Parashat Ki Tavo

The Order of Disorder

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

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What interests me, however, is the Hebrew word for mourning, oni. The exact same word in other contexts means strength as in Jacob's reference to Reuben, his first-born, "the first fruit of my vigor [reshit oni]" (Genesis 49:3). On occasion, these two meanings of oni may even converge in a double entendre. Rachel expires tragically as she gives birth to Benjamin: "But as she breathed her last-- for she was dying --she named him Ben-oni" (Genesis 35:18), which could be translated with equal validity as "son of my suffering" or "son of my strength!" The polarity of meanings gives rise to a dialectic that mirrors the complexity of life itself.

Another homonym comes from last week's parashah. The well-known Hebrew word for holy (kadosh) can also at times mean unholy. Thus the Torah prohibits the mixing of different crops in the same field (kil'ayim): "You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, else the crop-- from the seed you have sown-- and the yield of the vineyard may not be used" (Deuteronomy 22:9). In Hebrew the verb for "may not be used" is a form of kadosh--pen tikdash, meaning literally, unholy. To intermingle crops defiles the produce making it unusable and therefore to be destroyed.

Similarly, later in the parashah, the Torah cryptically forbids the institution of cultic prostitutes, whether male kadesh or female kedeshah. The connection of both terms to the word kadosh is self-evident. Clearly, implicit in the word and concept of the "holy" is its polar opposite, ever-ready to break forth in an act of sacrilege. In fact, the relationship between the words "sacred" and "sacrilege," which share a common Latin root-meaning holy is as close a parallel as I can find in English to the organic homonyms of biblical Hebrew.

The prohibition against mixed cropping appears as part of a cluster of laws forbidding other combinations such as yoking an ox and an ass for plowing or making garments of wool and linen (sha'atnez). All of these proscriptions are informed by the Torah's pervasive thrust to establish order out of chaos. The ideal is to respect and perpetuate that order, the individuality of its constituent parts and the integrity of the boundaries on which it rests.

And, yet, reality daily threatens to erode and eradicate that order. Things are hopelessly intermingled and jumbled. It is to that underlying dynamic of disarray that the homonyms of biblical Hebrew allude. An excess of holiness can easily turn religion into fanaticism. A difficult delivery denied Rachel the joy of nursing and nurturing her baby. Our lives are jolted by a never-ending cascade of conflicting emotions and conditions. Hebrew philology points to a philosophic truth: the normal state of humanity is impermanence and disorder.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

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