Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Pun and The Primordial

A thought for Parshat Chukat:

At the start of the Jewish nation’s fortieth year in the wilderness, they again protested their desert predicament. “The nation’s spirit became short, due to their travels,” we are told, and they rejected the Divine gift of manna. The Divine reaction was harsh; G-d sent poisonous serpents, which began to bite and kill the wayward Jews. The nation admitted their sin, and called upon Moshe to pray to G-d on their behalf. Moshe interceded, and G-d told him, “Make a serpent, and place it atop a pole. All those who are bitten should look upon it, and live.” Moshe formed a snake of nechoshet [a copper alloy, either brass or bronze] and brought the plague to an end. (Bamidbar 21:4-9)

This story introduces obvious problems of theology, but a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 31:8) seizes upon an apparently minor detail to make a major theological statement.

Our midrash cites four cases in which G-d instructs a human being “Aseh lecha,” “Make for yourself.” In three out of the four – Noach’s boat of gopher wood; Joshua’s circumcision knives of stone; Moshe’s trumpets of silver – G-d specifies the material to use. In our case, though, no material is specified. [Our midrash omits Aseh lecha instructions that appear in Yirmiyahu 27:2 and Yechezkel 12:3. Perhaps this is because those items are not truly “for yourself”; they are only prophetic props, and have no further function.] And so our midrash asks: How did Moshe know to use nechoshet?

Medieval commentators noted the same problem, and offered a range of solutions:

  • Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra suggests that G-d told Moshe to use nechoshet, but the text did not record it.
  • Ramban offers that nechoshet would be a particularly good material for simulating a serpent.
  • Rabbi Chizkiyah ben Manoach (Chizkuni) contends that nechoshet was a practical choice, due to its visibility from afar.

Our midrash provides a different approach, though: A pun.

Rabbi Yudin explains in our midrash, citing Rabbi Eivo: “[Moshe] said: If I would make it of gold, the term for one [nachash] would not flow into the term for the other [zahav]. If I would make it of silver, the term for one [nachash] would not flow into the term for the other [kesef]. I will make it of nechoshet, language flowing into language.”

In other words: Moshe used a pun to determine that he should use nechoshet to form the serpent.

Of course, the use of the nachash in this story is itself a pun. The Hebrew word nachash refers not only to a serpent, but also to secret knowledge (see Bereishit 44:5 and Vayikra 19:26) – as seen in the Garden of Eden, and as seen with this serpent which conveyed the Divine cure. Moshe, then, layered pun upon pun.

While the midrash’s acknowledgement of a biblical pun is interesting, its next step is profound. Rabbi Eivo adds, “From here we see that the Torah was given in the sacred tongue.” Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Chizkiyah then cite Rabbi Simon, “Just as the Torah was given in the sacred tongue, so the world was created with the sacred tongue.” The association between serpent and copper alloy is fundamental to their natures, and it is expressed in the Torah’s Hebrew words for both of them, because Hebrew is the language of Torah and of Creation. [See, too, Bereishit Rabbah 17:4 and 18:4, and Shabbat 104a.] In other words: The Pentateuchal pun is pre-ordained, primordial.

What is the point of linking Hebrew with Creation? Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Kuzari II 67-68) explains that this is evidence of the elevated character of the Hebrew language. However, one might also suggest that this link teaches the importance of the Jew, speaker of Hebrew, in the plan of Divine Creation.

Reading the Torah plainly, I could have assumed that Jews were the beneficiaries of a handful of superlative ancestors and serendipitous incidents. If not for the daring of Avraham and Sarah, we might have remained in Aram; if not for Eliezer’s prayer at the well, we might have been a one-generation wonder. This midrash argues for Jewish exceptionalism, claiming that Jews are no product of fortune; rather, the Jew is hardwired into the universe, his language the code of Creation, her destiny the primordial plan.

This perspective on the role of the Jew is at once daunting and inspiring. It demands that we view our next move as more than the expression of personal whim, and as necessary for the success of the Divine will. The universe, crafted with our tongue, is playing our song. Moshe’s decision to fashion the nachash of nechoshet teaches us that not only is Hebrew a tool of G-d – but so are we.


  1. It strikes me that there may be another play on words at work, inasmuch as nachash is a partial anagram of nashach, which also appears in the passage.

  2. RAM-
    I left it open for that one...

    Indeed; a phonetic anagram even in a time when people pronounced ח differently, apparently.

  3. What a wonderful devar Torah...

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