Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Behaalotcha #3: אין נא אלא לשון בקשה -Na` Only Connotes "Please"

A phrase used in the Sifrei on Bemidbar, on parshat Behaalotecha, is אין נא אלא לשון בקשה. This phrase is generally taken to mean that the word נא always means "please" in Tanach, and this on a pshat level.

I would question that interpretation. Firstly, one would never find the statement אין דבר אלא לשון אמירה - Dabeir only connotes talking. Why not? Because it is obvious that דבר refers to talking, for this is the simple translation of dabeir, so there would be no use in such a statement. The fact that the statement exists suggests that there is an alternative that we would think נא means.

Now let us consider parallels. We have אין ביעור חמץ אלא שריפה, an opinion that the only acceptable mode of destroying Chametz for Pesach is via burning it, as opposed to, say, scattering it. This admits that one might have thought other modes of destruction would have been sufficient, but selects only one as legitimate.

A better parallel, though, can be found in Midrash Rabba on parshat Naso. There, in a discussion about Shimshon and his captivity at the hands of the Philistines as the end of his life, the midrash notes the word טוחן. Shoftim 16:21:

כא וַיֹּאחֲזוּהוּ פְלִשְׁתִּים, וַיְנַקְּרוּ אֶת-עֵינָיו; וַיּוֹרִידוּ אוֹתוֹ עַזָּתָה, וַיַּאַסְרוּהוּ בַּנְחֻשְׁתַּיִם, וַיְהִי טוֹחֵן, בְּבֵית האסירים (הָאֲסוּרִים. 21 And the Philistines laid hold on him, and put out his eyes; and they brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison-house.
The Midrash states that אין טחינה אלא לשון עבירה, that טוחן only refers to sexual sin. In a middah kineged middah punishment for Delilah and others, Shimshon's punishment was that while in captivity, the Philistine men brought their wives to be impregnated by him so that they would have hardy offspring. The Midrash brings proof of this from a verse in which טוחן clearly *does* refer to that.

Saying that טוחן only refers to such a sin is clearly poetic overstatement, and means that here, it is taken out of its usual meaning and means such a sin. In general, and perhaps even here on a pshat level, it means grinding, but for the purpose of midrash, we can cite another verse and assign here a specialized meaning.

You would have to say this, for otherwise, how will you explain the word טוחן in parshat Behaalotecha in Bemidbar 11:8:

ז וְהַמָּן, כִּזְרַע-גַּד הוּא; וְעֵינוֹ, כְּעֵין הַבְּדֹלַח. 7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and the appearance thereof as the appearance of bdellium.
ח שָׁטוּ הָעָם וְלָקְטוּ וְטָחֲנוּ בָרֵחַיִם, אוֹ דָכוּ בַּמְּדֹכָה, וּבִשְּׁלוּ בַּפָּרוּר, וְעָשׂוּ אֹתוֹ עֻגוֹת; וְהָיָה טַעְמוֹ, כְּטַעַם לְשַׁד הַשָּׁמֶן. 8 The people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in mortars, and seethed it in pots, and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was as the taste of a cake baked with oil.
Similarly, in the phrase אין נא אלא לשון בקשה, the intent is that there is a general meaning of the word נא (and that meaning is "now"), and we know as well that there is a specialized meaning of "please," and that in this particular instance, perhaps only for the purpose of midrash, we will take the meaning "please."

(Similarly, we have phrases like אין מים אלא תורה, which do not mean that the literal translation of mayim is Torah, but that they can cte a prooftext that mayim can refer to Torah, and so on occassion, on a midrashic level, we can take the word mayim to refer to Torah. This is not an exact parallel to the statement regarding na` - the example of tochen is much closer, in terms of being of the form ain X ela leshon Y - but it is similar in intent.)

This, I claim, is how the Sifrei intends it. Rashi also uses this phrase, and it is unclear how he means it. After all, he often uses na` as please, so perhaps he thinks that "please" is the general meaning of the word. However, this perhaps may attributed to the fact that Rashi as a rule uses midrashim to explain psukim (such that he is more a darshan than a pashtan), and the midrashim he cited use na` in this way. On the other hand, as was pointed out in the comments by Rabbi Nachman Levine, in Bereishit 12:11:

י וַיְהִי רָעָב, בָּאָרֶץ; וַיֵּרֶד אַבְרָם מִצְרַיְמָה לָגוּר שָׁם, כִּי-כָבֵד הָרָעָב בָּאָרֶץ. 10 And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was sore in the land.
יא וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיב לָבוֹא מִצְרָיְמָה; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ, הִנֵּה-נָא יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת-מַרְאֶה אָתְּ. 11 And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife: 'Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon.

Rashi states on this:
Behold now I know: The Midrash Aggadah (Tan. Lech Lecha 5) [states that] until now, he did not recognize her [beauty] because of the modesty of both of them, but now he recognized her [beauty] through an incident. Another explanation: It is customary that through the hardship of travel, a person becomes unattractive, but she remained with her beauty. The simple meaning of the verse is: Behold, now the time has arrived when we must be concerned about your beauty. I have known already for a long time that you are of fair appearance, but now we are coming among black and ugly people, the brothers of the Cushites, and they are not accustomed to a beautiful woman. Similar to this (below 19:2): “Behold now, my lords, please turn.” - [from Gen. Rabbah 40:4]
so Rashi can take נא to mean "now." Of course, in this he has a midrash upon which he relies.
Rashi's reference to Bereishit 19:2:

א וַיָּבֹאוּ שְׁנֵי הַמַּלְאָכִים סְדֹמָה, בָּעֶרֶב, וְלוֹט, יֹשֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר-סְדֹם; וַיַּרְא-לוֹט וַיָּקָם לִקְרָאתָם, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה. 1 And the two angels came to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom; and Lot saw them, and rose up to meet them; and he fell down on his face to the earth;
ב וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּה נָּא-אֲדֹנַי, סוּרוּ נָא אֶל-בֵּית עַבְדְּכֶם וְלִינוּ וְרַחֲצוּ רַגְלֵיכֶם, וְהִשְׁכַּמְתֶּם, וַהֲלַכְתֶּם לְדַרְכְּכֶם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֹּא, כִּי בָרְחוֹב נָלִין. 2 and he said: 'Behold now, my lords, turn aside, I pray you, into your servant's house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your way.' And they said: 'Nay; but we will abide in the broad place all night.'
upon which Rashi says:
Behold now, my lords: “ Behold you are now lords to me since you have passed beside me.” Another explanation: “Behold now you must pay heed to these wicked men, that they should not recognize you,” and this is sound advice.
which is interesting because, as in the post below on Parsing Moshe's Prayer, the word נא means two different things in the same pasuk - though there the first meant "please" and the second "now."

Let us please turn now to some of the midrashim on parshat Behaalotcha involving the word נא. Towards the very end of Behaalotecha, in Bemidbar 12:6:

ו וַיֹּאמֶר, שִׁמְעוּ-נָא דְבָרָי; אִם-יִהְיֶה, נְבִיאֲכֶם--יְהוָה בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע, בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ. 6 And He said: 'Hear now My words: if there be a prophet among you, I the LORD do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream.
The Sifrei begins by stating that אין נא אלא לשון בקשה, here, na` only means "please." And the matter is a kal vachomer. If the One Who Spoke and the world came in to being speaks with entreaties, than certainly flesh and blood {=man. Thus, it is teaching derech eretz, proper conduct. Here, Hashem is entreating them to listen to His words.}

That was the Tanna Kamma. But Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai offers another explanation. He says that they wished to interrupt Hashem, to insert their words in the middle of the words of the Omnipresent. The Omnipresent said to them: Wait for me until I finish. And this is a kal vachomer than a man should not interrupt the words of his fellow.

{The idea that the latter should be a kal vachomer seems strange to me -- certainly man should not interrupt God, but how would one say that all the more so one should not interrupt his fellow? Perhaps this idea of kal vachomer was erroneously copied from the Tanna Kamma's statement?}

I would point out that Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai is not merely saying that Hashem has to ask them to please listen to his words because they wish to also speak. The one thing about midrash is that there is almost always something in the text upon which to hang your hat, and if na` means "please," is is hard to see how exactly Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai deduced that they wanted to interrupt and Hashem wanted them to wait until He finished speaking.

The answer is that Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai is actually arguing with the Tanna Kamma, and saying that na` means "now." Thus, Hashem says to them: Now, you listen to me. I will hear what you want to say later.

Moving on, the Sifrei discusses another na` a bit later on. Moshe prays to Hashem, in Bemidbar 12:13:
יג וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-ה לֵאמֹר: אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ 13 And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying: 'Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee.'
The Sifrei first addresses וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל-ה and explains it as referring to the matter of אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ. That is, אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ is the content of Moshe's cry. The Sifrei continues, and states that the Scripture is coming to teach derech eretz, proper conduct, that any time that a man wishes to make seek out his requests, he needs to say two, three speeches of entreaties, and afterwards seek out his requests, as it is written אֵל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ.

Now, I do not agree with Rabbi Levine that the אֵל is one of the words of entreaty mentioned by the midrash. Rather, this is the same anonymous voice of the midrash, the Tanna Kamma, that earlier argued with Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai. We know he holds that נא should be interpreted as an entreaty. And we recognize the style of learning proper conduct, derech eretz, from this incident. And we know that the midrash picks up on irregularities as the hat upon which to hang, and without it the midrash will not simply make up details.

It is clear to me that אֵל as an entreaty and the first נָא as an entreaty are not sufficiently off-kilter to inspire a midrash. Why take אֵל as an entreaty? Sure, one could take it as an entreaty, but this would be a (somewhat forced) way of explaining the words of the midrash, as opposed to showing what inspired it.

The strange detail is clearly the repetition of נא. It is this that sparks a midrashic interpretation, and it is this irregularity that makes the author of the midrash state that the pasuk is coming to teach us something special. Further, the repetition of נא creates the detail that one should venture forth two or three speeches of entreaty and then ask his request. The fact that the second נא comes after the verb רפא is awkward but immaterial - the main point is that the word נא, the classic word of entreaty, is repeated, and the midrash talks about repetition of entreaty, and so both נא's are surely being taken by the midrash to mean please. And the midrash surely does not take it to mean now.

The midrash mentions two or three entreaties. What is the third? One could dismiss the language of the midrash as imprecise. That is, the midrash is saying one should repeatedly introduce a request with entreaties.

Alternative, we have to identify a third entreaty in the verse. One could take אֵל, the call out to God, as an entreaty, as Rabbi Levine did, but it seems forced to me. No. That does not strike me as the approach the midrash would take.

Rather, consider what the midrash was just discussing. It had said that וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל-ה should be defined by the following content: אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ.

I would posit that the midrash now takes a different tack and claims that וַיִּצְעַק is its own entreaty, and so that is the first entreaty, and the two נא's are the second and third entreaties. All this is provisional - if we need to identify a third entreaty. However, I do not believe we need to do this.

The Sifrei continues, and states that the word לֵאמֹר is unnecessary - it could have stated: he cried out to Hashem "LORD, please, heal please, her." Since לֵאמֹר is unnecessary, it is coming to teach us something. And so, וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל-ה takes on a new meaning.

It is no longer: And Moshe cried out to Hashem, saying...
But rather: And Moshe cried to to Hashem to say.

This is actually a more literal rendition of the infinitive לֵאמֹר. And it is no longer Moshe who is to do the speaking, but Hashem. Moshe cried out to Hashem that Hashem should speak. And so, this first part of the verse is divorced from, and refers to an entirely different entreaty, that the second part of the verse - אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ.

Since Moshe is asking for a response, he is asking for an immediate response. Why does he need this? Perhaps because if Hashem heals her immediately, there is no need to go through the process of metzorah (shutting in, etc.) but otherwise, they would need to start the process on that day.

Hashem gives a response that she will be healed in seven days.

Now, we see that the immediacy of response is based on the word לֵאמֹר, and not on the word נא. And nowhere in the midrash does it mention a demand for immediate healing - just immediate knowledge if she is to be healed. Rashi is just citing Sifrei, so I would not attribute to him any extra interpretations into the word נא that what we find is driving the Sifrei.

One might say that Rashi, by citing the Sifrei, is casting Hashem's statement as a response to Moshe's prayer, and thus, not NOW, but in SEVEN DAYS. Which would then make נא mean "now," even according to Sifrei/Rashi. I would object to this categorization because nowhere does the midrash refer to נא as "now," and in fact we see it seems to take both נא as "please." The immediateness is only in terms of Hashem's response, to know what will be.

One could still read Hashem's response as "NOT NOW, but LATER" into the psukim, and perhaps one should, but I do not think that the Sifrei or Rashi do this.

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