Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Shemot #2: Multivalence

Parshat Shemot contains an interesting pasuk which might exhibit multivalence. I am noting up front that this dvar torah is not my own invention, but is rather an example of multi-valence I heard, though I don't know who originated it.

Multivalent means "having various meanings or values: subtle, multivalent allegory." Generally when we look at a pasuk, or a specific word, we try to find out its single meaning. Different meforshim might take different approaches to the meaning of the word, phrase or sentence. We then have a machloket between several commentators, with each attributing a *single* meaning to the text. Elu VeElu Divrei Elokim Chaim, at least as it is typically understood (I take a slightly different tack in terms of the meaning and range of Elu VeElu), is that each of the conflicting opinions is correct; all were said by Hashem on Har Sinai, and so all are accurate. This is hard to say when we speak of a debate in what actually happened - only one thing historically happened (which is why I disagree with the common understanding - see my posting on bereishit, about the different paths to sin, where I take on Elu VeElu).

Multivalence is a modern scholarly approach to psukim which seems to owe much to this concept of Elu VeElu. (Dr. Bernstien is involved in multivalence, and may have originated the dvar from Shemot I'll eventually get to relating. Any mistakes are mine though.) If two readings of a pasuk are possible, then perhaps both readings were intended. This is true in modern literature, where authors might use double-entendres, or carefully craft a phrase such that it conveys more than a single message. Especially when one recognizes the Divine authorship of Torah the multivalent reading becomes more and more probable. For an Omniscient G-d would know what commentators would eventually read into His Words, and could craft His Words accordingly.

In Shemot we read how Moshe is placed in the Nile as an infant and is taken by Pharoah's daughter. While raised in Pharoah's house, he is still nursed by a Hebrew nursemaid, who happens to be his true mother. There is Hebrew in him, but he is Egyptian enough in that Pharoah's daughter adopts him as a son. In Shemot 2:10:

וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד, וַתְּבִאֵהוּ לְבַת-פַּרְעֹה, וַיְהִי-לָהּ, לְבֵן; וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, מֹשֶׁה, וַתֹּאמֶר, כִּי מִן-הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ.
"And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: 'Because I drew him out of the water.'"

and in the next pasuk, 11:
וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא, בְּסִבְלֹתָם; וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מַכֶּה אִישׁ-עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו.
"And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren."

The question that can be asked is who is אֶחָיו in pasuk 11. The reading that appeals to me is that it refers to Moshe's fellow Hebrews. But one could suggest that it refers to the fellow Egyptians. The problem I have with the latter is וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם seems to clearly refer to the Jew's burdens, but on the other hand perhaps it means the burdens of the Egyptians placed on the Jews' shoulders. Compare with Shemot 1:11:
וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים, לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם; וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת, לְפַרְעֹה--אֶת-פִּתֹם, וְאֶת-רַעַמְסֵס.
"Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with *their burdens*. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Raamses."

So we have two possible interpretations for the pasuk. The multivalent approach is to say that both meanings were intended, and that there is deliberate ambiguity at work here. Moshe was a man torn between two worlds, that of his Hebrew heritage which was also that of the slaves, and that of his adopted family where he lived a life of privilege. When he went out to see his brothers, אֶחָיו, Moshe himself was not sure which of the two, the Egyptians or the Hebrews, he considered his brothers. Seeing the Egyptian hit the Hebrew made him choose. At the end of the pasuk, we see וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ-עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו, so we can say that now Moshe chooses the Ish Ivri to be of his bretheren. (Alternatively, one might wish to stretch the multivalence to refer to this מֵאֶחָיו as well, with Moshe choosing when he actually slays the Egyptian.)

This fits in with my post below, about Moshe rejecting one life but not necessarily being accepted immediately into the Hebrew life. Consider the next day when he chastises the Rasha who strikes his friend, the Rasha replies, מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט עָלֵינוּ, that "Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?"

Further the Rasha says "הַלְהָרְגֵנִי אַתָּה אֹמֵר, כַּאֲשֶׁר הָרַגְתָּ אֶת-הַמִּצְרִי" which shows that perhaps Moshe is not now regarded by them as a Mitzri.

Moshe does not immediately reject the mantle of being an Egyptian. When he saves Reuel's (Yitro's) daughters, they tell their father אִישׁ מִצְרִי הִצִּילָנוּ מִיַּד הָרֹעִים, "'An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds."

(My further extension:) I would add that in the pasuk preceding Moshe's going out to visit his "brothers," their is also ambiguity which could give rise to a multivalent interpretation. That pasuk again is:

וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד, וַתְּבִאֵהוּ לְבַת-פַּרְעֹה, וַיְהִי-לָהּ לְבֵן; וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, מֹשֶׁה, וַתֹּאמֶר, כִּי מִן-הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ.
"And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: 'Because I drew him out of the water.'"

There are three actors in this pasuk: Pharoah's daughter, Moshe's mother, and Moshe. וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד is done by Moshe. וַתְּבִאֵהוּ לְבַת-פַּרְעֹה is done by Moshe's biological mother to Moshe, bringing him to Bat Paroah. וַיְהִי-לָהּ לְבֵן is done by Moshe, but to whom is he being a son? וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, מֹשֶׁה, וַתֹּאמֶר, כִּי מִן-הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ seems most clearly to be Bat Pharoah who drew him out of the water. But "Lah" could refer to Bat Pharoah or Yocheved. The simplest reading is that is refers to Pharoah's daughter, but there is a slight ambiguity there, which might be deliberate multivalence to show how Moshe was torn between two mothers.

Perhaos I will post later on what I think are some of the weaknesses of multivalence.

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