Haftarah Parshat Beshalah (Judge 4:4-5:31)
January 31, 2015 / 11 Shevat 5775
Poetry sometimes states the probable in impenetrable ways creating for its readers the potential for both a plethora of possible interpretations and the exasperation of misunderstanding. I say this upon looking at the variety of interpretations for the opening words of the song of the prophetess Deborah sung upon her successful victory over Israel’s enemies. The first verse opens with the words: “When hair goes untrimmed in Israel (bifroa peraot b’Yisrael), when people dedicate themselves – Bless the Lord”. (NJPS 5:2) [The author of this translation sees in “untrimmed hair” an indication of dedication.] The root letters of the first two words of this sentence are constructed from the Hebrew root – peh, resh, ayin -but despite the above translation just about everyone seems confounded by the meaning of these words.
In the Alexandrinus manuscript of the Greek Septuagint, the earliest translation of the Bible into a foreign language, these words are translated as meaning “leader” – “When the leaders ruled over Israel”, but in the Vatican manuscript of the Septuagint, these same words are understood to mean “revelation” – “When the revelation was revealed in Israel”. The Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, Targum Yonathon, translates this phrase: “When Israel rebelled against the Torah”, while Rashi renders it to mean: “When the enemies came upon Israel”. Rabbi David Kimche interprets “pera” by associating it with the Aramaic word “poranuta” which means “punishment or troubles” since the two words seem to share a common root. The actual meaning of the word “pera” seems to be “hair on the head”. (See Leviticus 13:45) The meaning evolved in two directions as is indicated from the above interpretations: 1. Leader; 2. Upheaval. (See Yaira Amit, Judges, Mikra L’Yisrael, pp. 95-96)
The following halachic interpretation was inspired by the second definition of the word: “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: He who responds, ‘Amen, yehei Shmei rabbah mevorach l’olam ulemai ulmayah – Amen, May His great Name be blessed’, with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up, as it is said, ‘When punishment was annulled in Israel, for the people offered themselves willingly to bless the Lord’. Why was ‘punishment annulled’? – Because they blessed the Lord.” (Shabbat 119b)
This midrash claims that the recitation of the refrain verse of the Kaddish prayer has the power to avert punishment. It bases this claim on a causative interpretation of the verse from Judges, namely that if a person enthusiastically praises God (according to Rashi that means “with sincere intention” and according to Tosafot it menas “voiced enthusiastically”) then God will alleviate one’s troubles. I do not feel qualified to determine whether the author of this statement meant it literally or as hyperbole. I think, though, that we can say something of the religious psychology behind this statement. It seems clear to me that Rabbi Joshua ben Levi gives voice to the idea that religious sincerity and enthusiasm are powerful commodities that have the capacity to change worlds. We ought to adopt this powerful idea wholeheartedly. Perhaps we too can transform the worlds that we live in.