Timely Thoughts

The Voice and the Sword: A Meta-Narrative in Rashi

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Dan Jutan

And Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “God, please! Heal her, please!” (Numbers 12:13)

This essay is dedicated to all those in need of healing and to the mental health community. May the Creator and Sustainer heal those who are suffering, and may those living with mental illness be empowered to find their voice.

***

Hear our voice, Lord our God, pity us and have mercy on us and receive in mercy and favor our prayer. (Amidah)

***

Rashi’s classic Commentary on the Torah is often read as a series of local comments, as explanations to resolve textual difficulties on individual verses. This mindset is illustrated by the perennial question: “What’s bothering Rashi?” Asked by super-commentaries ranging from Siftei Hahamim to Nechama Leibowitz, this question focuses the reader on the problems Rashi comes to solve with his aggadic, halakhic, or exegetical quotes.

However, Rashi is a reader of Tanakh, not just of its verses. His view of the beginning of a narrative informs his comments throughout it, and his portrayal[1] of a character in one narrative reflects his general understanding of the character elsewhere. He forms continuous narratives[2] as well as meta-narratives: collections of comments spread throughout narratives, between characters, and across Biblical books that can be read together to tell a new story.[3]

This essay will present an expansive pattern that emerges from several of Rashi’s comments in Genesis and Numbers. Rashi identifies two motifs which he uses to characterize Biblical characters and nations. The voice is Jacob’s identifying feature. Blessed by Isaac, it reappears generations later as Moses’s chief characteristic and the Nation of Israel’s key strength. Esau, on the other hand, is blessed with the power of a strong hand and with the life of the sword. The sword becomes a symbol of strength for both Edom and the Nations and represents their primary approach to resolving conflict.

By tracing Rashi’s references to these strengths—the voice and the sword—throughout his commentary, we can develop a meta-narrative: a larger story that cuts across these Biblical narratives. This new framework illuminates other Biblical narratives and—perhaps more importantly—highlights a critical element of our national identity and offers a new paradigm to understand our history.[4]

We’ll start with the Book of Numbers. The Book’s focus on the Children of Israel and their leaders pauses for Parashat Balak, a narrative excursion that departs from the newly formed nation to provide a vital perspective: the outside one. Its unbroken columns feature not the children of Israel but Balaam, the son of Beor, an anti-hero and diviner[5]—and prophet,[6] poet,[7] and philosopher.[8] Rashi describes this character at the start of Parashat Balak:

The land of the children of the people—. . . And if you ask: Why did the Holy One blessed be He, rest his Shekhina upon an evil heathen (goy rasha)? — In order that the nations have no excuse to say, “If we had prophets, we would have changed for the better,” He raised up prophets for them. And they breached a fence in the world, as, initially, they were fenced in from sexual immorality (arayot), and this one (Balaam) advised them to give themselves over to whoredom (znut). (Rashi, Numbers 22:5)

Balaam is a foil to Moses. Appointed for justice’s sake,[9] he compels the Nations to injustice, and is thus described by the Rabbis and Rashi as evil (rasha). His power comes from his prophetic voice, which he uses to instigate sin rather than to ward it off; he misuses his voice, a gift that, too, mirrors Moses:

(And Moab said) to the Elders of Midian — . . . And what induced Moab to take counsel of Midian? When they saw that Israel was victorious in a supernatural manner (she-lo ke-minhag ha-olam), they said: the leader of these people grew up in Midian; let us ask them what is his (chief) characteristic (midato). They said to them; “His power lies only in his mouth.” They said: “Then we must come against them with a person whose power lies in his mouth.” (Rashi, Numbers 22:4)

This Rashi is the first anchor for our meta-narrative. While Balaam’s poetic oracles hone in on the key features—humility, majesty, godliness—that define the Israelites[10] (so much so that the Rabbis incorporated his words into our liturgy[11]), his own character and actions serve as a foil that helps us better understand our people; and in this case, our greatest, most iconic and formative prophet and leader. Upon reflection, it is no surprise—regarding the leader whose supplications saved the nation from destruction time and time again, who had face-to-face conversations with God, who composed two iconic songs[12] and delivered a speech that became a Book of the Torah itself—that Moses’s chief utility is the “power in his mouth”—his voice.[13]

By venturing through Rashi’s commentary, we can develop this further. Moses’s midah, his chief characteristic, is not unique to his character; Moses’s skill reflects, as we will see, a feature of our national identity throughout the generations.

***

Immediately after the incident of the Waters of Merivah in Parashat Hukat, the nation sets out towards the land of Canaan, but must first pass through the territory of other nations. Rather than immediately resorting to war, Moses tries his hand at diplomacy, sending messengers to the king of Edom. They begin by referring to Israel as Edom’s brother. Rashi comments:

Your brother Israel — What reason had he to mention here their brotherhood? But in effect he said to him: We are brothers, sons of Abraham, to whom it was said (Genesis 15:13) “You shall surely know that your seed shall be a stranger [in a land not theirs],” and upon both of us, being of Abraham’s seed, was the duty of paying that debt.

You know all the hardships — It was on this account that your father separated himself from our father, as it is said (Genesis 36:6), “And he (Esau) went to another land on account of Jacob, his brother” — because of the responsibility (shtar hov) which was placed upon both of them, which he (Esau) placed onto Jacob. (Rashi, Numbers 20:14)

Rashi connects Biblical passages by hooking onto Moses’s language, which calls Israel Edom’s brother. He hearkens back to the Jacob and Esau story and to the bookends of the patriarchal narrative: at the first end, the covenant between God and Abram (brit bein ha-betarim); at the last, the final mention of either Esau or Jacob before the start of the Joseph narrative in Parashat Va-yeshev. Rashi masterfully ties both ends together, suggesting that Esau’s final departure is because of God’s promise to Abram: Esau wishes to avoid the burden placed upon Abram’s descendants.

Rashi’s callback floods the reader with textual memories, inviting the reader to recall the original relationship of Jacob and Esau, with its heated trickery and its fraternal complexity.[14] The verses and Rashi continue:

(16) We cried to the LORD and He heard our voice,
 and He sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt.
Now we are in Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory.
(17) Allow us, then, to cross your country. . . (Numbers 20)

He heard our voice — through the blessing with which our father, Jacob, had blessed[15] us — “the voice is Jacob’s voice” (hakol kol Yaakov; Genesis 27:22), because whenever we cry we are answered. (Rashi, Numbers 20:16)

We now begin to see a deeper narrative take form. Earlier, Rashi similarly described Moses as one who is “assured that any time he wishes he can speak to the Shekhinah” (Rashi, Numbers 9:7). The midah of Moses parallels that of the Nation of Israel, which had derived it from Jacob. This idea—of a defining skill echoing through the generations—is developed further by Rashi on Numbers 20:18:

(18) But Edom answered him, “You shall not pass through us,
else we will go out against you with the sword.”

Else we will go out against you with the sword. You pride yourselves on the voice which your father bequeathed you as a blessing, saying, “And we cried unto the Lord and He heard our voice.” I, therefore, will come out against you with that which my father bequeathed me when he said, (Genesis 27:40) “And by your sword you shall live.” (Rashi, Numbers 20:18)

The reader is vaulted to the height of the tension between Jacob and Esau, that of Isaac’s blessing, and a new side of the narrative is revealed. Jacob was blessed with the voice—the “power in the mouth” as Rashi refers to it later. Esau was blessed too. His chief characteristic was not the voice but the sword—physical power.

But they replied, “You shall not pass through!” And Edom went out against them in heavy force and with a strong hand. (Numbers 20:20)

And with a strong hand — with the assurance[16] of our ancestor: (Genesis 27:22) “and the hands are the hands of Esau (ha-yadayim y’dei Esav).” (Rashi on Numbers 20:20)

The motif of Esau’s gift of physical power continues in the above Rashi, mirroring the Rashi on Numbers 20:18. This motif—symbolized by the sword—reflects Rashi’s views on Esau earlier in the text.[17]

We have thus discovered a meta-narrative in Rashi: a pair of characteristics beginning with Jacob’s and Esau’s blessings, developing through their lives and interactions, reappearing in their descendant nations’ further encounters, and concentrated in their leadership. The next section will explore how we can read this meta-narrative into Biblical stories.

***

Jacob’s power of the voice remains separate from Esau’s power of the sword. We rarely see Jacob using physical force; he operates using verbal trickery and diplomacy. But it does not take long for Esau’s gift to tempt the Israelite family. The events in Genesis 34 at Shechem present a hybrid approach amongst Jacob’s sons:

Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor—speaking with guile (mirmah) because he had defiled their sister Dinah. (Genesis 34:13. See the description of Jacob himself in Genesis 27:35)

… Their words pleased Hamor and Hamor’s son Shechem. (Genesis 34:18)

With guile—cleverly.[18] (Rashi’s identical comment on both Genesis 27:35 and Genesis 34:18)

Although the brothers initiate their plan with the power of voice that they have inherited from their father (as shown by Rashi’s identical comments by Jacob and his sons) Simeon and Levi carry it out using the sword:[19]

On the third day, when they were in pain, Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dinah, each with his sword, came upon the city confidently and slew all the males. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away. (Genesis 34:25-26)

Jacob is upset by their actions, concerned that they have incited the neighboring tribes to violence. The narrative itself does not choose a side, leaving the reader to reflect. Does any circumstance justify the sword?

Perhaps, in this case, the power in the mouth was not powerful enough. Perhaps the voice and its capabilities—guile, diplomacy, persuasion, prayer—can only go so far.[20]

Similarly, the approach in Parashat Hukat begins with the voice, as Israel seeks passage through Edom with diplomacy. Moses sends messengers to Edom, as Jacob sent to Esau generations earlier,[21] to seek peace and cooperation. But when this fails, the nation simply turns away.[22]

In Chapter 21, this attitude changes. When the King of Arad physically attacks the people, diplomacy is no longer an option. But this does not mean that the voice is exhausted. Israel moves to action, demonstrating the power in the mouth in one of the most weighty actions a voice can do in Judaism:[23]

Then Israel made a vow to the LORD and said, “If You deliver this people into our hand, we will proscribe their towns.” (Numbers 21:2)

Then—echoing the language regarding Egypt in Numbers 20:16—God listens:

The LORD listened to Israel’s voice and delivered up the Canaanites; and they and their cities were proscribed. So that place was named Hormah. (Numbers 21:3)

The voice does not always completely serve the nation’s goals as it does here. But throughout Parashat Hukat, Israel elects to use the voice before the sword.[24]

***

Why were so few voices raised in the ancient world in protest against the ruthlessness of man? Why are human beings so obsequious, ready to kill and ready to die at the call of kings and chieftains? Perhaps it is because they worship might, venerate those who command might, and are convinced that it is by force that man prevails. (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, Chapter 9)

The blessing of Isaac unto Jacob becomes Jacob’s chief characteristic. The voice of Jacob then funnels through the generations, becoming the voice of Israel and Moses’s “power in the mouth.” Esau’s blessing—the power of the sword—funnels, too, through history, becoming Edom’s inheritance.

Rashi expands this beyond Edom.[25] The power of the sword—as exemplified by the ruthless Canaanite violence in Parashat Hukat—is the weapon not just of Edom, but of the non-Israelite nations.[26] The success of Israel in Parashat Hukat proves the triumph of the voice over the sword.

This dynamic is picked up by Balak and Midian. Ammon failed. Bashan failed. They opted for the sword. It’s time, thought Balak, to try something new.[27]

Balaam’s attempt to weaponize the power in the mouth—a unique attribute of Moses and Israel inherited from their ancestors—was destined for failure. This power simply isn’t his. A final Rashi rounds out the meta-narrative:

And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand . . . (Numbers 22:23)

And his sword drawn in his hand —He (God) said: This evil one has abandoned the tools of his trade, — for the offensive weapons of the nations of the world consist of the sword, and he is attacking them with his mouth which is their specialty (omanut); I will seize what is his and come against him with his own specialty (omanuto). Thus, indeed, was his end (Numbers 31:8): “And Balaam the son of Beor they slew by the sword.” (Rashi on Numbers 22:23)

God comes to Balaam with a sword in the angel’s hand—the sword that should be in Balaam’s hand. The weapon he ignores comes to stop him on the way and warn him: the mouth belongs to Israel who pray to Hashem, but not to you.[28]

Balaam doesn’t listen. His ironic fate is to be killed by Israel as they take the sword to slay him.[29]

***

And the voice of the shofar (kol shofar) became increasingly louder; Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice. (Exodus 19:19)

And on that day, a great shofar shall be sounded; and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship the LORD on the holy mount, in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 27:13)

The Jewish People has often been described in terms of our holy texts. The Torah, and later, the Talmud, have comprised our timeless, traveling homeland, functioning as “compact, transferable history, law, wisdom, poetic chant, prophecy, consolation and self-strengthening counsel,”[30] keeping us together against the eroding onrush of time.

This meta-narrative shows that before the Book, we were the People of the Voice. Rashi takes two verses in Genesis–27:22 (the voice is the voice of Jacob) and 27:40 (and by your sword you shall live)—masterfully mapping them on other narratives through his comments. These connections are not my own—as we have shown, Rashi’s comments by Edom and by Balak explicitly use these verses to apply the archetype to Edom, Israel, Moses, Balaam, and the Nations. With this paradigm in place, we can understand the identity of our patriarch, our leader, and our people, using it to read other narratives—Shechem for Jacob and his children, the Waters of Merivah for Moses,[31] and the conquests in Parashat Hukat for the Nation of Israel. But we can also use it to understand Jewish history itself.

Jacob’s berakhah, Moses’s midah, and the Children of Israel’s omanut—we used it to cry, to persuade, to swear; to declare, to celebrate to sing; to accept, to teach, to pray; striving throughout history to maintain our voice through songs, laws, and stories. The voice of Israel became that of its prophets, listening to the still, small voice of God and proclaiming that voice to the people. The prophetic voice became the voice of the Rabbis, the voice of the schoolhouse and the voice of the minyan, the voice of the halakhic makhloket and the voice of the aggadic derashah. The national voice became the voice of exile, the proclamations of the martyr and the shouts of the mourner. Today, the voice of dispersion sings in cacophony with the voice of the returned people—both voices are proud and confident, if out of sync.

While the Book provides the source material, the Voice brings it to the world. We are a People of the Book, but the voice is our trade. May the ever-growing Jewish voice soon usher in the kol shofar—the voice of redemption.


[1] Through his quoting and rephrasing of Rabbinic texts.

In this essay, when Rashi quotes the Rabbis, for brevity’s sake and by common convention I attribute the statement to Rashi. For readability, I have also refrained from providing Rashi’s sources, as many Rashi publications include inline. I do not mean to suggest that Rashi singularly invented his statements. (However, I would like to point out that Rashi makes a point when choosing one Rabbinic text over another and when tweaking them in his rewriting of sources.)

[2] An example regarding Yehoshua reads Rashi on Deuteronomy 3:28 s.v. “ki hu ya’avor”, in light of his comment on Numbers 27:17, s.v. “asher yatza lifneihem.” This can be expanded to a metanarrative about a leader’s role in battle by including Rashi’s comment on 14:6, s.v. v-et amo lakah imo.”

[3] For an example of a meta-narrative across characters within the same Biblical book, read Rashi on Genesis 32:8 (s.v. “va-yira va-yetzer) with Rashi on Genesis 42:14 (s.v. “hu asher dibarti”). For a meta-narrative between a character in a book in Humash and another in the Prophets, read Rashi on Numbers 16:15 (s.v. “lo hamor ehad me-hem nasati”) with Rashi on 1 Samuel 12:3 (s.v. “v-hamor mi lakahti). Unlike the last example, Rashi explicitly ties these two together with his comment on Numbers 16:7 (s.v. “rav lakhem b’nei levi). (Thanks to Dov Greenwood and the rest of our Rashi Iyun group from my Shana Aleph at Yeshivat Har Etzion. Together, we developed a passion for Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah and methodologies for reading it that have inspired me spiritually and intellectually. This essay provides only a small taste of the rich methodology and library of examples we have collected.)

[4] The ability to reapply itself is a key aspect of a meta-narrative—it is not just another narrative, but an overarching paradigm for narratives; a story of stories.

[5] Joshua 13:22 describes Balaam as a kosem.

[6] See Bava Batra 15b; Bamidbar Rabbah 20; the first comment of Rashi in Numbers 22:6; and Rashbam ad loc.

[7] Balaam’s prophecies are in Biblical verse and are introduced uniquely: “Va-yissa mishelo va-yomar…” For a fascinating analysis of one of Balaam’s poems, see J.P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Poetry (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2001), 69-70. (Thanks to Dov Greenwood for bringing this to my attention.)

[8] Pesikta DRav Kahana 15.

[9] See the beginning of Bamidbar Rabbah, 20, which suggests that the nations were given a prophet, Balaam, due to God’s desire for justice. “And Balak son of Zippor saw—The Torah says (Deuteronomy 32) ‘The Rock–perfect is His work for all of His ways are justice.’ . . . “

[10] See Numbers 24:9 which reflects—almost word for word—Isaac’s defining blessing to Jacob in Genesis 27:30.

[11] The Mah Tovu prayer.

[12] The Song of the Sea and Shirat Ha’azinu.

[13] Moses’s statement in Exodus 6:30, “See, I am of impeded speech (aral sefatayim),” poses an interesting challenge to our argument that can be resolved with either local parshanut or with a broader understanding of Moses’s character development.

[14] We may point out a creative reading that can be gleaned from Rashi’s innovation here. This final mention of Esau’s movement recalls the previous one, three chapters earlier: he sets out to Seir (a key location in Edom, often used interchangeably with it), inviting Jacob to join him. Jacob responds that because of his children and animals he is too slow to keep pace—he will catch up later, he says. But Jacob does not follow Esau to Seir, and instead settles in Sukkoth, and then Shechem. He does not keep his word. Now, Jacob’s descendants are asking Esau’s for help, and Rashi seeks, perhaps, to justify that request in the face of Jacob’s disloyalty.

[15] It is interesting to note that at this part of the narrative, which is the lead-up to the actual blessing, Isaac’s statement is considered a blessing. It seems that Rashi reads this descriptive, local statement (“The voice [that I hear now] is Jacob’s voice”) as a prescriptive, global one: “the voice (i.e., the gift of the voice) is (and shall be) Jacob’s voice.”

[16] See footnote 15. Note the difference in language between Jacob’s blessing (berakhah) and Esau’s assurance (havtahah). This appears to be Rashi’s own choice; his Rabbinic source—Midrash Tanhuma, Be-shalah 9—uses neither.

[17] See Rashi on Genesis 27:3, which reads an ambiguous implement as a sword, and Rashi on Genesis 25:29, which reads Esau as a murderer.

[18] B’hokhmah; alternately, “with wisdom.” I read this as a light endorsement or approval of the behavior.

[19] For a further bifurcation of the two strategies, see Ramban on Genesis 34:13.

[20] Note Jacob’s silence in Genesis 34:5.

[21] Compare Genesis 32:5 with Numbers 20:4.

[22] Numbers 20:21.

[23] See Numbers 30:3.

[24] See Numbers 21:21-24, where they first use diplomatic tools with Sihon, and only upon Sihon’s engaging in violence does Israel use the sword.

[25] See Rashi on Numbers 31:8, quoted below, which applies the same verse that tied Esau to Edom—“by your sword you shall live”—to the nations of the world.

[26] Tanhuma Be-shalah 9, Rashi on Numbers 22:23 (quoted below), and Rashi on Numbers 31:8.

[27] See Rashi on Number 22:4, quoted above.

[28] Siftei akhamim, ad loc.

[29] Cf. Rashi on Numbers 31:8. Reminiscent of Simeon and Levi’s role in Shechem vis-à-vis Jacob, Phineas—the iconic, violent zealot—oversees this campaign, rather than Moses himself (Numbers 31:6).

[30] Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), Chapter Two.

[31] See Rashi on Numbers 20:11. Moses hits the rock, using his hands (Esau’s blessing) rather than his voice—his own specialty—as he was commanded.

Dan Jutan
Dan Jutan is the co-founder and Student Coordinator of the College Beit Midrash of Atlanta. He lives and tutors in Atlanta’s Toco Hills community and teaches regularly at Kehilat Ohr Torah and New Toco Shul. He is a Computational Media major at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he also researches in the Digital Humanities. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion, was a Summer Fellow at the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, and is interested in the intersection between interactive technology and Jewish studies.