Hebrew’s Answer to Life’s Deepest Riddle
The Bible’s most famous riddle was the brainchild of Samson. “Out of the eater came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet” (Judges 14:14). Samson posed it on the occasion of his seven-day wedding feast to thirty young Philistine men who came to celebrate his marriage to one of their own. On the last day, the young men responded gleefully: “What is sweeter than honey, and what is stronger than a lion?” Dismayed, Samson accused them of coercing his bride: “Had you not plowed with my heifer, you would not have guessed my riddle.” And indeed, threatened by them with savage revenge, she had wheedled the answer out of Samson, only to betray him, exactly as Delilah would do later in his life.
Behind the riddle lay a real life experience. On his first trip to the land of the Philistines to arrange the marriage, Samson had killed bare-handed, a full grown lion on the attack. Upon his return for the wedding feast, he turned aside to inspect the carcass. A swarm of bees had taken up residence in its skeleton. Samson scooped up a handful of honey which he savored and shared with his parents without revealing its source. The riddle conveys the impact of the experience: Samson was intrigued by the phenomenon of an object becoming its opposite. Reality seemed more fluid than fixed.
That sense of impermanence is imbedded in the very language of the Bible. Biblical Hebrew contains a small number of words that bear antithetical meanings. These words are more than homonyms with dissimilar meanings like bear (to carry) and bear (the animal.) Their meanings are diametrically opposed to each other. Moreover, in English, homonyms usually derive fortuitously from different origins, whereas in biblical Hebrew the polarity of meanings seems to inhere by design in one and the same word. Like Samson’s lion, the word morphs into its opposite.
It is the appearance of such a Hebrew homonym in our parashah that prompts me to take you down an arcane philological path. But I do so because in this instance a deep worldview is built into the structure of the language.
This week we read of the tithe that every Israelite was obliged to give every third year of the sabbatical cycle. In contrast to the tithes of other years, this tithe was not to be brought to the central sanctuary for its priestly officials, but distributed at home to those at risk – orphans, widows, strangers and Levites. When the duty had been fulfilled, the Israelite was to attest in a public declaration that, “I have not eaten of it [the tithe] while in mourning [ve-oni], I have not cleared out any of it while I was unclean, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead” (26:14). That is; as Jeffrey Tigay explains in his sterling commentary on Deuteronomy, the poor-tithe was no less sacred than that which was to be brought to the sanctuary. Both belonged to God and hence had to be kept ritually pure.
What interests me, however, is the Hebrew word for mourning, oni. The exact same word in other contexts means strength as in Jacob’s reference to Reuben, his first-born, “the first fruit of my vigor [reshit oni]” (Genesis 49:3). On occasion, these two meanings of oni may even converge in a double entendre. Rachel expires tragically as she gives birth to Benjamin: “But as she breathed her last – for she was dying – she named him Ben-oni” (Genesis 35:18), which could be translated with equal validity as “son of my suffering” or “son of my strength!” The polarity of meanings gives rise to a dialectic that mirrors the complexity of life itself.
Another homonym comes from last week’s parashah. The well-known Hebrew word for holy (kadosh) can also at times mean unholy. Thus the Torah prohibits the mixing of different crops in the same field (kil’ayim): “You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, else the crop – from the seed you have sown – and the yield of the vineyard may not be used” (22:9). In Hebrew the verb for “may not be used” is a form of kadosh – pen tikdash, meaning literally, unholy. To intermingle crops defiles the produce making it unusable and therefore to be destroyed.
Similarly, later in the parashah, the Torah cryptically forbids the institution of cultic prostitutes, whether male kadesh or female kedeshah. The connection of both terms to the word kadoshis self-evident. Clearly, implicit in the word and concept of the “holy” is its polar opposite, ever-ready to break forth in an act of sacrilege. In fact, the relationship between the words “sacred” and “sacrilege,” which share a common Latin root-meaning holy is as close a parallel as I can find in English to the organic homonyms of biblical Hebrew.
The prohibition against mixed cropping appears as part of a cluster of laws forbidding other combinations such as yoking an ox and an ass for plowing or making garments of wool and linen (sha’atnez). All of these proscriptions are informed by the Torah’s pervasive thrust to establish order out of chaos. The ideal is to respect and perpetuate that order, the individuality of its constituent parts and the integrity of the boundaries on which it rests.
And, yet, reality daily threatens to erode and eradicate that order. Things are hopelessly intermingled and jumbled. It is to that underlying dynamic of disarray that the homonyms of biblical Hebrew allude. An excess of holiness can easily turn religion into fanaticism. A difficult delivery denied Rachel the joy of nursing and nurturing her baby. Our lives are jolted by a never-ending cascade of conflicting emotions and conditions. Hebrew philology points to a philosophic truth: the normal state of humanity is impermanence and disorder.
The texts for this Shabbat refract our common destiny in the fluid fate of ancient Israel. The parashah opens with a scene of peace and prosperity. Once settled in the land of promise, Israelite farmers are to journey to the country’s central sanctuary with the first fruits of their annual harvest to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. It is the bounty of the soil that enables them also to share of their produce with their vulnerable fellow-citizens in a poor-tithe.
But that idyll of pastoral tranquility quickly gives way to a horrific litany of national calamities. The covenant with God is not an unmixed blessing. Israel’s infidelity will lead to defeat, deportation and exile. Endless sights of suffering will drive many to distraction. As strangers in foreign lands, Israelites will be smitten with an inescapable sense of precariousness.
And yet the covenant is not abrogated. Contrition and atonement will be followed by restoration. Exile is not to be Israel’s irreversible condition. This week’s haftarah of consolation – the sixth of seven between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah – soars with images of reconciliation and redemption. The exiles will soon come streaming back. Their oppressors will cease to revile them and hasten to rebuild Jerusalem for them. Bathed by God’s presence, Jerusalem will emit an effusion of light that will free it of need for the sun by day or by night.
And your people, all of them righteous,
Shall possess the land for all time;
They are the shoot that I [God] planted.
My handiwork in which I glory.
The smallest shall become a clan;
The least, a mighty nation.
I the Lord will speed it in due time.
Still, till then instability remains the actual order of our daily lives, individually and collectively. Samson’s riddle is the key to the riddle of life. As 9/11 reminds us so painfully this week, chaos lies in wait to shatter our equilibrium beyond endurance and recovery. The recognition of that vulnerability is encoded in the very fabric of the Hebrew language, because the mission of religion is to help us master life.