Wednesday, July 05, 2006

sticks and stones vs. the words of Bilam

Why does Hashem interfere with Bilam’s attempt to curse on Klal Yisrael when every six year old child knows “sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never harm us”?! We find this question posed in slightly different words : ) by many meforshim, but I think the question is more revealing about the mindset of the questioner than of the meaning of the text. Who says indeed that words cannot harm us? Taken at face value, many episodes in Torah would seem to suggest that words themselves have some almost magical power to influence reality. Two episodes which clearly point in this direction are Rivka’s concern lest Yitzchak bless the wrong son and the command to Moshe to draw water from a rock via speech. Yet, once we accept such a premise, other episodes fall into line as well – Moshe is told specifically to speak to Pharaoh and demand Bnei Yisrael’s freedom, implying that the words themselves contain the power to release the shackles; the “redeemer” is identified by his words, “pakod pakadti”; the act of creation occurs through Hashem’s words; the words/blessing of the travelers seems to effect Sarah’s ability to conceive; the concern with the blessing of Ya’akov and Moshe at the close of the Torah; the punishment of the spies for speaking ill of Eretz Yisrael, the significance of names (words) as determining character (e.g. the explanation of the spies names as corresponding with their evil intentions) etc. (I am sure there are many others I have not listed here, and I am sure there will be some quibbling with some of my examples, but I think it suffices to establish a pattern). In each of these cases you can “explain” what is going on by resorting to psychology, symbolism, and other such devices, but the need to resort to such explanations stems purely from the imposition of a rationalist framework that tells us words have no inherent power rather than from the text itself. In other words (no pun intended), in a more general sense, pshat works on two levels: at one level it addresses the internal consistency and meaning of the text - one cannot read the pasuk of ‘v’ruach Elokim m’rachefes al pnei hamayim’ without wondering how this fits with text's own statement that water was created on a later day; on another level, pshat tries to justify the text relative to some outside criteria – the Ramban’s insertion of the Greek concept of hiyulei into Braishis is not motivated by a difficulty in understanding the pasuk so much as by a difficulty in justifying the Torah’s account of creation with the Greek concept of an all encompassing “first substance”. (I think modern lit crit theory would object to the wall I just built, but I’ll leave that to my wife to comment on). Questions of the second variety inevitably assume that the world of Tanach shares the same meta-framework (be it scientific, theological, moral, or rational) as the questioner, which can be a precarious foundation to build an intellectual sandcastle upon.


  1. I think the first type of pshat you mentioned is really just part of the second. The only reason why we feel the need to resolve apparent contradictions in the text is because of our notion that reality can't have contradiction in it.

  2. It seems to me that explaining how a text can hold X and not-X to be simultaneously true is different than explaining how a text can hold X true when logic/society/science/ etc. dictate Y to be true. Yes, taken to its logical extreme X and not-X being mutually exclusive is just a product of my Western trained logical pattern of thinking, but reducing everything to such relativistic terms makes debate and criticism meaningless.