Monday, January 09, 2012

ro'eh -- shepherd or friend?

I want to share two linguistic observations on the parsha that shed light on two well known pesukim in Tehillim: 

1) Most translations render Ya'akov's description of Hashem as, "Elokim ha'ro'eh osi," (48:15) as "G-d who has shepherded me," or something along those lines.   The Targum uses the word for "fed," which fits nicely with the words of Yosef's bracha later in the parsha, "M'sham ro'eh even yisrael," as Yosef fed his father and brothers during the years of famine (there too, the translation "shepherded" is used, even though it does not really fit.)  Ramban, however, suggests that the word "ro'eh" is like the word "re'ah," as in "V'ahavta l're'acha kamocha."  The parsha is not metaphorically describing Hashem as Ya'akov's shepherd, but is poetically describing Hashem as Ya'akov's companion on his journey.   

I thought this was such a brilliant insight that I am wondering why no one translates "Hashem ro'i lo echsar," as, "The L-rd is my companion," instead of, "The L-rd is my shepherd."  (Tehillim 23)  Granted that the imagery of the next pasuk that refers to pleasant pastures and water may describe the needs of sheep, but it may also simply be a poetic description of the idyllic needs of man.  Does, "gam ki eilech b'gei tzalmaves," have anything to do with sheep?  And I'll even grant you that the Midrash on that mizmor discusses the comparison of Bnei Yisrael to Hashem's flock, but Midrashic interpretation does not preclude another reading al pi peshuto shel mikra.  Unfortunately, I haven't found a peirush that agrees with me, which means I'm probably too far out on a limb here, but if someone does find one it will brighten my day a little.   

2) Turning to that bracha given to Yosef, "M'sham ro'eh even yisrael," many translate, "m'sham," as "from there."  But where is "there?"  The word seems to lack any antecedent.  Ibn Ezra realized the problem and explains it as, "M'az," as "from then" -- it refers to a point in time rather than a point in space.  Still, there is the ambiguity -- when exactly did "then" start?   

The Ksav v'Kabbalah directs us to another famous pasuk in Tehillim: "Al naharos Bavel sham yashavnu gam bachinu..."  We are told exactly where this incident takes place -- "Al naharos Bavel." Why repeat "sham," that we sat there?  Why not just say, "Al naharos Bavel yashavnu u'bachinu?"  I told this to my wife and she suggested that the pasuk needs the "sham" and "gam" for the poetic meter.  I hear (pun intended) the point; however, the Ksav v'Kabbah has a different idea.  He suggests that the word "sham" is the root or a shortened form of "shemama," destruction.  There are no extra words in the pasuk -- it reads as follows: "Al naharos Bavel" -- on the banks of the rivers of Bavel, "sham yashavnu," in a state of destruction we sat, "v'gam bachinu," and there we also cried.   

Now we can also understand the meaning of the pasuk at the end of VaYeishev when Yosef is thrown in prison and we read, "Vayehi sham b'beis ha'sohar."  If Yosef was thrown in prison, obviously he was, "sham," there, in the prison!  Many meforshim struggle to make heads or tails of the pasuk, but based on the Ksav v'Kabbalah, the meaning is plain -- Yosef was "sham," in a state of internal decay, "b'beis ha'sohar," when he found himself in prison. 

The tide for Yosef eventually turned, as we read in our parsha, "M'sham ro'eh even yisrael." From the depths of destruction, from that prison cell, Yosef rose to feed his brothers and father when times were most bleak. 


  1. Anonymous2:56 AM

    >>> why no one translates

    to sustain "companion" as the primary/preferred meaning seems very hard to do (kashyes barrage the mind from multiple fronts), though a shepherd is certainly secondarily (in undertone) a companion to the flock;

    the felicitous conjunction here of
    1) Tehillim 23, and 2) "M'sham ro'eh", suggests an easy overlay of the psalm as David's time-travelling identification with Yehuda in Egypt:

    pesukim 1 & 2-- Joseph (Hashem's shliach/yad) leads (bereishis 45:5&7 etc.) the brothers to lush Goshen;
    pasuk 3-- Hashem nudges Yehuda to righteously challenge the
    viceroy(44:18...), & to mesirus
    nefesh on behalf of Binyamin;
    pasuk 4-- the scepter of the viceroy as a rod/staff comforts the
    brothers in the shadow of starvation, & in the shadows of Egypt;
    pasuk 5-- the shulchan of 43:31-34,
    for me/he: the table seems to be set for Binyamin if anyone, but Yehuda
    will also receive a Temple portion in his domain; "my enemies": the idolators of 43:32 (who revered sheep), Yehuda would hate as haters of Hashem (tehillim 139:21), like David the idolatrous pelishtim of his own day;
    You anointed my/his head with oil: 49:8&10; my/his cup overflows: 49:11&12;
    pasuk 6-- 50:21 (& tehillim
    114:1-2 "Yehuda")...

  2. beautiful pshat - from the depths of destruction he rose...