Parashat Ki Tavo

The Order of Disorder

A word and its opposite may be one and the same.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

The Bible's most famous riddle was the brainchild of Samson. "Out of the eater came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet" (Judges 14:14). Samson posed it on the occasion of his seven-day wedding feast to 30 young Philistine men who came to celebrate his marriage to one of their own. On the last day, the young men responded gleefully: "What is sweeter than honey, and what is stronger than a lion?" Dismayed, Samson accused them of coercing his bride: "Had you not plowed with my heifer, you would not have guessed my riddle." And indeed, threatened by them with savage revenge, she had wheedled the answer out of Samson, only to betray him, exactly as Delilah would do later in his life.

Behind the riddle lay a real life experience. On his first trip to the land of the Philistines to arrange the marriage, Samson had killed bare-handed, a full grown lion on the attack. Upon his return for the wedding feast, he turned aside to inspect the carcass. A swarm of bees had taken up residence in its skeleton. Samson scooped up a handful of honey which he savored and shared with his parents without revealing its source. The riddle conveys the impact of the experience: Samson was intrigued by the phenomenon of an object becoming its opposite. Reality seemed more fluid than fixed.

Language of the Bible

That sense of impermanence is imbedded in the very language of the Bible. Biblical Hebrew contains a small number of words that bear antithetical meanings. These words are more than homonyms with dissimilar meanings like bear (to carry) and bear (the animal.) Their meanings are diametrically opposed to each other. Moreover, in English, homonyms usually derive fortuitously from different origins, whereas in biblical Hebrew the polarity of meanings seems to inhere by design in one and the same word. Like Samson's lion, the word morphs into its opposite.

It is the appearance of such a Hebrew homonym in our parashah that prompts me to take you down an arcane philological path. But I do so because in this instance a deep worldview is built into the structure of the language.

This week we read of the tithe that every Israelite was obliged to give every third year of the sabbatical cycle. In contrast to the tithes of other years, this tithe was not to be brought to the central sanctuary for its priestly officials, but distributed at home to those at risk-- orphans, widows, strangers and Levites. When the duty had been fulfilled, the Israelite was to attest in a public declaration that, "I have not eaten of it [the tithe] while in mourning [ve-oni], I have not cleared out any of it while I was unclean, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead" (Deuteronomy 26:14). That is; as Jeffrey Tigay explains in his sterling commentary on Deuteronomy, the poor-tithe was no less sacred than that which was to be brought to the sanctuary. Both belonged to God and hence had to be kept ritually pure.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.