Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, HYPERLINK "mailto:email@example.com" firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Ephraim Yizhaki
Department of Talmud
Transporting the Ark in the Wilderness
The Aramaic translations (targums) of the Torah are not often used for a better understanding of Scripture, even though these are the earliest Bible commentaries. However, the interpretation of Scripture in the targums (primarily those appearing in printed editions of Mikraot Gedolot) often differs from the commonly accepted interpretation and sometimes is closer to the plain sense of Scripture.
We shall take a look at the interpretation in the targums and the commentaries of Rashi and Ibn Ezra regarding the content of two verses, set off from the surrounding verses by two inverted letters nun (Num. 10:35-36):
When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say:
Advance, O Lord!
May Your enemies be scattered,
And may Your foes flee before You!
And when it halted, he would say:
Return, O Lord,
You who are Israel's myriads of thousands!
Here we have two prayers of Moses, one when the Ark set out and the other when it halted. The first prayer, when the Ark set out, is easily understandable: Moses would say a prayer against the foes of Israel, i.e., would pray that during their journey, when the people were weary and unprotected, their foes would be scattered and would not attack.
In this prayer Moses used the expressions "enemies" and "foes," since whoever is a foe of Israel is a foe of the Creator, as we read in Psalms, "For You enemies rage, Your foes assert themselves. They plot craftily against Your people, take counsel against Your treasured ones" (Ps. 83:3-4). Those who would "plot craftily against Your people" are "Your foes."
The exhortation, "Advance, O Lord," (Quma Hashem) is explained by Ibn Ezra:
The way human beings advance for battle. "May Your enemies be scattered" means that when they see You advancing for battle, they will immediately disperse. Thus in Psalms (68:2): "God will arise, His enemies shall be scattered, His foes shall flee before Him."
The Targums do not use the word "Advance." Onkelos translates Quma as, "O Lord, reveal Yourself," and Targum Pseudo- Jonathan (also called Targum Yerushalmi) as, "May the word of the Lord now be revealed." The Jerusalem Fragment Targum renders it as, "May the word of the Lord be established." Since it is the nature of the Aramaic translations to avoid anthropomorphizing G-d, they are not inclined to refer to the Holy One, blessed be He, as arising, sitting, etc. Therefore, these works render the phrase, "Advance, O Lord," as "Be revealed, O Lord," "May the word of the Lord now be revealed," or even, "May the word of the Lord be established."
When would Moses say this prayer?
According to the Jerusalem targums, Moses would recite this prayer prior to the Ark setting out on its journey. Pseudo-Jonathan reads,
When he wished the Ark to set out, the cloud would enfold itself and become stationary, and would not set forth until Moses stood in prayer, entreating and asking for mercy from the Lord. And thus he would say: "May the word of the Lord be revealed now, by Your mighty wrath may the enemies of Your people be dispersed and may their foes not have a foot to stand on before You."
The Jerusalem Fragment renders the passage thus:
When the ark set out, Moses would raise his hands in prayer and say: "May the Word of the Lord come to pass with Your mighty strength, and may the enemies of Your people be dispersed, and may those who hate You [Your foes] flee from before You.
Rashi, however, relies on Midrash Tanhuma and interprets as follows: "Advance, O Lord – since it would precede them by three-days walking distance, Moses would say: Stand still and wait for us, and do not go farther ahead." Thus it says in Midrash Tanhuma (Warsaw ed.), Parashat va-Yakhel (par. 7):
Since the Ark used to go three days ahead to find them a resting place day and night – as it says: "The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days' journey to seek out a resting place for them" (Num. 10:33) – at such time Moses would say, "Stand, O Lord, etc.," i.e., stand still and wait for us and do not leave us behind, for it says: "When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, etc."
Nevertheless elsewhere Rashi himself interprets Quma as the command to move on (Num. 9:18):
At a command of the Lord the Israelites broke camp – we are taught in the work on the Tabernacle that when the Israelites would set out the cloud would enfold and spread out over the Judahites as a roof, they would sound a long blast, short blasts, and a long blast, and it would not proceed until Moses had said, "Advance, O Lord," and then the standard of the division of Judah would set forth – this is from Sifre.
Rashi bases his interpretation here on another midrashic source, Sifre Numbers, Parashat Be-Ha`alotkha (par. 84). There we read: "Scripture is telling us that when the Israelites were about to set out, the pillar of cloud would be enfolded and would not start moving until Moses told it: Advance, O Lord." Rashi ostensibly contradicts himself here, for in chapter 9, relying on Sifre, he explains that the cloud waited for Moses' prayer, and only afterwards would the journey begin, yet in chapter 10, relying on Tanhuma, he explains that the cloud went three days' journey ahead of the Israelites, and waited for them according to Moses' prayer.
One could try to explain, showing how Rashi indeed combines two homiletic texts without there being any contradiction in what he says: in chapter 9 Scripture states explicitly that "at a command of the Lord the Israelites broke camp" – not Moses, rather the Holy One, blessed be He, determined when the Israelites would set out, and the sign for this would be that the cloud began to move. Therefore, Rashi cites the passage from Sifre indicating that the cloud gave the first sign that the people must get ready to move on – " the cloud would enfold and spread out over the Judahites as a roof." The cloud then waited for the people's preparations for the journey to be completed. The people had not only to pack their belongings, but also to prepare the Tabernacle for being transported. Therefore the cloud "would not start moving until Moses told it: Advance, O Lord."
After Moses said, "Advance, O Lord," the cloud would set off swiftly. The people were unable to walk as fast as the cloud, therefore Moses' prayer (prior to setting off) was that the cloud not advance too far beyond the people (at most three days' walk), as explained in Tanhuma.
The second prayer, "Return [Heb. shuvah], O Lord, You who are Israel's myriads of thousands," was said by Moses as the Ark came to rest. The meaning of this prayer is obscure: what is meant by "Return, O Lord"? Whence is He to return? As for its continuation – "You who are Israel's myriads of thousands" – what connection is there between the first part of the verse and the last, and what is meant by Israel's myriads of thousands?
Onkelos translates this passage: "Return, O Lord, and dwell in Your glory amidst the myriads of thousands of Israel."
Pseudo-Jonathan translates it as follows:
When it sought to bring the Ark to rest, it would enfold and come to a stop. It would not spread out until Moses stood in prayer and entreated the Lord for mercy. And thus would he say: Return, by the word of the Lord, in Your mercy and lead Your people Israel, causing Your glorious Presence to dwell among them, and love the myriads of the House of Jacob, the thousands of Israel.
The Jerusalem Fragment Targum renders this passage:
When the Ark would come to a rest Moses would lift his hands in prayer, saying: Return, O Lord, from Your wrath and return to us in Your beneficent mercy and bless the myriads and many thousands of the children of Israel.
The targums interpret shuvah as meaning "return," each targum giving its own explanation of whence or where the returning is directed.
Rashi explains: "Return, O Lord – this has been translated [into Aramaic] as comfort, calm, and likewise in Isaiah (30:15), "Your victory shall come about through calm [shuvah] and confidence [nahat]," which is to say that Moses was requesting the Divine Presence to rest over the myriads of Israel. Also Ibn Ezra interprets the word shuvah as related to resting, but explains: "Return, O Lord, Israel's myriads of thousands – that He give them rest, not letting them be vexed by enemies." In other words, that the Holy One, blessed be He, let the Israelites rest from their enemies. Note that both Onkelos and Targum Jonathan explain shuvah as being related both to return and to rest.