G-d as King and Companion

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Elliot Salinger

Many of Bil’am’s blessings praise benei Yisrael for their unique relationship with G-d. Bil’am’s second berakha is a case in point:

במדבר כג

יט לֹא אִישׁ אֵ-ל וִיכַזֵּב, וּבֶן-אָדָם וְיִתְנֶחָם; הַהוּא אָמַר וְלֹא יַעֲשֶׂה, וְדִבֶּר וְלֹא יְקִימֶנָּה

כ הִנֵּה בָרֵךְ, לָקָחְתִּי; וּבֵרֵךְ, וְלֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנָּה

כא לֹא-הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב, וְלֹא-רָאָה עָמָל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל; ה’ אֱ-לֹהָיו עִמּוֹ, וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ

כב אֵ-ל, מוֹצִיאָם מִמִּצְרָיִם–כְּתוֹעֲפֹת רְאֵם, לוֹ

כג כִּי לֹא-נַחַשׁ בְּיַעֲקֹב, וְלֹא-קֶסֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל; כָּעֵת, יֵאָמֵר לְיַעֲקֹב וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל, מַה-פָּעַל, אֵ-ל

כד הֶן-עָם כְּלָבִיא יָקוּם, וְכַאֲרִי יִתְנַשָּׂא; לֹא יִשְׁכַּב עַד-יֹאכַל טֶרֶף, וְדַם-חֲלָלִים יִשְׁתֶּה

19 G-d is not man to be capricious,

Or mortal to change His mind.

Would He speak and not act,

Promise and not fulfill?

20 My message was to bless:

When He blesses, I cannot reverse it.

21 No harm is in sight for Jacob,

No woe in view for Israel.

The LORD their G-d is with them,

And their King’s acclaim in their midst.

22 G-d who freed them from Egypt

Is for them like the horns of the wild ox.

23 Lo, there is no augury in Jacob,

No divining in Israel:

Jacob is told at once,

Yea Israel, what G-d has planned.

24 Lo, a people that rises like a lion,

Leaps up like the king of beasts,

Rests not till it has feasted on prey

And drunk the blood of the slain.      (trans. Jewish Study Bible)

Let us focus on Verse 21. The pasuk consists of two sets of parallelisms, where the first set seems provide something of the reason for the second set: since Israel is blameless, G-d is with them. With respect to the second set—“The LORD their G-d is with them, / And their King’s acclaim in their midst”—it seems that “Hashem E-lohav” is parallel to “melech” and “bo” to “imo,” but it is less clear how the King’s teru’ah fits into the structure of the pasuk.

The meaning of “teru’ah” here is subject to debate. Rashi argues that the word is derived from re’ut, meaning friendship or companionship, and cites Onkelos’ translation to the pasuk as support:

לשון חבה ורעות, כמו “רעה דוד” (שמואל ב טו:לז), אוהב דוד, “ויתנה למרעהו” (שופטים טו:ו). וכן תרגם אונקלוס: שכינת מלכהון ביניהו

Language of endearment and companionship, like “the companion of David” (2 Samuel 15:37), [meaning,] the friend of David, “and he gave it to his companion” (Judges 15:6). And so Onkelos translated, “And the Shekhinah of their King is amongst them.”

Rashi’s comment relies on two presumptions. One, that Onkelos’ “Shekhinat Malkehon” translates verbatim “teru’at Melekh.” Second, that the term “Shekhinah” evokes imagery of G-d’s love for the people. But since Targum Onkelos regularly interpolates the words “Shekhina” and “Memra” for the purpose of de-anthropomorphizing the Biblical text, it seems more plausible to read “Shekhina” and its parallel of “Memra” as attempting to preclude a literal interpretation of G-d’s presence amongst the people. Additionally, Onkelos restores the verse’s parallelism distorted by the word teru’ah. For these reasons, it seems that Onkelos does not, contra Rashi, translate teru’ah as Shekhina, but simply deletes the word from the translation. So Onkelos does not seem to support Rashi’s contention.

Even stranger about Rashi’s interpretation, though, is that it straightforwardly opposes the Rabbinic reading of the verse. The Rabbinic reading, furthermore, is not confined to the realm of midrash, whether aggadic or halakhic. Rather, the correct interpretation of the verse has normative halakhic consequence:

בבלי ר”ה לב

מלכות שיש עמו תרועה, כגון “ה’ א-להיו עמו ותרועת מלך בו,” אומרה עם המלכיות ואומרה עם השופרות, דברי רבי יוסי. רבי יהודה אומר: אינו אומרה אלא עם המלכיות בלבד

A verse of kingship that contains references to the sounding of the shofar, such as, “Hashem his G-d is with [Jacob], and the shofar-blast of the King is amongst him,” may be said with verses of kingship or verses of shofar, according to R’ Yossi. R’ Yehuda says: it may only be said with the verses of kingship.

R’ Yossi and R’ Yehudah both, it seems, maintain that our pasuk contains a reference to the shofar, differing only in that fact’s legal relevance. (It is clear from context that R’ Yehuda denies that references to teru’ah count as references to the shofar for shofarot, even for pesukim that undeniably concern Rosh ha-Shana and the shofar.) The Gemara taken as a given a particular interpretation of this verse, and discusses its legal conclusions. How could Rashi offer an interpretation that deviates from the Gemara’s normatively valenced read?

Rashi is neither the first nor last to understand teru’ah this way: Sa’adia Ga’on and Rashbam also claim that the term derives from re’ut. (N.B. Ibn Ezra reads teru’ah at the sound of the shofar, in consonance with the Gemara.) But this interpretation requires an explanation. What motivation does Rashi (or Rasag or Rashbam, for that matter) have to interpret contrary to the reading of the Gemara?

Perhaps Rashi’s desire to read “teru’ah” as companionship or love, not a shofar blast acknowledging kingship, stems from the conceptual environment of the berakhot. Though the subject matter of the berakhot mostly concerns the special nature of Am Yisrael and their unique relationship with G-d, G-d is described here in majestic, absolutist terms: G-d’s word is final; G-d does not renege on a promise; G-d has not found wrongdoing in Israel.

The language depicting G-d as King actually renders problematic the berakhot’s focus on the singular nature of Am Yisrael: What need does G-d as King have for a chosen nation? Looking for an answer from the berakhot, we might suggest that it is Am Yisrael’s conduct–that it has no iniquity or sorcery–that renders it G-d’s chosen nation. But this explanation seems unsatisfactory, since it neither necessary nor sufficient: Am Yisrael is still chosen even after the people violate the Torah, and other nations would not be chosen even were they to observe G-d’s word. It must be, then, that the chosenness of Am Yisrael follows not from our relationship with G-d as a King only, but also from our relationship with G-d as a Companion. It is some special love that G-d has for the nation or our ancestors that renders us chosen: אתה בחרתנו מכל העמים, אהבת אותנו….. (“You chose us from all the nations, You loved us….”) However, since G-d remains King, the relationship is not one of equals: we are bound to obey G-d, Who judges human conduct. Chosenness may not be dependent upon moral and religious behavior to endure, but chosenness by G-d does give rise to moral and religious obligations.

We may suggest that Rashi interprets teru’ah in this context as something along the lines of “endearment” in order to make sense of the theme of chosenness that permeates the berakhot: the coherence of chosenness that cannot be abrogated depends on G-d’s capacity to love human beings. Furthermore, to prevent Rashi’s comment from being in contradiction with the Gemara, we may further suggest that Rashi means to offer the interpretation of teru’ah as re’ut as an additional meaning to the straightforward understanding of teru’ah as a shofar blast signifying the presence of royalty. The polysemy of “teru’ah” encapsulates our dual relationship with G-d as King and as Companion. G-d loves Am Yisrael singularly, but the relationship puts demands on our conduct.

According to our reading of Rashi, “teru’ah” is intentionally ambiguous in order to convey the dual nature of the Jewish people’s relationship with G-d, as King and as Companion. G-d loves a particular nation, but G-d’s love does not exclude assessment of Israel’s moral character: לֹא-הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב, וְלֹא-רָאָה עָמָל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. A similar thought may be seen in the following midrash:


מדרש תהלים פרק פא סימן א

“למנצח על הגתית לאסף הרנינו לאלקים עוזנו [הריעו לאלקי יעקב].” (תהילים פא:ב) זהו שאמר הכתוב: “לא הביט און ביעקב” (במדבר כג:כא)–מה ראה בלעם להזכיר ליעקב, ולא לאברהם ולא ליצחק, אלא ליעקב בלבד? אלא צפה שיצא מאברהם פסולת–ישמעאל וכל בני קטורה–וכן צפה שיצא מיצחק עשו ואלופיו, אבל יעקב כולה קדושה, שנאמר: “כל אלה שבטי ישראל שנים עשר” (בראשית מט:כח). הדא הוא דכתיב: “כולך יפה רעיתי ומום אין בך.” (שה”ש ד:ז) לפיכך לא הזכיר האבות אלא ליעקב בלבד. הוי “לא הביט און ביעקב.” אמר אסף: הואיל וכל האבות יש בהם פסולת, ויעקב אין בו פסולת, איני מזכיר אלא לו. הוי: הריעו לאלקי יעקב

“For the Leader; upon the Gittith. [A Psalm] of Asaph” (Psalms 81:2). That which Scripture says, “He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob”–why did Balaam see it appropriate to mention Jacob, and neither Abraham nor Isaac, but only Jacob? Since he saw that from Abraham emerged an undesirable element–Ishmael and all the children of Ketura–and likewise saw that from Isaac emerged Esau and his chiefs, but Jacob is wholly holy, as it says: “All of these are the tribes of Israel, twelve” (Genesis 49:28). This is why it is written, “You are wholly beautiful, my companion, and there is no blemish in you” (Song of Songs 4:7). Therefore, he did not mention [all] the Patriarchs, rather only Jacob. This is: “he has not beheld iniquity in Jacob.” Said Asaph: Since all the Patriarchs had in them an undesirable element, while Jacob had no undesirable element, [Asaph] mentioned only him. This is: “sound the shofar for the G-d of Jacob.” (trans. EMS)

The midrash uses the first verse of Tehilim 81 as the locus for its meditation on Bemidbar 23:21: Ya’akov is singled out since all his progeny were meritorious, containing no defect. The clear textual link between the two sources—besides the (perfectly typical) use of Ya’akov as an appellation for the people Israel—is Tehilim’s hari’u and Bemidbar’s teru’ah. And the midrash ties the two sources together by reading Bemidbar’s larger concern with chosenness and the more specific idea of 23:21 into Tehilim 81. In other words, the Midrash uses the textual link as warrant to extend thematic focus.

This would be enough to understand the internal logic of the midrash. But the midrash, otherwise unnecessarily, cites a verse from Shir HaShirim in proving the moral and religious perfection of Ya’akov’s sons, where the blameless interlocutor is called “ra’ayati,” “my companion.” The midrash thus plays on the multivalence of the key word “teru’ah” to explain how the Jewish people, the descendants of Ya’akov alone, have merited chosenness: we alone were loved by G-d, and loved for our behavior. The chosenness of the Jewish people—stemming from our moral character in the past and imposing moral demands but unconditional in essence—thus emerges from our relationship with G-d as both King and Companion.

Elliot Salinger (SBM ’12, ’14) is a rising junior at Princeton University, studying philosophy.


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