My dear readers, another month has passed, and we are still in this war; as a dear friend of mine wrote a couple of months ago – and unfortunately, these words are still relevant today, with no end in sight. I think it is now time to go back to the regular themes of this blog. My original plan for this year was to write commentaries on the Torah Portions – but as you all know, the day when the annual cycle began again, Simchat Torah, was October 7th, (HaShabbat HaSh’chora – Black Saturday), the day of Hamas’ horrible attack and atrocities, and the beginning of this war. Therefore, instead of my intended comments on the Book of Genesis, I found myself writing about the war (you can still read my comments on Genesis from the previous years – the series “Torah Portion in real time” on this blog). We will now begin with the book of Exodus. I have not written many comments on Exodus Torah Portions on these pages, and there are many Hebrew insights in this book that I would like to share with you, my dear readers. However, since I publish only one post per month, I will not be able to do the “Torah Portion in real-time”, so each month I will share insights from several Portions.
“Ma’asei Avot, Siman LeBanim”
There is a literary feature in the Bible narratives defined by the rabbis as “ma’asei avot, siman lebanim” – “the deeds of the fathers are a sign to the sons.” This means that the stories about the patriarchs (in particular in the book of Genesis) tell us. not only about the patriarchs, but also reveal things that would happen to their descendants, the nation of Israel, in the future. These parallels, both thematic and lexical, are hidden in the text. However, while the thematic parallels can still be seen in translation, the shared words and phrases – lexical parallels – can only be discovered in the Hebrew text.
For instance, an English reader would know that Noah and his family were saved in the Ark. The word ‘Ark’ here renders the Hebrew word tevah. Surprisingly, we find the same word, tevah, in the story of Moses: baby Moses was put into a tevah. Yes, the Hebrew word translated as “ark” in the story of baby Moses, is the same Hebrew word as Noah’s Ark. Remarkably, these are the only two places in the entire Torah where this word is used (the ‘Ark’ of the Covenant renders a completely different Hebrew word). Why would Torah use the word “ark” here, instead of the proper Hebrew word for basket? The answer is clear: to make an intentional link between the two stories. Noah prefigures Moses’ role as Israel’s redeemer.
We find another example in the words used by Abimelech, king of the Philistines, when he expelled Isaac and his family from his land (Genesis 26). Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us” – Atzamta mimenu meod. When read in Hebrew, one realizes that this is the same word that the new Pharaoh uses at the beginning of the book of Exodus: “Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we,” Rav veAtzum mimenu. So the Israelites had probably heard this expression in Egypt many times. If we remember that the generation of Exodus was the first audience of the book of Genesis, we would understand that all these prophetic connections and parallels would have spoken powerfully and loudly to the hearts of these people. They saw the handwriting of God in His word – and they saw the handwriting of God in their lives.
You probably remember the “hardened heart” of Pharaoh. Scripture says several times that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. For many people, this is one of the biggest challenges of the Torah: Did Pharaoh choose to refuse to let the Israelites go, or did God make him do that? Would Pharaoh have responded the same way had not God intervened? Maybe, Hebrew can help us here?
Many Jewish commentaries deal with this question. The Midrash Exodus Rabbah comments on a very important detail: even before we hear for the first time that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, we read several times about the “hardened” heart of Pharaoh with no connection to God. Rabbis conclude that when God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, He simply seals Pharaoh’s own decision.
It’s interesting that even though we always read about the “hardened” heart in translation, the English word “hardened” actually renders three different Hebrew words, derived from three completely different roots. For instance, let us follow Chapter 7, where all three Hebrew words are used. In Exodus 7:3, God says He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. The Hebrew word comes here from the root, קשה, meaning “hard” as opposed to “soft”. In 7:13 we see that “Pharaoh’s heart grew hard”, and “hard” here comes from the root, חזק, “strong”. Then in 7:14 “the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hard”, and “hard” here comes from a completely different root, כבד, “heavy”.
These Hebrew words help us understand the dynamic of Pharaoh’s heart. Time after time, Pharaoh turned away from Moses’ and God’s call, and he probably seemed “strong” to himself in his defiance. In reality, he made his own heart less and less open and sensitive to God, which is why God uses a different “hard” (as opposed to “soft”) while speaking of “hardening” his heart. In the end, this “strong” defiance of Pharaoh was so heavy in God’s eyes that He gave him up to his own “hard” and “heavy” heart. Oftentimes, what seems strong to us, is just a hard and heavy heart in the eyes of God.
God Never Says Oops!
In Exodus 13:17, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines.” The word, “when”, here renders the Hebrew word BeShlach, and this one single word shows us what a significant difference there can be between the original Hebrew text and the Bible in translation. While in English we read “after” or “when Pharaoh let people go”, the Hebrew word BeShlach means something slightly different. What does this word tell us? What does BeShlach actually mean?
BeShlach is an Infinitive Construct, and the closest way to translate it would be: in sending… It’s not that the Israelites already went, and only after that, God realized that He had sent them the wrong way, and changed his mind. No, while sending them, God knows in advance all the difficulties and challenges they will encounter on their way – and He sends them exactly the way He chose for them. This single word, BeShlach, tells us that when God sends us, He knows the end from the very beginning. It’s not that we go somewhere and then we face unforeseen difficulties, and wonder whether God knew this would happen. Maybe He is as surprised as we are! Maybe, right now He is saying: ‘Oops! I didn’t mean that!’ No, God never says oops, and this is the message of the word BeShlach, completely lost in translation.
 Gen. 26:16
 Ex. 1:9
The insights you read on these pages are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (firstname.lastname@example.org) .
Also, if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy my books as well, they all are Bible-based and have a lot of Hebrew insights – you can get them here. These days, you may be especially interested to read my book “If You Be the Son of God”, which reveals God’s plan with Israel and explains the suffering of my people.