One of the joys of Torah is that each time we return to it, we find new meaning in the text. Midrash says there are seventy faces of Torah, but in fact there are many more. This is true for each Torah portion, each passage, and even individual words.
This week as we open to Sefer Devarim (the Book of Deuteronomy), Moses addresses the people, reviewing their itinerary and summing up their experience in the Wilderness, in the course of which Moses recounts:
רַב-לָכֶם, סֹב אֶת-הָהָר הַזֶּה; פְּנוּ לָכֶם, צָפֹנָה.
Then the Lord said to me: You have been skirting this hill country long enough; now turn צָפֹנָה tzafona/northward. (Deuteronomy 2:3)
Northward. Seems simple and clear enough, doesn’t it? Merely a cardinal direction? But the Hebrew term צָפֹנָה tzafona (“northward”) looks and sounds like the Hebrew word צָפוּן (tzafun) meaning “hide” or “hidden.” This generates a raft of interpretations—all based not merely on the one word, but on reading that one word as its homonym.
This week, I offer you three different “directions” commentators take based on reading “northward” as “hidden”. These commentaries were written 1,100 years ago, 400 years ago, and 200 years ago.
This first is from midrash Devarim Rabbah 1:19, edited perhaps as late as 900 C.E. Reading “northward” as “hidden” producing these three teachings:
1. R. Chiyya interpreted: Moses said to Israel: “If you see that [Esau/the Edomites] seeks to make war on you, then do not stand up to him but hide yourselves from him until his world [his time of power and sovereignty] will have passed. (For R. Chiyya, turning tzafona/northward is a message to Israel that powerless though they be at this time, their time to flourish will come. Torah delivers an imperative to hide—lay low, bide their time, and wait patiently—until the evil empire will fall.)
2. For R. Yehudah b. Shallum, “northward” also resonates with the word “hide” but also “north” in the sense of the direction Israel should go, which is toward Torah, Israel’s “North Star”: R. Yehudah b. Shallum said: Israel complained before God: “Master of the Universe, [Esau’s] father blessed him with the words, By the sword shall you live [Jacob’s blessing of Esau in Genesis 27:40], and You approved of the blessing, and You say to us, ‘Hide yourselves before him’? Where shall we flee?” God replied: “When you see that he would attack you, then flee to the Torah.” And tzafonah/northward surely means the Torah, as it is written, יִצְפֹּן לַיְשָׁרִים He lays up sound wisdom for the upright (Proverbs 2:7). (I suspect that R. Yehudah understands the verse in Deuteronomy to be a hint that Israel should thoroughly immerse themselves in Torah—a “hiding” of sorts—when their political situation is precarious, because the remainder of Proverbs 2:7, not quoted in the midrash, says: מָגֵן לְהֹלְכֵי תֹם It is a shield to those who walk with it wholly. The message: Torah will protect them.)
3. A third explanation of tzafonah/northward is offered by R. Yitzhak: R. Yitzhak said: The Holy One of Blessing said [to Israel]: “Wait, the King Messiah has yet to come to fulfill the words of Scripture, מָה רַב-טוּבְךָ אֲשֶׁר צָפַנְתָּ לִּירֵאֶיךָ How abundant is Your goodness that You have tzafanta/laid up for those who fear You (Psalm 31:20). (For R. Yitzhak, tzafona/northward also connotes something laid up or hidden away, which he understands as the reward awaiting Israel in the world-to-come.)
Taken together, Devarim Rabbah 1:19 speaks to a people experiencing a high degree of vulnerability. It says: (1) Lay low and “hide” from the current iteration of “Esau”—their contemporary —because their power will eventually fade; (2) Israel’s best refuge and guarantee of survival is Torah; and (3) recall the promise of ultimate reward in olam ha-ba (the world-to-come). Perhaps the message can be summed up this way: However onerous and difficult life is, submerse yourself in Torah and await your divine reward.
The second commentary is found in Kli Yakar, the work of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim b. Aaron Luntschitz (1550-1619), who also reads tzafona as “hidden.” But he hears a different message, one germane to the situation of his community as he understands it. For Kli Yakar, Deuteronomy 2:3 delivers a resounding warning about ostentation. Living in Lemberg, Poland and then Prague, Czechoslovakia in the late 16th and early 17th century, he is keenly aware of the tenuous position of Jews in both communities and throughout Europe. He explains that the verse instructs Israel to live “hidden” in exile, meaning that they should not flaunt their wealth or live beyond their means, because that could attract the attention and arouse the envy of their potentially violent and vindictive Gentiles neighbors. Here, too, we hear the echo of a vulnerable community’s anxiety, but unlike Devarim Rabbah, which counsels laying low and riding it out if need be until the messianic age, Rabbi Luntschitz seems to hold the Jews of his generation responsible for at least some of the ill-treatment they experience.
Now please consider a third and different “direction” of interpretation that nonetheless begins with reading tzafona as “hidden” rather than “northward.” For the hasidic teacher, R. Binyanim b. Aharon of Zalocze, a student of the Maggid of Mezeritch who lived in the 18th century, the verse suggests something more internal, personal, and psychological. In Torey Zahav (published 1816) he tells us that the enemy is personal and internal: the yetzer ra, the inclination inherent in each of us to do evil. R. Binyamin addresses his warning to tzaddikim, in particular. These are the charismatic hasidic teachers who lead the community in his day. Here is how R. Binyamin explains tzafona. (Please note: it helps to read the Talmudic references—one passage of Gemara and two mishnayot—in his commentary. I have included them for you as footnotes #2-4.)
We are taught that the Evil Inclination appears to the righteous like a mountain. I heard in the name of that wondrous hasid R. Nachman Kossover [a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov] an interpretation of, “The holiest offerings are slaughtered on the north [side of the altar]” (M Zevachim 5:1). The Evil Inclination entices people to commit serious transgressions. But in the case of a tzaddik, who has already overcome him several times, the Evil Inclination begins by convincing him to perform a mitzvah that really turns out to be a great sin. It might involve informing on a person or publicly shaming someone. Sometimes just a bit of improper motivation is brought in, something you don’t realize unless you look into it with great care. Only then do you feel it. Because of this, the tzaddik must always be vigilant, not letting go of this self-awareness even for a moment. Of this a pious one [Bachya b. Yosef ibn Pakuda] once said: “You may be asleep, but he [the Evil Inclination] is awake; you may be distracted, but he is always attentive, seeking to expel you from both this world and next” (Chovot ha-Levavot, Sha’ar Yichud ha-Ma’aseh 5). This is the meaning of “the holiest offerings”—those are the tzaddikim—“are slaughtered on the north.” The Evil Inclination “slaughters” them in matters that are tzafun/hidden. He knows the tzaddik won’t follow him into obvious sin. The same is not true, however, of ordinary people. Therefore “offerings of lesser holiness are slaughtered in any place in [the Temple] Court” (M Zevachim 5:7). People of little awareness can get caught up in obvious transgressions, so they can be “slaughtered” anywhere. This much I heard.
R. Binyanim recognizes that the Evil Inclination threatens us all. We all face temptation. But those who hold themselves out as leaders—and especially on the basis of their righteousness, which is what “tzaddik” means—face a special temptation: that their very holiness and special position will draw them into wrong doing, that in their quest for purity and righteousness and their expectation that others live up to their standards, they go overboard and commit grievous wrongdoings. R. Binyomin is issuing a warning to the hasidic leaders of his day, the “tzaddikim.” Today we would say that the risks inherent in being a “holy person” derive from ego and power. Informing on people and publicly shaming others are excellent examples; one appears to be doing the prescribed task, but goes overboard and causes grievous hurt to others.
This is, of course, not a danger reserved for hasidic leaders alone. Donald Miller is a young evangelical who went viral in the evangelical world after publishing his post-modern evangelical spiritual journey, Blue Like Jazz. In another forum he tells the story of a pastor in the small church in Texas where he grew up.
A committee was put in place to replace our [retiring] pastor and the committee decided to hire a dynamic young man from Louisiana. The man had been a traveling preacher, moving from church to church to perform revivals, to tell people about Jesus. He was a tall man and loud. He flailed his arms as he spoke. He talked about God’s power, about God’s wrath, about God’s love and to be honest he was quite moving… On any given Sunday we would experience a range of emotions from guilt and shame to fear and sometimes joy.
I even remember his first sermon. It was entitled “Appoint those you trust and trust those you appoint.” That should have been an obvious sign to everybody. He was saying, without question, if you hire me to be your pastor, I am the boss. You must never question my authority.
Soon, the entire congregation fell under his spell. We loved it when he delighted in us but feared screwing up. One Sunday he snapped at the man working in the sound booth so sharply the man turned red from embarrassment. The pastor, realizing he’d gone too far, explained, ferociously, that God is a God of excellence and wouldn’t stand for mistakes, even from volunteer sound guys. He then quoted a passage about how we were supposed to be perfect even as Christ is perfect.
Looking back, this was all manipulation. People who care about the truth understand they are capable of self-deception and surround themselves with accountability. This pastor got rid of the accountability. He drove off any elder who wouldn’t submit, once again, quoting scripture and spinning the Bible so that those questioning his motives looked like infidels. He even said he felt justified using violence against them, simply because they refused to trust the leader God had appointed.
What Donald Miller describes is much like what R. Binyanim b. Aharon of Zalocze warns against in Torey Zahav. But is it a danger only for tzaddikim and evangelical pastors? Clearly not. Anyone with power or authority over others, whether explicit or of a more subtle nature, can succumb to the yetzer ra (Evil Inclination) who “begins by convincing him to do a mitzvah that really turns out to be a great sin.” Bosses, parents, teachers… many of us are in the position to fall into the trap. The trenchant warning of Torey Zahav should not be missed.
While midrash Devarim Rabbah and Kli Dakar express anxiety about Jewish powerlessness and vulnerability in exile, Torey Zahav is concerned with the abuse of power by Jewish leaders in the hasidic world. Could their messages be more different? All three commentaries depend upon reading one word—צָפֹנָה—as “hidden” rather than its contextual meaning of “northward.”
Torah and the rabbinic enterprise of interpretation offer us a world of, and means to, making meaning for our lives. Midrash Tanna de-vei Eliezer expresses it through a beautiful allegory that tells us in giving Israel the Torah, God had precisely this in mind: that we should engage in creative interpretation to allow our sacred texts to speak to our lives:
A king of flesh and blood had two servants whom he loved dearly. He gave each of them a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax. The intelligent one what did he do? He wove the flax into a cloth and made flour from the wheat, sifted it, ground it, kneaded it, and baked it, and arranged it on the table, spread on it the cloth and left it until the king returned. The stupid one did not do anything. After a time, the king returned to his house and said to them: “My sons, bring me what I gave you.” One brought out the table set with the bread and the cloth spread upon it, and the other brought the wheat in a basket and the bundle of flax with it. Oh what an embarrassment and a disgrace! Which do you think was most beloved? The one who brought the table with the bread upon it… So, too, the Holy One gave the Torah to Israel, God gave it as wheat from which to make flour and flax from which to make clothing. (Tanna de-vei Eliyahu, ch. 2)
Torah is not fully Torah until we dive into it, interpret it, and make it our own. We find further encouragement in Pirke Avot:
בן בגבג אומר, הפוך בה והפך בה, והגי בה דכולא בה, ובה תחזי, סיב ובלי בה; ומינה לא תזוז, שאין לך מידה טובה יותר ממנה. בן האהא אומר, לפום צערא אגרא.
Ben Bag-Bag used to say of the Torah: Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, and wax gray and old over it. Stir not from it for you can have no better measure than it. Ben Heh-Heh used to say: According to the effort is the reward. (Pirke Avot 5:24-25)
If this is what we get from just one word, consider that Torah has 79,847 words. Imagine the hidden possibilities.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
He is referring to BT Sukkot 52a: R. Yehudah expounded: In the time to come the Holy One of Blessing will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of both the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a mountain; to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep: The righteous will weep saying, “How were we able to overcome such a mountain!” The wicked will also weep saying, “How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread!” And the Holy One of Blessing will also marvel together with them, as it is said, כֹּה אָמַר, יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, כִּי יִפָּלֵא בְּעֵינֵי שְׁאֵרִית הָעָם הַזֶּה, בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם--גַּם-בְּעֵינַי, יִפָּלֵא, נְאֻם, יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת.Thus says the Lord of Hosts: “If it be marvelous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, should it also be marvelous in My eyes? (Zechariah 8:6).
M Zevachim 5:1: What are the locations of the sacrifices? The holiest offerings were slaughtered on the north [side of the altar]. The bullock and the he-goat of Yom Kippur were slaughtered on the north side and their blood was received in a consecrated vessel on the north side and had to be sprinkled between the staves [of the Ark] and the Curtain [of the Holy of Holies], and on the golden incense altar. [Omission] of one of these applications invalidates [the offering]. He [a priest] poured the remaining blood on the western base of the outer altar, but if he did not do so, it does not invalidate [the offering].
M Zevachim 5:7: The Shelamim [“peace offerings”] were offerings of lesser holiness are slaughtered in any place in [the Temple] Court. Two double sprinklings of their blood were made [at the altar so as so] as to constitute four; and they might be eaten, dressed in any manner, anywhere in the city, by any person, during two day sand the intervening night. The portions of it [i.e., breast and shank] belonging to the priests were subject to the same rule [as other sacrifices] except that they could be eaten only by priests their wives, their children, and their bondservants.