Monday, January 23, 2012

The amazing chiasmus at the beginning of parsha Va'aira

"The manifestation of aesthetic phenomena in Scripture cannot be brushed aside as an unnecessary luxury. The aesthetic exposure is broad and extensive, involving vast swaths of narratives and poetry. God used a complex of aesthetic patterns as He revealed Himself in Scripture." -- Jo Ann Davidson, Toward a Theology of Beauty: A Biblical Perspective

As Nehama Leibowitzand others have pointed out, the opening speech in parshas Va'aira take the form of a chiasmus.  "In rhetoric, chiasmus (from the Greek: χιάζω, chiázō, "to shape like the letter Χ") is the figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point; that is, the clauses display inverted parallelism."(Wikipedia)

In a typical chiasmus, the first and last thought are parallel, as are the second and second to last thought, and so on.  Here's the example from Va'aira, with each clause lettered to illustrate the parallels:

And G-d said to Moses:
I am the Lord.
[A] I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as the Lord Almighty, but by my name G-d I was not known to them.
[B] I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they lived as aliens.
[C] Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and have remembered my covenant.  Therefore say to the Israelites,
I am the Lord
[C1]and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgments. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your G-d. Then you will know that I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.
[B1]And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hands to give
[A1] to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession.
I am the Lord.

In Covenant Conversation: The Book of RedemptionChief Rabbi Sacks fleshes out the parallels as follows:

A and A1 are about the Avot
B and B1 are about the land
C and C1 are about slavery

A-C are in the past tense and speak of Israel as them
A1-C1 are in the future tense and speak of Israel as you.

A-C are exactly fifty words in the original Hebrew.
A1-C1 are also fifty words.

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