Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25
Shabbat, August 20, 2011 / 20 Av, 5771
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,379–1,408; Revised Edition, pp. 1,226–1,250;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,089–1,114
Second Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 49:14–51:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,599–1,603; Revised Edition, pp. 1,251–1,254
Experiencing God's Miracles
“The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years“ (Deuteronomy 8:4).
Maybe this verse caught my eye because my family has been having a lot of issues with swollen extremities, and we haven’t even been hiking. My infected toe just required medicated cream, but my husband needed to have his infection lanced, and my daughter ended up on antibiotics for an infected finger. The promise that in forty years of wandering in the desert, no one’s feet swelled sounded a bit hyperbolic. Also as someone whose hatred of shopping is locally notorious, the idea of clothes that never wore out was pretty appealing.
I’m not the first to wonder about this verse. The Hebrew word used to describe what happened to their feet is not clear. One of the Targumim, the ancient Aramaic translations of the Torah, sees a parallel between the clothes on their bodies and the coverings on their feet. Thus Targum Onkelos translates, “The clothes on you did not wear out, nor did your sandals tear these forty years.”1 Targum Pseudo-Jonathan2 reads it slightly differently: “Your clothing was not worn upon your bodies, and your feet did not walk barefoot these forty years.”
The medieval commentator Rashi3 comments on the verb vatzeikah, “swell,” drawing a connection to the noun batzeik, “dough,” which comes from the same Hebrew root, bet-tzadi-kuf : ”Like dough [bet-tzadi-kuf] as is usual with those who walk barefoot—that their feet become swollen.” The Hebrew root used for the word “swelling” here is also the word for dough, which expands like a swollen foot.
Tzena Urena,4 a much later commentary (originally intended for less-learned men and popular among women), which draws on earlier sources, introduces another theme, relating this to the holy duty of transporting the Mishkan: “Some of our Sages say that this refers to the Levites, who carried the Ark in the desert barefoot, yet their feet did not swell.” It is like some members of my congregation who tell me that they are so excited by the honor of carrying the Torah, that it never feels heavy to them.
Why this focus on swollen feet? Perhaps it is because all the other miracles were external—the plagues, the splitting of the sea, even the manna—but, as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh points out, this was a way of experiencing God’s miraculous power in your own body.5
Still, the hyperbole caught the attention of the Rabbis. Hard-nosed Rabbi Eliezer is giving Rabbi Simeon a run for his money on this one in a wonderful midrash that offers a new perspective on Psalm 236:
Rabbi Eliezer asked Rabbi Simeon, saying to him, “When the children of Israel went out of Egypt, did weaver’s gear go out with them?”
Rabbi Simeon replied, “No.”
“Then how did they clothe themselves during those forty years?”
Rabbi Simeon answered, “With garments that the ministering angels gave them.”
“But did not their garments wear out?”
“Have you not read that Moses said to Israel in the wilderness, ‘Thy rainment waxed not old upon thee’ (Deuteronomy 8:4)?”
“But did not the little ones among the children of Israel grow up?”
“Go out and learn from the snail: all the while that he grows, his shell grows with him!”
“But did not the garments require washing?”
“The cloud of fire cleansed their garments and made them white.”
“But were not the garments scorched in the process?”
“Go out and learn from the amiant (a variety of asbestos with flexible filaments), which is cleansed only by fire.”
“But did not the children of Israel get vermin?”
“Since worms and maggots have no power over dead bodies in Israel, how much less did they have over living bodies of Israel!”
“But since the children of Israel did not change their garments, did they not reek with sweat?”
“The well of living waters brought up varieties of plants and spices for the children of Israel, and they rolled in these, so the fragrant smell of them was carried from world’s end to world’s end.”
When Israel saw how the Holy One led them, made their garments white, and refreshed them in the wilderness, they began to sing praise as they said, “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” (Psalm 23:1–2)
Finally, we return to the clothes. The Torah has many different words for items of clothing, some used in connection with the special clothes worn by the priests and the clothing of the High Priest. But this clothing that lasted for forty years, was called simlah, it was an outer garment mentioned in connection with many of the mitzvot of the Torah. This was the garment you tore in times of mourning (Genesis 37:34 and 44:13) and the one that Noah’s sons used to cover his nakedness (Genesis 9:23). Simlah is also the word used when a change of clothing signifies an important change in one’s life, as when Jacob tells his family to remove their household idols and change their clothes (Genesis 35:2) and when Joseph gets a change of clothes upon leaving prison on his way to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams (Genesis 41:14). This is also the same type of garment that was “borrowed” by the Israelites just before their Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:34) and laundered by them before receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:10, 14). Finally, it is also the type of garment that you cannot take in pawn, lest the poor man have no covering in the night (Deuteronomy 24:13). That this humble everyday garment can be the site of a miracle, like our aching feet, is perhaps the reason they are mentioned together.
1. Translated with apparatus and notes by Bernard Grossfeld, The Aramaic Bible, Volume 9, The Targum Onqelos to Deuteronomy (Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1988), p. 38
2. Translated with notes by Ernest G. Clarke with the collaboration of Mrs. Sue Magder
The Aramaic Bible, Volume 5B, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: Deuteronomy
(Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1998) p. 29
3. Rabbi A. M. Silbermann in collaboration with Rev. M. Rosenblum,
Chumash with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Rashi’s Commentary
(Jerusalem: Silbermann Family and Feldheim Publishers Ltd., 1934) p. 46
4. Translated from the Yiddish by Miriam Stark Zakon, “Introduction” by Meir Holder,
The Weekly Midrash, Tz’enah Ur’enah, the Classic Anthology of Torah Lore and Midrashic Commentary, Volume 2 (New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1999) p. 902
5. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Devarim (New York: Feldheim Press, 2009) p. 168
6. Deuteronomy Rabbah 7:11, Midrash T’hillim 23:4, P’sikta D’Rav Kahana 11:21 in
The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoushua Hana Ravnitsky, translated by William G. Braude (New York: Schocken Books, Inc., 1992) p. 99
Rabbi Melanie Aron is the senior rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California. She has served on the URJ Board of Trustees and as chair of the URJ Committee on Adult Jewish Learning, and is involved in interfaith activities in her community.
What Do You See?
Carolyn Jane Bricklin
Rabbi Aron points out that two scholars reading the same words can reach different conclusions about what a text says. Their interpretation will then depend on what they “see.” This applies to words on a page and also to what we see with our own eyes. For example, a discussion in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 145b) contains a conversation among Sages regarding the verse, “The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years” (Deuteronomy 8:4). Following this conversation about the Israelites’ ever-fresh clothing, the same Sages engage in a tangential discussion about why Babylonian scholars were known for their beautiful attire. One response offered is that these scholars used their clothing to distract from their lack of Torah learning. Another refutes that interpretation, saying that the scholars’ clothing was not a distraction: rather it was necessary because they lived among strangers. The following lesson is derived: a man’s normal clothes might be sufficient in his hometown, but when he is away his clothes must be beyond reproach since he himself is not known.
Everyone “sees” the same information: that the clothes of the scholars in Babylonia were beautiful. One Sage interprets this to show that the scholars were unlearned and were trying to hide this fact. Another, instead, chooses to teach a lesson—that we must always be at our best when we are among strangers. The real question raised by the Talmud is this: will we always find a way to criticize the world around us, or will we learn from what we see and find good in the world?
Rabbi Carolyn Jane Bricklin is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, New Jersey.
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