The double sedra this week offers much to speak about. Acahrai Mos outlines the Temple service for Yom Kippur and then goes on to teach us a collection of laws whose common denominator is the separateness of Am Yisroel. They can be summed up by the verse (18:3):
"As the practice of the land of Egypt where you have lived, you shall not do; and the practice of the Land of Canaan to which I bring you, you shall not do and do not follow their customs."
Kedoshim teaches us the central laws which are to guide us in our dealings with our fellow man. But in spite of this heavy menu, we will choose a small linguistic point which Rashi teaches us. I will draw on two separate Rashi-comments from Acharai Mos to illustrate.
Rashi teaches us a subtle point, one often overlooked by translators.
"And Hashem spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron your brother that he not come at all times into the Holy [Sanctuary] inside the curtain which is before the Ark's cover and he will not die, because in a cloud I will appear on the Ark's cover."
And he will not die: Rashi: For if he comes (into the Holy of Holies), he will die.
Certainly this is a strange comment !
A Question: What has Rashi told us? This is obvious! Of course, if the Torah says: "Do not go into the Holy of Holies and you will not die" then clearly, if you do go in, you will die. Too obvious to need mentioning.
Why then did Rashi mention it?
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
An Answer: To understand Rashi we must remember his exquisite sensitivity to the Hebrew language. He hears things that we take for granted. Let us too try to "hear" the words closely.
"If you don't go in...you won't die." Is that so? The priest will certainly die, maybe not now, but at sometime in the future he will die; everyone dies, he is no exception. By not going into the Holy of Holies he has not guaranteed for himself an escape from death. But taken literally that is what the words of the Torah seem to imply.
This is what Rashi comes to clarify.
How does his brief comment clarify matters?
An Answer: There is an overlooked subtlety here. The letter "vav" in the Tanach is usually translated as "and" and many English translations do so, yet this is frequently incorrect. The letter "vav" also has the meaning of "so that." That is its meaning here. "And he should not come at all times into the Holy place ...so that he not die."
This is precisely Rashi's lesson: "Don't go in so that you will not die, because if you go in you will die." But, of course, he may die any time in the future for other reasons. In fact, we can be sure he will die.
Rashi teaches us to pay close attention to each word, indeed, to each letter, in order to correctly understand what the Torah is saying.
Now let us look at another Rashi in this sedra which makes the same point in a much more subtle way.
"And the land will not vomit you when you defile it, as it expelled the nation before you."
And the land will not vomit you out: Rashi: This can be compared to a prince whom they fed something repulsive, which his stomach could not retain and he vomited it out. So too Eretz Yisroel does not abide sinners.
Rashi gives us a parable which is taken from the midrash, to explain his point.
What would you ask?
A Question: The parable compares the sensitivity that the Land of Israel has to sinners that dwell in its midst to the sensitivity that a refined prince has to disgusting food. Both violently expel the ingested matter.
But what does the parable teach us that we wouldn't know from the verse itself?
Note: It must be said that Rashi often quotes midrashic parables in his commentary and it is not always easy to understand what they add to our understanding. Many times he will tell us the beginning of a parable from a midrash without finishing it. See, for example, the Rashi's on the following verses: Leviticus 11:2; Numbers 11:5; Genesis 49:20. When he does this we can speculate that his aim is to have us look up the source ourselves, so that we put out the effort in order to appreciate the parable. But in our case he tells us the whole parable from beginning to end. Why? Why is it so important?
Is something bothering him? What?
Can you think of an answer:
You must read the verse in Hebrew to find the subtlety.
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
An Answer: There is a problem understanding our verse; a problem that is rarely noticed. Let us see our verse in context :
18:26 "You shall keep My decrees and My judgments and not commit any of these abominations, the native or the proselyte who lives among you.
18:27 For all these abominations were done by the inhabitants of the land who were before you and the land became contaminated.
18:28 And the land will not vomit you out when you contaminate it as it had vomited out the nation that was before you."
Read this way, we come to a strange conclusion: The land will not vomit you out if you contaminate it, as it had vomited out the nation before you. This is very strange indeed.
Rashi's parable comes to reject this reading.
How does it?
An Answer: The parable tells us that the land, due to its spiritual sensitivity, will throw out the sinners, Israelites included, because, like a sensitive stomach, it cannot "stomach" immoral behavior.
But we must ask: Why is this the correct reading of the verse. The verse seems to say the opposite when it says: "And the land will not vomit you out..."
A MORE THOROUGH UNDERSTANDING
An Answer: Our answer is similar to what we said above in verse 16:2. That is, that the letter å' can have several meanings, "and" being just one of them.
It can also mean "or", as in Exodus 21:15:
"One who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.
It can also mean "so that" and that is what it means in our verse: "So that the land will not vomit you out..."
The Torah is telling us "Don't do these abominations so that the land will not vomit you out..."
A DEEPER ANALYSIS
But, if we are to appreciate Rashi fully, we must ask another critical question:
How does Rashi know that this å' means "so that" and not " and"?
Can you find support for this here or anywhere in the Torah?
A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING
An Answer: The meaning cannot be "and you will not be vomited out of the land..." for the following reasons:
1. If we look at verse 20:22 the meaning is clearer: There it says:
"You shall observe all My decrees and all My ordinances and perform them so that the land to which I bring you to dwell will not vomit you out."
The implication is clear: Otherwise you will be vomited out.
2. We know as a matter of fact that the people were exiled -"vomited out"- of the land. If G-d's promise was that they would not be exiled, it wasn't fulfilled !
3. We also find other verses that speak of expulsion from the land. See for example Leviticus 26:41.
For all of these reasons Rashi probably came to his decision that the correct meaning of our verse was as indicated by the parable which he cites from the midrash.
With Rashi's help we have seen the versatility of the Biblical "vav."
What’s Bothering Rashi?” is produced by the “Institute for the Study of Rashi.” The Institute is in the process of preparing the Devorim volume of “What’s Bothering Rashi?” This volume will feature Rashi and the Ba’alie Tosephos. Readers interested in sponsoring a sedra in this volume are encouraged to contact us for further details at firstname.lastname@example.org Thanking you in advance.