by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek
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Parashas Shemos(69)This week's sedra begins the second Book of the Chumash, the book of exile and redemption from Egypt. It relates the birth of Moses and his being assigned the task of leading the Nation out of Egyptian slavery. He is given the responsibility, together with his brother, Aaron, of confronting Pharaoh and requesting freedom for the People of Israel. Regarding Moses' birth we read:
And Pharaoh's daughter went down to bathe by the river, while her maids walked along the river's edge; and she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid and she fetched it.
to bathe to the river: Rashi: Invert [the words in] the verse and then explain it [thus]: 'Pharaoh's daughter went down to the river in order to bathe in it.'
A Foreword Before An Analysis
The Ramban points out that the Hebrew word "al" in the phrase "al hayaor" means "to the river". While the word "al" usually means "on", here it means "to." Sometimes (rarely) it has this meaning in Tanach. For example in Jeremiah 23:35 we have two different Hebrew words meaning "to." 'So you should say each man to (Hebrew: 'al') his friend and each man to (Hebrew: "el") his brother." This is a clear example of the word 'el' meaning 'to'. Likewise here in our verse we translate 'al' as "to."
Now let us return to our Rashi.
Rashi says "Invert the words in the verse and then explain it". Today we would say "cut and paste" cut the words 'al hayaor' and paste them after the word 'l'rchotz.'
What would you ask on this Rashi?
A Question: Why must we change the order of the words? What is wrong with the present order?
Can you see what is bothering Rashi?
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI ?
An Answer: The phrase, as it stands, seems to say literally that Pharaoh's daughter went down to bathe by (to) the river (i.e. near by). One bathes in a river not "by" a river and certainly not "on" a river.
This strange construction is what may have been bothering Rashi.
How does Rashi's switch in the word order rectify matters?
An Answer: Rashi's rephrasing is "And Pharaoh's daughter went to the river to bathe (in it)." Now we understand that she went towards the river with the intention to bathe in the river- not that she bathed 'by the river."
THE RAMBAN'S ORIGINAL INTERPRETATION
The Ramban quotes Rashi and while he does not dispute Rashi's understanding, he offers an original explanation, which takes care of the difficulty. Ramban says, maybe we can leave the word 'al' in its usual meaning, as upon the river- and he suggests that Pharaoh's palace was near the river and that he had steps going down to the river and into the very top of it. (Not unlike the steps we find in swimming pools and in mikvehs.) So the verse is telling us that Pharaoh's daughter walked down to the river and entered just the first steps into the river (maybe just getting her royal feet wet), which would not actually be "in the river" itself but would be somewhat like "upon" the river, and then she saw the basket further off in the water. Since she wasn't actually in the river, she didn't get it herself but sent her maids to get it. Certainly an original idea.
Getting back to Rashi's statement about reordering the words in our verse, we can ask another question.
A DEEPER LOOK
Another Question: If Rashi's re-wording gives us the best meaning of these words, then why didn't the Torah itself use Rashi's order of words?
A difficult question; one, which I haven't seen any of the Rashi commentators ask! It is never the less an important question.
Can you think of an answer?
A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING
A Suggested Answer: Let us first consider which fact is most important here: the fact the Pharaoh's daughter went to bathe or the fact that she went to the river. Of course going to the river was crucial here whether she went to bathe, to go fishing or just to meditate - all that is irrelevant. What is important is that she went to river where she found Moses' basket. See the rest of our verse: "and her maids walked along the river's edge." So the verse repeats that the group was by the river. That is what mattered.
I would suggest that the Torah's word order was intended to emphasize this point (more than that she went to bathe) and this was done by placing these words - by the river - dramatically at the end - climax - of the phrase and next to the phrase about the maids also walking near the river.
Now we see that the Torah's wording was ordered in way to emphasize what was important, even if it "broke" certain rules of literary precision. And Rashi came to clarify matters by re-ordering the Torah's words.
LESSON: We can learn from this several lessons. First, Rashi may have goals of his interpretation other than the Torah's goals of exposition. This doesn't mean that one is right and one is wrong; it means that each one serves different purposes. And we see a difference between Rashi & Ramban. Rashi is less likely to offer an original glimpse of the Torah's words than the Ramban is. Rashi looks at the verse as an individual unit and tries to explain it without getting into other possibilities.
What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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