Tuesday, November 22, 2005

parshat Vayera and Chayyei Sarah: The Pluperfect יֹשֵׁב

is instructive as it applies the same midrashic principle to the same word in different locations, producing separate midrashim. We thus see the interaction between scientific application of midrashic rules together and the fuzzier idea of context and theme.

Parshat Vayera begins: {Bereishit 18:1}:
א וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה, בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא; וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח-הָאֹהֶל, כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם. 1 And the LORD appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;
ב וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים, נִצָּבִים עָלָיו; וַיַּרְא, וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, אָרְצָה. 2 and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth,
The purpose of a phrase introduced by a vav hachibur (וְ) is to add a parenthetical remark, so that we know the state of affairs. Thus, on a pshat level, Hashem appeared to Avraham "as he was sitting..." If it had been the vav hahippuch (וַ) instead, this would have been the next action in the sequence: First Hashem appeared to him, and then he sat. All these actions occur in the past, as it always does in Biblical narrative. (The apparently present-tense word יֹשֵׁב is neutral tense, and gets its tense from context.)

The midrash notes that the word יֹשֵׁב is written without the vav we should expect (=deficient spelling), and thus could be revocalized yashav - sat (cited by Rashi; see Bereishit Rabba 48:7). Thus we deduce that Avraham wished to stand because of the Divine Presence.

The commentary Etz Yosef explains that the fact that the word יֹשֵׁב is written deficiently informs us that his sitting was deficient - he wished to stand. The commentary Maharzu explains the past tense yashav teaches that he was sitting, and wished to stand, and Hashem told him to sit, such that it is as if he was sitting now.

I would say that what we have here is the pluperfect. Of course all this happened in the past, as it always does in narrative. However, we hear that this happened in the past of the past = the pluperfect. To cite an example from Wikipedia:
In the sentence "The blind man, who knew that he had risen, motioned him to sit down again" (from Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge), "he had risen" is an example of the pluperfect tense. It refers to an event (someone rises from his seat), which takes place before another event (the blind man notices the fact that the other has risen). Since that second event (the blind man's taking notice) is itself a past event and the past tense is used to refer to it ("the blind man knew"), the pluperfect is needed to make it clear that the first event (someone rises) has taken place even earlier in the past.
Thus, yoshev in the context would tell us that he was sitting when God appeared to him. Yashav in context would indicate that at some previous point in time, he had sat.

The implication is perhaps that now, at the present time in the narrative, he no longer was sitting. Yet there is a tension between the ketiv and the krei, and thus we have that he wished to stand for the Divine Presence, but Hashem told him to stay seated, such that he was still sitting.

This fits into the general theme in the parsha of Avraham's selflessness. According to other midrashim (also fitting into this theme), Avraham was suffering, yet wished to be hospitable. Look how he troubled himself, to run to the guests, beg them to stay, serve them an abundance of food, etc.. Look at how he put God ahead of his relationship with his son in akeidat Yitzchak. Therefore, this yashav/yoshev tension is read in this light.

Later in the same parsha, we have Lot: {Bereishit 19:1}:
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.'
Once again we have the vav hachibbur (וְלוֹט) coming to tell us the situation at the time of the narrative. (In other words, Lot did not sit down after the angels arrived.) Rashi cites the Midrash that that very day they appointed him a judge. Once again, it is the pluperfect. Not just was his state one of "sitting by the gate" {perhaps = judge}, but it is informing us of some earlier action. Earlier that day, he "sat." How so? They appointed him a judge.

Maharzu does a handy job collecting other data in the context that would make us think he was appointed a judge. A gezera shava (comparison of words/phrases) to Moshe sitting to judge the nation, and Yisro's question why he is sitting {to judge} alone. He feels that the deficient spelling of yoshev shows that the appointment was not concrete - it had just been done earlier that day. Futher, we see from elsewhere that shaar, "gate," refers to a place of judgement.

The Midrash itself connects this to a later section of the Sodom incident. When Lot leaves his house to reason with them, in Bereishit 19:9:
ט וַיֹּאמְרוּ גֶּשׁ-הָלְאָה, וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֶחָד בָּא-לָגוּר וַיִּשְׁפֹּט שָׁפוֹט--עַתָּה, נָרַע לְךָ מֵהֶם; וַיִּפְצְרוּ בָאִישׁ בְּלוֹט מְאֹד, וַיִּגְּשׁוּ לִשְׁבֹּר הַדָּלֶת. 9 And they said: 'Stand back.' And they said: 'This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs play the judge; now will we deal worse with thee, than with them.' And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and drew near to break the door.
Chazal interpret וַיֹּאמְרוּ גֶּשׁ-הָלְאָה as appointing to a higher position when they like what he says (=סק לעיל) and וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֶחָד בָּא-לָגוּר וַיִּשְׁפֹּט שָׁפוֹט as a complaint when they dislike what he says.

Note that in the text, the people of Sodom call him a judge. Perhaps by noting how recently he came ("to sojourn") we see that he was recently appointed a judge.

Thus, different verses work together to establish a single midrash.

The third example is in parshat Chayyei Sarah {Bereishit 23:10}:

ט וְיִתֶּן-לִי, אֶת-מְעָרַת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, אֲשֶׁר, בִּקְצֵה שָׂדֵהוּ: בְּכֶסֶף מָלֵא יִתְּנֶנָּה לִּי, בְּתוֹכְכֶם--לַאֲחֻזַּת-קָבֶר. 9 that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he hath, which is in the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in the midst of you for a possession of a burying-place.'
י וְעֶפְרוֹן יֹשֵׁב, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי-חֵת; וַיַּעַן עֶפְרוֹן הַחִתִּי אֶת-אַבְרָהָם בְּאָזְנֵי בְנֵי-חֵת, לְכֹל בָּאֵי שַׁעַר-עִירוֹ לֵאמֹר. 10 Now Ephron was sitting in the midst of the children of Heth; and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the children of Heth, even of all that went in at the gate of his city, saying:
Once again the vav hachibbur ( וְעֶפְרוֹן) comes to introduce a parenthetical statement. Avraham had asked to speak to Ephron son of Tzochar, and so the text comes to tell us who he is and that he was present. Once again, the midrash (Bereishit Rabba 58:7, cited by Rashi) tells us that he was appointed an officer earlier that day, for it is not fitting for a person of elevated stature to purchase from someone of lower station.

Once again, the pluperfect is at play. He sat amongst them before = earlier that day. As before, the verb yoshev connotes greatness. Perhaps also שַׁעַר-עִירוֹ figures in there. The context - that is the theme, is one of Avraham's greatness. He is a prince among them, and yet he also accords them honor in turn, bowing to them. Given the great respect given Avraham, it is only fitting that he interact with (and bargain with) someone on his level.

Thus, we have here three instances of the same irregularity in the word, and each time it is taken the same way, though the specific interpretation is colored by the context formed by the general theme in the narrative as well as other midrashim which bolster the message.

Of course, there are other examples of yoshev written deficiently which Rashi passed over without comment. That does not mean that they could not have been similarly interpreted - just that they weren't, or not that we know of, or not in a way that Rashi felt contributed sufficiently to a thorough understanding of the story to merit mention. (ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא ולאגדה המישבת דברי המקרא)

1 comment:

avakesh said...

See a similar discussion but with important differences at avakesh.com


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