Parshat Bereshit/Mahar Hodesh
(1 Samuel 20:18-42)
October 21, 2006
Jonathan is greatly agitated for the fate of his friend, David, whose life is threatened by Jonathan\’s father, King Saul. Together, David and Jonathan contrive a plan for David to be absent from the king\’s Rosh Hodesh banquet in order to test the king\’s feelings regarding David. David goes to hide in the wilderness in a place known only to Jonathan so that when the time comes, Jonathan can come and signal to David the nature of the threat to his life: \”So the day after tomorrow, go down all the way to the place where you hid the other time, and stay close to the Ezel stone. Now I will shoot three arrows to one side of it, as though I were shooting at a mark, and I will order the boy to go and find the arrows. If I call to the boy (l\’naar), \’Hey\’ the arrows are on this side of you (v\’heina),\’ be reassured and come, for you are safe and there is no danger- as the Lord lives! But if, instead, I call to the lad (la\’elem), \’Hey! The arrows are beyond you (v\’hala),\’ then leave, for the Lord has sent you away…\” (Verses 19-22)
How was David to know from these actions how to respond? According to Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, the 12th century French exegete and philosopher, David was to understand what to do from how the arrow was shot. The Ezel stone was the target. If the arrows fell short of the stone then David was safe, but if they fell beyond the stone, then David was in danger and should flee. Rabbi Yitchak Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish-Portuguese statesman and exegete, concluded that the message to David was to be understood from Jonathan\’s message to the youth: \”if I (Jonathan) should surely say to the youth: the arrows are on this side of you, then you (David should take it as a sign and come for you are safe…but if I say thus to the lad: the arrows are beyond you, then you, David, go for the Lord has sent you.\” (abridged)
Rabi Meir Leibush Malbim (19th century Lithuania) was known to have been very influenced by Abrabanel\’s interpretation. He is also known to pay attention to the text\’s special manner of expression. His interpretation here proves these two attributes. He agrees with Abrabanel that the message to David is to be found in Jonathan\’s words, but he goes further than Abrabanel in finding significance in the choice of words. He noticed, in particular, that in one sentence Jonathan used the word \”naar\” for youth while in the other sentence he used the word \”elem\”. In addition, in the first sentence, Jonathan used the word \”v\’heina\” indicating close proximity while in the latter sentence he used the word \”v\’hala\” indicating distance. He concludes from these distinctions the following message to David: \”1. The use of the word \”v\’heina\” indicates safety because \”hene\” means \”here,\” while the word \”v\’hala\” implies that David should flee \”further\”; 2. The use of \”naar\” for the youth, according to Malbim, implies someone without zeal, while \”elem\” refers to someone heroic and consequently dangerous. For Malbim, Jonathan\’s exact manner of expression mattered. Every word was carefully chosen.
Malbim\’s approach may seem exaggerated but it does point out the attention that the Jewish tradition pays to the appreciation of details. It would not be extreme to say that for the Jewish tradition God and truth are often to be found in the fine print.
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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