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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Balak(65)

The sedra is devoted exclusively to the sorcerer and idol worshipper, Bilam, and his failed attempts to curse the People of Israel.

Two orientations in Torah interpretation: Onkelos and Rashi.

Numbers 23:21:

He perceived no evil in Jacob and saw no perversity in Israel. Hashem his God is with him and the shouting of the King is in him.


He perceived no evil in Jacob, etc: Rashi: As the Targum renders it. Another interpretation, the midrash interprets it beautifully following its p'shat. The Holy One blessed be He, does not perceive the evil in Jacob, when they violate His words, He does not deal so strictly with them as to pay attention to their sinful doings and their transgressions by which they violate His law.

What Does the Targum Say?

Rashi cites the Targum but does not quote him. The Targum says:

"I have seen that there are no idol worshipers in the House of Jacob…"

The Targum differs from Rashi's second interpretation in three ways.

Can you spot them?

Your Answer:

Differences between Targum and Rashi's Midrashic P'shat

An Answer:

1) Targum says the sin was idol worship; Rashi says any transgression.

2) Rashi says it is G-d that "perceived no evil." Targum implies it was Bilaam ("he saw" refers to Bilaam).

3) Targum says "He saw that there was no idol worship (Onkelos' equivalent is 'idol worship.')" Rashi says "He saw no evil."

The difference between Rashi and Targum on the last point should be clear. "He saw that there was no idol worship" is an absolute statement: i.e. there was in fact, no 'evil' whatsoever in Israel. Whereas the words "He saw no evil" only mean that he did not see evil, though evil may have been present. This is an important difference, as Rashi goes on to explain.

Rashi's second interpretation is much closer to the simple meaning of Bilaam's words. Why do you think Targum Onkelos made the changes he did in translating Bilaam's words?

Hint: Understanding Onkelos general approach to his Targum, may help.

Your Answer:

Understanding the Targum

An Answer: For Onkelos, who was a convert to Judaism and came from a pagan background, the biggest sin was idol worship. When he wants to praise Israel as having no sin, he had in mind the biggest sin, paganism. According to the Targum, Bilaam was looking at the righteousness of Israel. For he assumed that G-d's love of Israel was based on their righteous conduct. His greatest praise would then be that they had no idol worshippers among them.

Rashi, on the other hand, realized that G-d's love for Israel was as much a consequence of His own unconditional love towards them as it was of Israel's faithful behavior itself. Therefore Rashi says "G-d saw no evil of any kind, even if it might have existed. Because of G-d's longstanding commitment to and love of His People Israel, He was willing to turn His eyes aside from their wrongdoing.

Two Approaches to Torah Commentary

We see here two approaches to Torah commentary. The Targum is consistent in that he sees his task as commentator as emphasizing the perversion of any form of paganism or any incorrect conception of Hashem. Rashi, on the other hand, is less of a philosopher is more concerned with taking the Torah's words as p'shat, interprets the verse as close to p'shat as he can.

Understanding Rashi

Let us understand why Rashi considers the "other interpretation" to be closer to p'shat. Remember, that interpretation was that Hashem saw no sin in Israel, even though there may have been sins, He preferred to ignore them. How would you say this derives from a p'shat reading of the verse?

Your Answer:

An Answer: We pointed out above that the phrase "He did not see any evil" is not the same as "He saw no evil." So on the basis of this word order Rashi concluded this was p'shat.

P'shat as Beautiful Drash

Rashi calls the p'shat a beautiful midrash. This a midrash from Tanchuma. Why do think Rashi makes a point to call it a beautiful midrash ?

Your Answer:

An Answer: Considering Rashi's general hashkafah of G-d's love of Israel and Rashi's repeated emphasis of the importance of love between people and between G-d and Israel, it is perfectly understandable that Rashi would consider this a beautiful midrash. It aptly expresses the unconditional, even blind, love of G-d towards his people, a theme that Rashi frequently emphasizes.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."

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