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Leitwort - Part VI

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman



This series is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of

our dear mother

עטל רחל בת פעראל

by Frieda and Dovid Wadler




Lecture #14b:


Leitwort, Part VI



A Pair of Milim Manchot


In this lecture, as we conclude our examination of the mila mancha, the leitwort or guiding word in a biblical text, we will deal with a different technique.


Up until this point in our discussion of the mila mancha, we have dealt with one word that recurs in a particular unit (even if it has two meanings). There is another phenomenon, however, in which it is not a single word or expression that turns into a mila mancha, but rather a pair of words. Obviously, in order to define two words as a pair of milim manchot, there must be some internal connection between them – for example, words that belong to a common semantic field (such as "sun" and moon") or which are found on the same relative scale (such as "good" and "bad"), etc.


In order to demonstrate this technique, I would like to analyze three stories in which a unique use is made of the verbal pair of re'iya (seeing) and shemi’a (hearing) — or in their simple past conjugations, ra'a and shama — and to examine how this pair has the power to influence the assimilation of a subliminal message in the unit in which it appears.[1]


As a Complementary Pair (Shemot 19-20)


This pair is very prominent in the narrative of the Convocation at Mt. Sinai, despite the fact that the words themselves are not mentioned many times, because of the many uses of additional words which belong to the wider semantic field of visual and auditory perception. These senses fill a role in the plot itself, and the reader responds to them as milim manchot.  Let us track the appearances of these two verbs.  Remember that these words are complex: shama may be "hear" or "listen," while ra'a may be "see" or "perceive."


You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Me. Now, if you will certainly listen to My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine…  


And God said to Moshe: "Behold, I come to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever." And Moshe told the words of the people to God”…   


And God said to Moshe: “Go down, charge the people, lest they break through to God to see, and many of them perish”…


And all the people perceived the thunders, and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. And they said to Moshe: "Speak you with us, and we will listen, but let not God speak with us, lest we die”… 


And God said to Moshe: "Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: You yourselves have seen that I have talked with you from heaven."


From a simple reading, one can already sense the unique role of the two verbs employed in this scene. The issue is particularly prominent in the opening of the entire convocation, in God's words (19:4-5): "You have seen (attem re'item) what I did to the Egyptians… Now, if you will certainly listen (ve-atta im shamoa tishmeu) to My voice…" The two verbs serve different roles — the seeing is tied to the collective experience of the nation in terms of the kindness that God has shown them up to this point (the Exodus from Egypt), while the hearing is presented as the appropriate reaction to this perception. It is the expected response from the people towards the events they have experienced — an agreement to bind themselves by and to observe the covenant of Sinai. 


However, the two verbs take their central place in the narrative with a full retinue of auxiliary terms and synonyms:


And Moshe went up to God, and God called to him out of the mountain, saying: "Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel”…


"These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel”… 


And all the people answered together, and they said: "All that God has spoken we will do." And Moses reported the words of the people to God. And God said to Moshe: "Behold, I come to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever." And Moshe told the words of the people to God…     


"For on the third day, God will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai…"   


And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and the sound of a shofar, very loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled… 


And when the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder, Moshe spoke, and God answered him with a voice.


Thus, alongside the recurrence of the verb "to hear," Scripture mentions calling, saying, telling, speaking, reporting, responding, "the sound of a shofar, very loud," and thunder. Alongside the verb "to see," Scripture mentions that the Israelites will merit to witness God's descent upon the mountain "in the sight of all the people."


Throughout the entire narrative, hearing and seeing receive their appropriate places in the story: they represent the absorption of the revelation — the sensory reception, which symbolizes emotional-spiritual reception. In this way, the seeing and hearing become witnesses to the collective memory of this sublime convocation.


The internal shemi’a is alluded to by the external sense of hearing, which we mentioned above; the verse uses this verb to express the faithfulness which is expected from the people — "if you will certainly listen to My voice and keep My covenant".  Re'iya plays a similar role, mainly in Moshe's reaction to the people's fear (20:17): "And Moshe said to the people: 'Fear not; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be upon you, that you sin not.'" The seeing (re'iya) of the people in the narrative brings to fear (yira) of God.


In other words, the reception of the revelation with the external senses constitutes a sort of introduction to the internal-spiritual responsiveness to the contents of the revelation, to the concept of existential fear of heaven. It appears that through the aid of the use of internal-external verbs such as these, the Torah turns the convocation under discussion into a sublime, one-of-a-kind encounter. Can a man possibly absorb, with human senses, the divine revelation? The answer alluded to in this narrative is complex: the Israelites are invited to a rare revelation, and indeed they are capable of absorbing the revelation with their senses, but in practice, the Israelites are not up to this challenge, and they retreat. The senses that remain active at the Convocation at Mount Sinai are more the internal senses than the external ones — listening to the voice of God and re'iya which turns into yira.  These are the human capabilities that are left standing at the end of the day as a basis for God's revelation. 


A Contrasting Pair (Bereishit 16)


Throughout the narrative of Hagar's flight, there is a unique use of the pair of verbs ra'a and shama. These verbs appear already at the beginning of the narrative; however, by the end of the episode, true tension explodes between the two verbs.


After Sarah (then called Sarai) suggests to Avraham (then called Avram) to take Hagar her maidservant, Avraham's response is described using the verb shama: "And Avram listened to the voice of Sarai" (16:2). 


Avraham indeed takes Hagar, and she becomes pregnant by him.  The reaction of Hagar to these events is describes using the verb ra'a and the noun ayin (eye): "And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes" (4).


Sarah describes to Avraham this surprising turn of events, once again invoking ra'a and ayin: "And when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes" (5). 


Avraham responds to Sara's claims by transferring the reins to her hands. Although there is no repetition of either of the two verbs under discussion, it is not coincidental that the "eyes" show up once again in his words: "Behold, your maidservant is in your hand; do to her that which is good in your eyes" (6). Indeed, the root of the word ayin (the letters ayin-yud-nun) is spelled exactly the same as ayin meaning spring, and almost the same as oni, mistreatment (the letters ayin-nun-yud). Both of these words appear in the continuation of the story: first "Sarai mistreated her" (6), and immediately afterward: "And the angel of God found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur" (7). Of course, these words have nothing to do with seeing, but because of the link between re'iya and ayin, the verb ra'a continues to echo.[2]


These instances do not compel us to see a case of milim manchot. Nevertheless, in the words of the angel to Hagar and in her response, the reader recognizes the intentional wordplay between these two verbs. The angel tells Hagar what name to give the son she is destined to bear: "And the angel of God said to her: 'Behold, you are with child and shall bear a son; and you shall name him Yishmael, because God has heard your mistreatment'" (11). This name, in a unique way, draws the attention of a reader who is searching for milim manchot, because this name is tied by its very nature to the linguistic and lexical expanse. The name of the child destined to be born is tied to God's hearing of Hagar's oni. 


At the end of the scene, Hagar indeed gives a name, not to her unborn son, but rather to the angel speaking to her. Even more surprising is that she uses the second verb in order to name the angel, calling him "El Ro'i", "God of My Seeing." Moreover, the well at which the angel appears to Hagar receives a similar name because of this occurrence: "Therefore the well was called Be'er La-chai Ro'i" (14) — a title which literally means, "Well to the Living One of My Seeing." These verses stress the recurring re'iya in the two new names, that of the angel and that of the well, using the epiphora which concludes the clauses (13-14):


And she named God that spoke to her, "You are the God of my seeing" (atta El Ro'i)

For she said: "Have I even here seen after my seeing?" (acharei ro'i).

Therefore, the well was called Be'er La-chai Ro'i;

Behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.


It thus becomes clear that there is a delicate exchange between the two verbs: God wants to grant a name on the basis of the root shama, which is how He takes account of the unjustified oni of Hagar; this is the name Yishmael, "God will hear."  Hagar, on the other hand, calls the angel El Ro'i, based on God's re'iya of her, and thus even the site receives a new name. Indeed, Wenham is justified when he says: "Just as with the name of Yishmael, the name of the well stands as a constant reminder of the concern of the Merciful God."[3]  However, despite the great similarity between the names, the split between re'iya and shemia is recognizable.


If so, it is possible to argue that the pair of milim manchot in this narrative directs the reader to create a distinction between Avraham and God, who listen in the story, and Hagar, who sees — and interprets the response of God to her through that verb (against, as we have noted, the words of the angel!). 


Note that at the end of the day, Hagar is not the one to name the child Yishmael; rather, it is Avraham who does so, despite the fact that Hagar receives the command, "Name him Yishmael"! In this as well, the verse stresses that Hagar is not tied in the narrative to God's shemia, but rather to His re'iya. 


What is the meaning of this distinction? First of all, there is worth in the very distinction between God and Hagar; while God hears, Hagar believes that He sees. A distinction such as this creates a gap between the speakers and creates a feeling of communication which is not fully understood. Naturally, the narrative alludes to the fact that Hagar in fact does not fully understand the angel's words to her. He says one thing, but Hagar misconstrues his words.


This lack of communication may be tied to the Scriptural significance of the two verbs under discussion. In Tanakh, the verb of re'iya sometimes expresses the choice of a certain person. As it were, this selective re'iya perceives one while spurning others. So, for example, God says to Shmuel: "Fill your horn with oil and go; I am sending you to Yishai of Beit Lechem, for I have seen among his sons a king for me" (I Shmuel 16:1).  The meaning of the verb "I have seen" in this context is "I have selected," "I have chosen one from among many."[4] 


Similarly, when Avraham says to Yitzchak, "God will see to the sheep for the ascension-offering, my son" (Bereishit 22:8), he is not referring to technical vision, but rather selection (as Rashi explains there: "He will see to and select the sheep"). On the basis of this re'iya, after God does indeed see to the sheep — in fact, to the ram, offered in Yitzchak's place — Avraham names the places "Hashem Yireh" (22:14), "God Will See." Rashi explains: "God will select and see to this place, to make His Presence rest here and to have offerings brought here."


This issue is very important in order to understand the aim of the narrative of Hagar's flight. Aside from the patriarchs of the nation, there is no other person who is blessed with benisons of seed and land like Hagar. The blessings that Hagar receives are very significant in the general environment of the Book of Bereishit, and they give a strong impression of “mini-selection.”  In light of her oni, Hagar merits the blessing of increasing seed (16:10) and the blessing of inheritance (16:12). The reader tends to believe that Yishmael is also chosen, alongside Yitzchak. 


Indeed, Hagar draws this very conclusion, as she repeats and repeats that God sees her. However, the sensitive reader will note that although God responds to her distress, shows her compassion, and grants her abundant kindness, he nevertheless speaks of shemia, not re'iya. God blesses her with an increase of seed, but not national-specific selection, as God stresses to Avraham in the next chapter in the context of the covenant of circumcision:


And as for Yishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and I will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he produce, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Yitzchak, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time in the next year. (17:20-21)


Ra'a and Shama as Two Stages (Bereishit 3)


As we have seen, the pair of words ra'a and shama can stress a continuous trend (as in the Convocation at Mount Sinai), but it can also allude to a subliminal tension in the verses (as in Hagar's flight). This also makes it easier on the reader to follow the two stages in a narrative.[5] An example of this may be found in the story of the sin of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.


In the dialogue between the serpent and the woman (not yet known as Chava), which opens the story, the action of re'iya is very prominent:


And the serpent said to the woman: "You shall certainly not die. For God knows that on the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as God, knowing good and evil." (3:4-5)


Indeed, the woman's reaction is immediately described with a heavy emphasis on the visual component: "And the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was attractive to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise…” (6).  This is the reason that the woman partakes of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and she even shares the fruit with her husband. The effect is not long in coming: "And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked" (7).


From this point on, the verses describe the characters through the activity of shemia:


And they heard the voice of Lord God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. (8)


Furthermore, the man's response to God's question utilizes shemia: "And he said: 'I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself'"(10). God then challenges him, once again entering the semantic field of shemia: "And He said: 'Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded you that you should not eat?" (11). The activity of shemia recurs one more time in the narrative, when God sentences the man:


And to Adam He said: "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and you have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life." (17) 


It might have been feasible to suggest that here as well, there is a certain distinction between the characters in the narrative and their connection to the two verbs: the woman in the narrative is tied to re'iya (as we have seen in the story of Hagar's flight, in which she is tied to the re'iya), while the man is more tied to the activity of shemia (as in the story of Hagar's flight, in which Avraham listens). However, it appears to me that the aim of the verse here is not to contrast the two sinning characters in the narrative, but rather to distinguish between the prelapsarian stage and the postlapsarian stage, the response to the sin and the punishment.


At first, when the woman is seduced to eat from the Tree, the re'iya is especially prominent. This is the sense which brings the woman to eat from the seductive tree, which is "attractive to the eyes," and this is the sin’s motivation — so that their eyes will be opened. 


However, immediately after the eating from the Tree and having their eyes opened, the characters come into conflict with the world of shemia, and more specifically, the man must now make a reckoning as to whom he has listened to and whom he has not. Immediately after the sin, the man says, "I heard Your voice in the garden," but God corrects him when He challenges him, "You have listened to the voice of your wife." There are two voices in the narrative, and the man makes the decision to listen to his wife's voice and not God's voice, as the Bekhor Shor (ibid.) points out: "'Because you have listened to the voice of your wife' — instead of my voice."[6]


If so, the narrative succeeds in isolating different stages in the process of the sin: giving in to the Evil Inclination and the act of the sin (in which the verb of re'iya dominates) and the spiritual significance of the sin which expresses rebellion against God (in which the verb of shemia dominates).


With this issue, we finally finish our discussion of the mila mancha and its contribution to a hidden reading of the narrative.  As in other topics, I must note that there is much to say beyond what we have said. There are many complex examples of the integration of a mila mancha in the narrative, which require exacting analysis of the appearance and the form of its contribution to the design of the narrative and its theme.


However, the time has come to turn our attention to additional aspects that contribute to raising our consciousness of hidden meanings beneath the surface of the verses. Therefore, we will draw our analysis of the leitwort to a close here, with our apologies to the milim manchot.



[Translated by Rav Yoseif Bloch]

[1]     This example has also been used by Amos Frisch to explore the concept of milim manchot in pairs; he discusses three cases of this pair (II Melakhim 20:12-19, Bereishit 21-22, I Shmuel 15-16). See A. Frisch, "Ra'a Ve-shama Ke-Tzemed Milim Manchot," in Divrei Ha-Kongres Ha-Olami Ha-Sheneim Asar Le-Madda'ei Ha-Yahadut (Chativa A) (Jerusalem, 5759), pp. 89-98.

[2]     In fact, the description of the place as being "on the way to Shur," which is on the border of Egypt, is tied to the semantic field of seeing; one of the meanings of "shur" is “to look at,” “to perceive.” See M. Garsiel, Midreshei Shemot Ba-Mikra (Ramat Gan, 5748), p. 119; Frisch, "Ra'a Ve-shama," p. 91. Frisch gingerly raises the suggestion that even "ha-midbar," "the desert," which is stressed in the verse, alludes to dibbur, speech (ibid. n.9).

[3]     G. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (WBC, Dallas, Texas, 1998), p. 11.

[4]     Compare also God's word to Noach: "Come, you and all of your house, to the ark, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation" (Bereishit 7:1).

[5]     Compare this to Frisch's essay, "Ra'a Ve-Shama Ke-Tzemed Milim Manchot", mainly p. 95. He refers to this phenomenon as “the demarcated model:” "There exists a spatial division between the two words in the text: one part of the text is under the influence of one mila mancha, and the other part is under the influence of the second mila mancha."

[6]     The very phrasing "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and you have eaten of the tree," requires some explanation. The sin lies in the eating; why does God mention listening to the woman's voice? It appears that the Bekhor Shor's supposition is correct, and indeed the verse intends to contrast the man's obedience to the woman's voice with his disobedience to God's voice, which is mentioned just a few verses earlier.