Monday, June 17, 2013

The Brilliance of Rashi on Numbers 20:15

וַיֵּרְדוּ אֲבֹתֵינוּ מִצְרַיְמָה וַנֵּשֶׁב בְּמִצְרַיִם יָמִים רַבִּים וַיָּרֵעוּ
לָנוּ מִצְרַיִם וְלַאֲבֹתֵינוּ

Anyone who doubts Rashi's colossal skill as a reader and translator, would be well-advised to review his comment on the verse above, Numbers 20:15. But before we get to Rashi's take, let's first review how some of the other great translators read this verse :
How our fathers went down into Egypt, and we have dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians vexed us, and our fathers - KJV 
In what manner our fathers went down into Egypt, and there we dwelt a long time, and the Egyptians afflicted us and our fathers. - Douay-Rheims Bible 
Our fathers went down to Egypt and we dwelled in Egypt many years, and the Egyptians did evil to us and to our fathers - Robert Alter
All very straightforward, and clear, right? Now, look at Rashi:

Our fathers went down to Egypt and we dwelled in Egypt many years, and the Egyptians did evil to us and to our Forefathers (ie Abraham, Issac and Jacob) 

Rashi, of course, doesn't translate entire verses in the way Alter or the King James version do, but we can often tell from Rashi's commentary how he's chosen to read a particular verse.

The passage I've bolded above shows how I presume Rashi understood the verse based on his comment on Numbers 20:15 which I have reproduced below:

and our forefathers: From here [we learn] that when Israel is afflicted with punishment, the Patriarchs grieve in the grave. - [Midrash Tanchuma Chukath 12, Num. Rabbah 19:15] ולאבותינו: מכאן שהאבות מצטערים בקבר, כשפורענות באה על ישראל:

The temptation is to write this off as a fanciful interpretation. However, I believe this strange reading is actually as straightforward as the translations I cited first, and perhaps does a better job of capturing the literal intent of the verse. 

Avigdor Bonchek shows that Rashi has caught two things:
  1. The word order is wrong. "The Egyptians did evil to us and to our fathers." Chronologically, the Egyptians would have done evil to our fathers prior to hurting us. The suggestion that the Patriarchs grieve only after we have been harmed solves this problem.
  2. The vocalization of the word "v'la'avoseinu" suggests that the fathers this verse has in mind are specific and particular fathers. The patach under the lamed indicates a define article, so the last part of the verse should be read "to THE fathers." This tells us that the fathers spoken about here are not ordinary and generic ancestors, but specific fathers, namely the Patriarchs.
The only place Bonchek errs (and you can read his piece here)  is in his suggestion that Rashi intends this as a drash. I disagree for two reasons. 

First, as Bonchek tells us himself Rashi is responding to a specific grammatical cue. The vocalization of the verse tells him that words mean "To THE fathers" Though there may be some element of drash (by which I mean interpretation) in his decision that THE fathers are the patriarchs, and not some other well known set of ancestors --like the Shevatim, for instance-- the pshat  is what told him that specific fathers were intended. 

Second, Rashi did not consider himself a darshan. Though he will at times cite a drash he almost always introduces it with a formula like "And our Rabbis darshaned as follows." Even when he does this, he almost always provides the pshat first and only introduces a drash when there is some shortcoming in the pshat.  

On Numbers 20:15 Rashi offers only one reading. Typically, when Rashi offers just one reading, that reading is what he understands to be the pshat.

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