Thursday, February 09, 2006

parshat Beshalach: Az Yashir: Use of the Imperfect to Designate Desire

There are several Rashi's in parshat Beshalach that I found particularly fun. They were all dikduk oriented, and perhaps this is a reflection of my present interest and approach to peshat and more specifically derash. One great one is on a pasuk upon which I've commented before - the meaning of עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת קָהּ in Shemot 15:2. עָזִּי has a yud suffix while וְזִמְרָת does not. Should they both be considered to be possessive - "For my strength and my song is Hashem?" Or should the latter be some sort of construct form - "the song of Hashem" - the awkwardness, and the kametz in וְזִמְרָת instead of the expected patach notwithstanding. Or, as Rashi points out - we should not expect the kametz katon in עָזִּי replacing the cholam chaser, but rather should expect a shuruk. Therefore, even עָזִּי is not possessive. Rather, both are pretty construct forms, and the yud at the end of עָזִּי just prettifies it. Further, וְזִמְרָת refers not to song but shares a root with zemer, pruning, and denotes vengeance. Thus, עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת קָהּ, וַיְהִי-לִי לִישׁוּעָה = "Hashem's strength and vengeance were my salvation."

The Rashi I liked best, however, was on the first pasuk of Az Yashir. The perek begins (Shemot 15:1):
א אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לַיהוָה, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, {ר} לֵאמֹר: {ס} אָשִׁירָה לַה' כִּי-גָאֹה גָּאָה, {ס} סוּס {ר} וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם. {ס 1 Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the LORD, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.
Did this event not happen in the past? If so, how can we use the imperfect form יָשִׁיר. Rashi mentions the famous midrash which states that this is Biblical and Pentateuchal proof of the resurrection of the dead, for Moshe and the Israelites will sing this song in the future.

On a peshat level, it strikes me that one can simply point out that the most common past tense in use throughout Tanach is exactly this form. Enter the vav hahippuch. Thus, in the same pasuk, וַיֹּאמְרוּ. Simply the imperfect יֹאמְרוּ would imply they will say in the future. The Va plus the dagesh in the yud switch around the meaning such that this event happened in the past. (There is a similar vav hahippuch of the form ve which changes verbs from past tense to future.) Thus, with the proper addition, we can utilize this form to convey past tense. And we can simply say that אָז takes the place of the vav hahippuch in this expression, as well as in those other verses that Rashi brings into evidence.

Besides citing the resurrection of the dead and clearly labelling it midrash, Rashi considers the issue from the perspective of peshat. Rashi considers the various possible meanings of this form, which is generally used to convey future tense.

He mentions that in some cases (without vav hahippuch) it is used to signify past action, since the examples one can muster of this are of continuous of of habitual action. Ken Yaaseh Iyyov - So Would Iyyov Do. Rather, he claims that it indicates desire to do some (future) action. He gives other examples of az + y where this is true, and one example without az, of King Shlomo building a house for the daughter of Pharaoh. And also, az + y indicating a desire of King Shlomo to build an altar for the idol Kemosh but not following through on his desire (as explained by the gemara in Sanhedrin 91b).

I would point out that from the (often midrashic) perspective that the verse should not reiterate without cause, there is now a distinction between

אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לַה'
וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר

The first is the desire to sing, and the latter is the actual carrying out of this desire.

The same, Rashi points out, occurs in two other cases. In Yehoshua 10:12:
יא וַיְהִי בְּנֻסָם מִפְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, הֵם בְּמוֹרַד בֵּית-חוֹרֹן וַה' הִשְׁלִיךְ עֲלֵיהֶם אֲבָנִים גְּדֹלוֹת מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם עַד-עֲזֵקָה--וַיָּמֻתוּ: רַבִּים, אֲשֶׁר-מֵתוּ בְּאַבְנֵי הַבָּרָד, מֵאֲשֶׁר הָרְגוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בֶּחָרֶב. {ס} 11 And it came to pass, as they fled from before Israel, while they were at the descent of Beth-horon, that the LORD cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died; they were more who died with the hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword. {S}
יב אָז יְדַבֵּר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, לַה', בְּיוֹם תֵּת ה אֶת-הָאֱמֹרִי, לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיֹּאמֶר לְעֵינֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, שֶׁמֶשׁ בְּגִבְעוֹן דּוֹם, וְיָרֵחַ, בְּעֵמֶק אַיָּלוֹן. 12 Then spoke Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel: 'Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.'
Yehoshua has seen the miracle (as described in verse 11) and אָז יְדַבֵּר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, לַה - that is, he desires to speak to Hashem, and then וַיֹּאמֶר לְעֵינֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל - he speaks these praises/statement to Hashem in the presence of the Israelites. Thus we see fulfillment of the desire, and we also eliminate reiteration which adds nothing.

Similarly, in Bemidbar 21:17, we can cast this az + y as desire followed by elaboration/fulfillment:

יז אָז יָשִׁיר יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת: עֲלִי בְאֵר, עֱנוּ-לָהּ. 17 Then sang Israel this song: Spring up, O well--sing ye unto it--
for we have אָז יָשִׁיר but it is followed by עֱנוּ-לָהּ - sing ye unto it.

The case of Shlomo's desire to build a house for Pharaoh's daughter: (I Kings 7:8):

ח וּבֵיתוֹ אֲשֶׁר-יֵשֶׁב שָׁם חָצֵר הָאַחֶרֶת, מִבֵּית לָאוּלָם, כַּמַּעֲשֶׂה הַזֶּה, הָיָה; וּבַיִת יַעֲשֶׂה לְבַת-פַּרְעֹה, אֲשֶׁר לָקַח שְׁלֹמֹה, כָּאוּלָם, הַזֶּה. 8 And his house where he might dwell, in the other court, within the porch, was of the like work. He made also a house for Pharaoh's daughter, whom Solomon had taken to wife, like unto this porch.
Finally, Shlomo's desire to build a house but not following through. (I Kings 11:7):
ז אָז יִבְנֶה שְׁלֹמֹה בָּמָה, לִכְמוֹשׁ שִׁקֻּץ מוֹאָב, בָּהָר, אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי יְרוּשָׁלִָם; וּלְמֹלֶךְ, שִׁקֻּץ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן. 7 Then did Solomon build a high place for Chemosh the detestation of Moab, in the mount that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech the detestation of the children of Ammon.
We see he did not follow through because there is no follow up statement that he built it. (Unless perhaps one takes וְכֵן עָשָׂה from the next verse, though one could argue that one should not.)

This is presented in Sanhedrin as an example where the Torah describes a minor sin of a great man as if he violated a big sin.

People often misunderstand Talmudic statements like this. They are not contradicting the text and saying - "Well, the text says A, but I do not beleive it, so I will say that the text is lying." Rather, they are saying that the text was written in an ambiguous fashion. Very close, midrashic-style, grammatically based, hyperliteral, close reading of this text will reveal the actual sin, but the text was deliberately written ambiguously such that on the most surface level the text describes a greater sin. This is the same that happens elsewhere. For example, Reuven sleeping with Bilhah (vayishkav et) is read literally and thus hyperliterally him causing Bilhah his father's concubine to sleep. Other pesukim describing his sin, from Yaakov's blessing, also feature into this interpretation. But is not more polemics and denial of the text, but rather very close reading and interpretation of the text. (I could show this in greater detail by each case, including the King Shlomo case, but this is not the place.)

Here, we see there is fact a grammatical argument - we have the az + y form indicating desire, as it always does (at least according to Rashi), and no followup with action, and thus Shlommo desired but did not carry out.

In fact, these meanings for the imperfect, including the meaning of desire, are present in other languages, such as English.

Consider this dictionary.com entry for will and its past tense, willed => would. (And related information at Wikipedia.) Will is the same as "will" as in "free will." We have the following uses of will listed:
  1. Used to indicate simple futurity: They will appear later.
  2. Used to indicate likelihood or certainty: You will regret this.
  3. Used to indicate willingness: Will you help me with this package?
  4. Used to indicate requirement or command: You will report to me afterward.
  5. Used to indicate intention: I will too if I feel like it.
  6. Used to indicate customary or habitual action: People will talk.
  7. Used to indicate capacity or ability: This metal will not crack under heavy pressure.
  8. Used to indicate probability or expectation: That will be the messenger ringing.
Uses 1, 5, and 6 are the uses of y that Rashi discusses. We see it can be used for customary or habitual action, as in the case of Iyyov. And (5), indication of intention, is exactly what Rashi claims here.

Perhaps this is different, and unrelated, since we are in fact using the auxiliary verb will here which carries with it the notion of desire. However, it illustrates the fact that a language might in fact use an imperfect form to indicate intention.

4 comments:

Nachman Levine said...

1) Az Yashir: Is there a distinction then between intentionality, the subjunctive, and the constant present? Do they overlap?

2) Azi VeZimras in Rashi:
The problem with the [missing] possesive in “zimras” in, let’s say, Onkelos: “Tokfi Vetushbehati”: Unlike the ibn Ezra style solution of borrowing it from the Yod in Azi as a bi-directional double-duty governing Os HaShimush (“Moshech Atzmo VeAcher Imo”), R. Reuvein Margolios (HaMikra VeHaMesorah: “Midat Oleh VeYored”) suggests a bi-directional Yod borrowed from the beginning of the next word “Kah” ( a Yod, not a Kuf . . ). This elegant solution ( I think it solves as a sentence, the next problem that Rashi himself has to deal with: the VaV phrase of “Vayehi li”. ) now brings to a new level of multivalence. Rashi says zimras is “cutting down”; Onkelos says it means “singing”. Which of these great commentaries and their great arguments should we follow?

The previous Pasuk is: “ASHIRAH LaHaShem”; the pasuk that follows Azi VeZimras” is “HaShem ish MILCHMAH.” Thus it would be a bidirectional deliberate polysemous use of both senses of “Zimras” as a parallelism (I don’t want to mention the name of this type of dual parallelism: it’s the name of a two-faced Avodah Zarah . . .). There is is a classic example in Shir HaShirim: “HaNitzanim nireu baaretz/Eis HAZAMIR higia`/vekol hator nishma` beartzeinu” where Zamir can refer to both harvesting (nitzanim) or forwards to singing (kol hator).

Good Shabbos
Nachman Levine

Anonymous said...

This isn't halacha, you don't have to "follow" any particular view. You can instead appreciate the wisdom in each of the views.

Nachman said...

Ah, but we do.
Besides the fact that they’re both Torah and both emes, the fact of two well-argued positions often indicates important multivalent or polysemous, (or sometimes even polyvocal) possibility and intention in a Pasuk. The two opinions about the pasuk are opinions, but more significantly as a pirush, is the fact that there are two opinions. The “modern” (19th century) approach (Malbim, Ayeles HaShachar, etc.) is that the fact of two legitimate lexical readings (or parsings) argues for two legitimate meanings. The “post-modern” approach would be: what is the significance of the multivalence itself read synchronically, syncretically, as a signifier, as a level of meaning. (The deliberate (semantic) ambiguity of Moshe’s “Vayetzei el Echov” comes to mind (who’s his Echov? Egyptians? (Ibn Ezra), Yidden? (Rashi, Seforno), or does Moshe have to struggle with deciding who to “follow”, Ibn Ezra or Seforno?). Examples of such cases (lexical, syntactic, semantic, genetive, exegetic, chulei . . ) abound, Baruch HaShem, on ParshaBlog . . .

Sam Rabinowitz said...

From Rashi to Bereishis 24:45 it appears that future tense can be used to signify past action, even when not habitual.

This seems to create a contradiction between Rashi there and here, which some of the commentators endeavor to explain.

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