Linguistic Fossils

Pinehas By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jul 14, 2001 / 5761 | Torah Commentary

Fossils come in different forms. Those buried in the earth have vastly expanded our conception of time and the evolution of life. Those imbedded in the language we speak are closer to our daily experience and barely noticed. Despite the change in world view, these linguistic fossils persist because they are concrete, vivid and emotionally satisfying. Thus a current TV sitcom about a happily married minister with seven children can sport the name Seventh Heaven, though no one holds any longer the medieval notion that the earth sits at the center of a cosmos surrounded by seven firmaments. Two other examples of idioms that have outlasted their origins: “To placate the gods” we would be ready to go to “the ends of the earth.”

The phenomenon occurs as well in this week’s parashah at the beginning of the list of communal sacrifices to be offered in the Tabernacle or Temple throughout the year: “The Lord said to Moses, saying: Command the Israelite people and say to them: Be punctilious in presenting to Me at stated times the offerings of food due to Me, as offerings by fire of pleasing odor to Me (Numbers 28:1–2).” At first glance, the depiction of sacrifices as food for God’s nourishment and pleasure to God’s senses echoes images that once pervaded the ancient Near East. The gods, it was believed, created humans to attend to their domestic needs. Sacrifices and libations freed them from the daily chore of securing food and drink. Psalm 50 makes it unequivocally clear that such a primitive belief wreaked havoc with the monotheistic conception of God. How could the Creator of the universe stand in need of human gifts?

Pay heed, My people, and I will speak, 
    O Israel, and I will arraign you.
I am God, your God.
I censure you not for your sacrifices, 
    and your burnt offerings, made to Me daily; 
    I claim no bull from your estate, 
    no he–goats from your pens.
For Mine is every animal of the forest, 
    the beasts on a thousand mountains.
I know every bird of the mountains, 
    the creatures of the field are subject to Me.
Were I hungry, I would not tell you, 
    for Mine is the world and all it holds.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, 
    or drink the blood of he–goats?
Sacrifice a thanks offering to God, 
    and pay your vows to the Most High.
Call upon Me in time of trouble; 
    I will rescue you, and you shall honor Me.
(Psalm 50:7–15)

The triumph of this radically new theology in the Bible perhaps best accounts for the tolerance of linguistic fossils. And yet the Rabbis were uneasy with them. They could be misleading, especially when a beleaguered culture was trying to invest old forms of worship with new meaning. Of interest to me are the rabbinic efforts to divest the phrase, “of pleasing odor to Me,” of its graphic anthropomorphism. It appears often in the Torah, usually without the personal pronoun, and in one astonishing case a verb has God actively doing the smelling. After the flood, No·ah offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God from each of the clean birds and animals aboard the ark. The reaction is swift: “The Lord smelled the pleasing odor (reah ha–nihoah). . .” and promised No·ah never to visit the earth again with such global destruction (Genesis 8:21). Accordingly, in every instance of the idiom, including the No·ah story, the oldest Aramaic translation of the Torah at our disposal, the Targum, renders it abstractly as an expression of Divine favor rather than as a description of bodily function.

The Sifre, the oldest rabbinic commentary on Numbers and Deuteronomy, likewise shifts our understanding of the phrase to an inner state. By reversing the order of the words reah nihoah, the midrash cleverly comes up with nahat ruah, or “satisfaction.” For the Rabbis, nahat (from nuah – to be at rest [in Yiddish nahas]) is close enough to nihoah to allow for the equivalence. Israel’s observance of God’s commandments gives God relief and pleasure. Human free will is after all a source of Divine angst (Sifre 143; Baruch A. Levine, JPS Torah Commentary, Leviticus, pp. 7–8).

The very frequency of our fossil phrase inspires yet another grand insight. The final mishnah at the end of a dense and tortuous tractate on Temple sacrifices (Menahot) takes note of the fact that the phrase is to be found at the beginning of Leviticus with regard to burnt offerings (olah) of all sizes. It matters not if the offering be a bull or a bird or a meal offering; if done properly, they all give rise to “a pleasing odor to the Lord (Leviticus 1:9, 17; 2:2).” That observation prompts the mishnah to cut the Gordian knot of defining piety in terms of quantity. Religiously speaking, more is not necessarily better. The quality of the intention counts for more than the sum total offered. Or in the words of the mishnah: “It does not matter how much or little you are able to do, as long as your mind is fully focused on God (Mishnah Menahot 13:11).”

In his commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Judah Berlin, the last great head of the Volozhin Yeshivah before it was closed by the Russian authorities in 1892, reworked the other fossil term in our parashah, “lahmi, my food or bread.” He associated the common noun, lehem, with the uncommon verb, “malhim – to join together.” For example, a midrash on the haftarah for Tishah B’Av afternoon and other fast days (Isaiah 55:6–56:8) speculates on just how wholeheartedly God will accept a person full of remorse. Isaiah demands: “Let the wicked give up his ways, the sinful man his plans; let him turn back to God and He will pardon him (Isaiah 55:7).” The midrash proffers that God will embrace the penitent never to release him again, along the lines of someone who joins two boards with glue so that they will never come apart. The verb for this activity is malhim, hence says the Natziv (R. Berlin) the use of lehem in regard to sacrifices, a word that signifies a state of attachment and intimacy (Ha’ameq Davar, Numbers 28:2). And is that not the purpose of all genuine ritual, to provide a bridge to join two worlds often utterly out of sync?

Nor, in the final analysis, do we perform God’s will to please God. The religious life is its own reward. We pray daily not because we are commanded, but because of the inner contentment that it brings. What was once external and imposed has at last been internalized by us into a source of self–fulfillment. And that is how the gemara in Menahot ends by stressing the word “lirtzonkhem — for your benefit (Leviticus 19:5), and not Mine!” Worship effects no change in God, but it can surely transform our lives by exposing us to God’s presence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Pinhas have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.