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Parshat Shmini (Outside of Israel) – Mahar Hodesh

Parshat Shmini  (Outside of Israel) – Mahar Hodesh (1 Samuel 20:18-42)
Parshat Tazriah-Metzorah (Israel) – Mahar Hodesh
April 18, 2015 / 29 Nisan 5775

Midrashic interpretation is often associative. A given word will trigger an idea or a connection with another story which will serve as a platform for an unusual insight. A seemingly innocuous detail in a story can prompt some profound idea. In the story line for this special haftarah, recited when Rosh Hodesh falls on Sundays, Jonathan, King Saul’s son, warns his closest friend, David, of the enmity of the king. He tells his friend David to hide himself in the field until he can warn him of the king’s anger and that he will provide him with a sign to indicate if he is in danger or not: “Now I will shoot three arrows to the side of it [the place where you are hiding], as though I was shooting at a mark… If I call to the boy [sent to retrieve the arrows], ‘Hey, the arrows are to this side of you’ be reassured and come, for you are safe and there is no danger… but, if, instead, I call to the lad, ‘the arrows are beyond you’, then leave, for the Lord has sent you away.”

That Jonathan’s signal was made with three arrows inspired the biblical commentator, Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim (19th century Ukraine – Poland), to associate the cause of David’s dire condition with the sin of “leshon hara”, literally “evil tongue, since both “arrows” and the number three are symbols of this particular sin. For Malbim, much of Saul’s ill feelings for David were on account of evil reports from his advisors.

What is the source of these particular symbols? Arrows are frequently biblical symbol of hurtful speech. (See Psalm 120:4 and Genesis Rabbah 98:19) For the sages, the number three was associated with hurtful speech because of the common belief that snakes, a symbol of hurtful speech, had three tongues. (The rapid movement of the snake’s tongue made it appear that it had multiple tongues.) The rabbis assert from this observation that hurtful speech harms three: the speaker, the listener and the party being spoken of. (See Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, pp. 191-3)

Malbim saw in this tragic tale of conflict between David and Saul, a valuable lesson for all of us. Words can have the destructive impact of weapons. Kingdoms can rise and fall over their misuse as can lives.

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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