever!

I find that artistry most striking.  Form follows essence.  Now my dilemma regarding sentence 14:12, which for so long looked unanswerable, is no longer a problem.  It fits in smoothly with the rest of the chapter’s word order significance.  The motifs of the chapter are the fight over possessions and Lot’s love of material possessions, which cause his separation from his illustrious uncle and lead to his captivity and loss of possessions.  The word order in the text consciously, consistently and conspicuously reflects this theme.  This key to interpretation opens a door into a deeper layer of the Torah text.

Let’s look at a different type of question, one that should come from our own thinking and not from the any irregularity in the text.  A close look at word order gives an answer.

The story of Jacob buying the birthright from Esau is famous and familiar to all.  We’ve read it dozens of times.  But haven’t you been disturbed by a nagging, moral question: How could Jacob be so immoral as to take cruel advantage of his famished brother to wring from him a concession of the birthright when the latter was on the verge of death?  Doesn’t your moral sense rebel at that?  Or do you have easy “answers,” such as:  Esau’s the bad guy, so he had it coming to him.

Really?  Is this the brotherly love the Torah wants to teach us?  Is this behavior befitting the father of the nation which was to be enjoined “Don’t stand idly by when your neighbor is bleeding to death” (Leviticus 19:14)?  And furthermore, what validity is there to such a sale under duress?

Does our text in any way deal with these questions?  We should not look for any obvious ethical discussion here.  When the Torah teaches morality through narrative, it does so only in the most oblique manner.

I will share with the reader several surprises which I came upon while recently rereading this parshah, the effect of which was to completely alter the thrust of this all-too-familiar story.  It reinforced my sense of the Torah’s limitless wonders and promises unending discoveries if we but search for them.  Familiarity in this case is only a hindrance, for it blinds us to the veiled layers of meaning contained within it.

You will see that close reading of the Torah’s words is the necessary and sufficient tool for breaking open its secrets.

Open your Chumash to Parshat Toldot (Genesis 25:29-34).  Read through the pottage/birthright episode once more.  You can see what I mean, that Jacob seemed to be exploiting Esau’s total exhaustion for his own selfish purposes. (Please put the midrashim aside for a moment!)  Now look at the very last sentence of the story.

“veyaakov natan leeisav lechem venazid adashim vyachal veyashet…..vevaz eisav et habechora”

Then Jacob gave to Esau bread and pottage of lentils and he did eat and drink and he rose and went, and Esau despised his birthright.

Our first surprise is that Jacob gave Esau bread in addition to the pottage; Esau had only asked for pottage (this red, red stuff).  Why the gratuitous gift?

The second surprise is that Jacob seems to have given him something to drink as well, for does it not say “and he did eat and drink …”  Strange that no mention is made until now in the text of Jacob giving Esau something to drink.  But he did drink.  This is one of many instances in the Torah which indicates that much more goes on within the Torah’s episodes than is in fact recorded.

So while Esau pleaded only for the bowl of pottage, Jacob gave him pottage with a side portion of bread and aperitif.  It turns out that Jacob, our callous, calculating bargainer, is somewhat more magnanimous than first suspected.

The next surprise is that Jacob gave Esau anything.  Why does the Torah say “gave?”  Jacob didn’t give anything; it was a deal, pure and simple.  A barter — birthright for pottage.  Jacob bought the birthright and sold the pottage; Esau bought the pottage and sold the birthright.  Jacob sold to Esau is more accurate.  Had not Jacob said “Sell me today your birthright?”  Why the misleading use of the benign word “gave?”  (Honestly, did you ever notice that before?)

Our last surprise as we study this final sentence closely is the most startling of them all.  It has the effect of providing a jolting denouement; the whole story is transposed, stood on its head.

Here our English translations utterly fail us.  Knowledge of Biblical Hebrew is crucial.  The English reads “Then Jacob gave to Esau” etc.  The Hebrew reads “V’Yaakov natan l’Esav,” which correctly translated reads “And Jacob had given to Esau…”  Hebrew has no special past participle tense (he had done).  In the Bible, this is accomplished by reversing the word order, by reversing the verb/subject order.  “And Jacob gave” in Hebrew would be “VaYiten Yaakov“; whereas “Jacob had given” is “V’Yaakov natan,” which is precisely what we have here.*

In adumbrated fashion our story now looks like this:

And Jacob made pottage

And Esau came from the field

And Esau said, Let me devour…

And Jacob said, Sell me today …

And Esau said, Behold I am going to die …

And Jacob said, Swear to me today …

And he swore and he sold his birthright

Now Jacob had given Esau bread and pottage

And Esau ate and drank and rose and went away.

And Esau despised the birthright.

The sense here is that Jacob had already given the food to Esau before their discussion of the birthright and its sale.  Needless to say, this is radically different from our first impression of the events of this story.  The picture we now get is that when Esau came in from the field and asked to devour the red, red stuff; Jacob gave it to him immediately, with bread and drink to boot.  And while Esau was engrossed in wolfing down his food, Jacob brought up the topic of the birthright and offered to buy it from his brother (for cash, we can assume).  Esau couldn’t be bothered with such inanities, for he was going to die in any event.  So he cavalierly sold it to Jacob.  And thus Esau despised his birthright!

With this interpretation, the question of the morality of the pottage/birthright sale evaporates.  Not only had Jacob not taken advantage of the desperate Esau; he had, instead, graciously served him.  Only later did they work out a deal about the birthright.  The fact that Esau would sell his birthright while under no duress only highlights the last words of our text “And Esau did despise the birthright.”  This p’shat interpretation was offered by Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg, known as HaK’tav HaKabbalah.

The reader might protest that the story has been prettified.  But the text bears out the interpretation in every detail.  That it jars our accustomed way of understanding this story only highlights the importance of approaching the Torah text with openness and without preconceived notions.

Learning p’shat seriously can reveal untold surprises and lessons.  We must open our eyes to see what is there in front of us.  One can truly say: There is more mystery and excitement in the visible than in the invisible.  Or as the Psalmist put it “Open up my eyes that I may see the wonders of Your Torah” (Psalms 119:18).

*  See, for example “Now Rachel had taken the teraphim” (Genesis 31:34), in Hebrew, “V’Rachel lakcha et hatraphim.”  Rashi makes this point on Genesis 4:1 “And Adam knew his wife Eve.”

Dr. Bonchek is a practicing psychotherapist in Jerusalem.  He was ordained by Ner Israel Rabbinical College of Baltimore.  This article is based on the concepts developed in his book, Studying the Torah: A Guide to In-Depth Interpretation, soon to be published by Jason Aronson.

This article was featured in the Spring 1996 issue of Jewish Action.
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