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Behar-Be-hukkotai 5773

Haftarah Parshat Behar-Behukotai
(Jeremiah 16:19-17:14)
May 4, 2013
24 Iyyar 5773

This week’s haftarah opens with the hope that the recognition of God’s nature and His relationship with Israel will lead the idolatrous nations of the world to abandon their false deities and recognize God: “O Lord, my strength (uzi) and my stronghold (uma’uzi) and my refuge (u’minusi) in time of trouble; to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say: Our fathers inherited utter delusions, things that are futile and worthless.” (16:19)

The early commentators agree over the meaning of the first two descriptions of God, both based on the root “ayin vav zayin” which means strength. Rashi, however, records some disagreement over the meaning of the third term: “manos” which means “refuge”. There seems to have been a debate amongst the early grammarians over whether the root this word is “nun vav samech – escape” or “nun samech – flag or sign (miracle)”. Two of the earliest dictionaries of the Hebrew language waged a heated battle on this matter. Menahem ben Saruq (10th century Spain), author of the “Mahberet”, argued that Hebrew was made up of two letter roots. Consequently, he asserted that “minusi” meant “my Sign”. (See Mahberet, ‘nes’, p. 123) Dunash ben Labrat (10th century Morocco, Spain), on the other hand, was the first to correctly recognize that Hebrew was largely made up of three letter roots. He responded to Menahem’s definition, pointing out that the word “minusi” must mean “my Refuge”. (See Teshuvot Dunash p. 21)

This being said, the following midrash (Eretz Yisrael), which may have been composed at the same time as this philological battle, interpreted in a manner similar to that of Menahem ben Saruq: “’O Lord, my strength (uzi) and my stronghold (uma’uzi) and my refuge (u’minusi) in time of trouble; to You nations will come from the ends of the earth’ – Israel said to the Holy One Blessed be He – When you did miracles (nisim) for us at the sea, we said to You: ‘The Lord is my Strength and Song’ (Exodus 15:2) (Exodus Rabbah 27:4)

In this prophecy, Jeremiah wanted to make explicit the difference between God and the false gods of the neighbor which had been adopted by some of his brethren. He asserts that God is a strength and refuge to His people. It is his hope that this reminder will rally both his own people and the surrounding nations to the truth of his message. In the two different interpretations of the “minusi” mentioned above, we are left with two different visions of how God leaves such an impression. For some, God acts as a source of strength and fortitude to help them in times of need. For others, God acts as a source of wonder and astonishment before which they stand in awe.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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