This entire week, I’ve been thinking (as has so much of the world) about Otef Azza—the communities surrounding or adjacent to Azza/Gaza. But what I’ve been mostly mulling over, is the word otef. I had an interesting conversation with my grandson, who starts basic training in two weeks’ time (thus joining my other two grandsons who have been called up). I said that one meaning of the word is to wrap around, or envelop. And I said that it is so meaningful that the people who have been evacuated from otef azza, sometimes referred to as ha-otef (the otef), have been greeted by hundreds of people with hugs, warm hospitality wrapping around them, surrounding them with love and help. But then I gave some thought to the word otef itself, wondering how to translate it exactly and of course its usage in the Tanakh. I also had an idea for how to connect the word with this week’s parshat toldot. After doing all that I set out to do (and in the process discovering a popular song) I came to the conclusion that otef azza is misnamed, especially now. Fortunately, in my googling, I came across someone who agrees with me.
THE ROOT AND MEANING OF עטף ATAF/OTEF
So in the Klein Dictionary on-line, עטף is translated as “to envelop oneself, cover, wrap. One meaning can be to put on a cloak. The Jastrow dictionary, adds to cover one’s self, to dress and put on an upper garment, wrapped in his festive cloak. And Rashi in Shabbat 119a:2:1 writes that he wraps himself in nice clothes.
POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE USAGE IN THE BIBLE
If you google, or look on Sefaria or any search engine such as the Bar Ilan Data Base for the root עטף, you will find less than 20 mentions in the Tanakh (8 of them are in Psalms). Many of these are about wrapping one’s spirit or heart and they can be positive or negative. You can be enveloped in distress and famine, with failing spirit.
A prayer of the lowly man when he is faint כִֽי־יַעֲטֹ֑ף and pours forth his plea before the Lord (Psalms 102:1). Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra say about this: when he is enveloped in distress and famine.
In my time of distress I turn to the Lord, with my hand [uplifted]; [my eyes] flow all night without respite; I will not be comforted. I call God to mind, I moan, I complain, my spirit fails וְתִתְעַטֵּ֖ף רוּחִ֣י (Psalms 77:3-4).
Or you can celebrate, sing and rejoice in God’s goodness when the fields are covered with grain in abundance or when he shows his love to us:
You take care of the earth and irrigate it; You enrich it greatly,…You bless its growth. You crown the year with Your bounty; …The meadows are clothed with flocks, the valleys mantled with grain וַעֲמָקִ֥ים יַֽעַטְפוּ־בָ֑ר ; they raise a shout, they break into song (Psalms 65:11-14).
Some lost their way in the wilderness,…Hungry and thirsty, their spirit failed נַ֝פְשָׁ֗ם בָּהֶ֥ם תִּתְעַטָּֽף . In their adversity they cried to the LORD, and He rescued them from their troubles. …Let them praise the LORD for His steadfast love,… He has satisfied the thirsty, filled the hungry with all good things (Psalms 107:4-9).
Jonah in his prayer to God, somehow manages to praise God:
When my life was ebbing away, בְּהִתְעַטֵּ֤ף עָלַי֙ נַפְשִׁ֔י I called GOD to mind; And my prayer came before You, Into Your holy temple (Jonah 2:8).
There is poignancy in the psalmist who writes:
Hear my cry, O God, heed my prayer. From the end of the earth I call to You; when my heart is faint, בַּעֲטֹ֣ף לִבִּ֑י You lead me to a rock that is high above me. For You have been my refuge, a tower of strength against the enemy (Psalms 61:2-4).
However, the despondency and despair and anger at God’s cruelty is evident in Job and especially in Eicha (Lamentations) where the negative uses of עטף are striking:
But if I go East—He is not there; West—I still do not perceive Him; North—since He is concealed, [he veils the South] יַעְטֹ֥ף יָ֝מִ֗ין I do not behold Him (Job 23:8-9). To this Rashi writes: He hid the directions to the South so that I won’t see Him.
My eyes are spent with tears, My heart is in tumult, My being melts away Over the ruin of my poor people, As babes and sucklings languish בעטף עולל ויונק in the squares of the city (Lam 2:11).
Later in this chapter the narrator says
Pour out your heart like water In the presence of the Lord! Lift up your hands to Him For the life of your infants, Who faint for hunger שְׂאִ֧י אֵלָ֣יו כַּפַּ֗יִךְ עַל־נֶ֨פֶשׁ֙ עֹֽולָלַ֔יִךְ הָעֲטוּפִ֥ים בְּרָעָ֖ב At every street corner (Lam 2:19).
Chapter two of Lamentations is particularly bitter since God destroys and swallows up the city and he does so with burning anger and no pity. We are left with an image of suffering and death of innocent babes who are without guilt. Perhaps the word עטף which is understood as fainting/dying of hunger, also implies that there is a shroud like wrapping around them—surely their bodies are not left out on the streets! Or perhaps they are just lying there, visible to all, witness to God’s abandonment, given the widespread catastrophe. This chapter is striking because we are left with questions and the city of Jerusalem (portrayed as a woman) is outraged, defiant and angry at its God (and possibly its leaders who have deserted them) that has caused this suffering.
In this week’s parsha, Rebecca is about to give birth. She goes to God to complain about her birth pains and God explains to her that she has twins and that one will be stronger than the other. She understands from that the younger (Jacob) will inherit the blessing and not the older.
But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of God, and God answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:22-23).
Two chapters later, in order to carry out this oracle Rebecca intervenes. She tells Jacob to steal the blessing.
Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I overheard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying, ‘Bring me some game and prepare a dish for me to eat, that I may bless you, with יהוה’s approval, before I die.’ Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you. Go to the flock and fetch me two choice kids, and I will make of them a dish for your father, such as he likes. Then take it to your father to eat, in order that he may bless you before he dies” (Genesis 27:6-10).
When Jacob questions her, she instructs him to wrap sheepskins (which are hairy like Esau) around his body.
Jacob answered his mother Rebekah, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am smooth-skinned. If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” But his mother said to him, “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.” He got them and brought them to his mother, and his mother prepared a dish such as his father liked. Rebekah then took the best clothes of her older son Esau, which were there in the house, and had her younger son Jacob put them on; and she covered his hands and the hairless part of his neck with the skins of the kids (Genesis 27:11-16)..
What Rebeca tells Jacob to do, is both an act of love and an act of betrayal. Out of her misguided love for Jacob she betrays both her other son and her husband. But she also forces Jacob to be a traitor to his sense of morality. He is the first deceiver in the Bible; Isaac says, the voice is that of Jacob, but the arms are those of Esau. Jacob “wraps” (otef) his hairless body with the sheepskin, and wears Esau’s special clothing to get his father’s blessing. Jacob feebly protests, but his mother says, don’t worry, the curse will be on me. The disguise works and Isaac gives him the blessing. I always wonder when I read this story, if Rebecca has any regrets. Does she ever apologize to Esau and her husband for having cheated them and favoring one son over the other? On the surface, she seems so sure of herself. She exudes self-confidence.
When I discussed this story with my daughter, the poet and writer, and told her about my linking the parsha with the word otef, she referred me to a popular song, which is a monologue of a mother talking to the embryo inside her womb (rechem). When I read the lyrics by Ehud Banai, I immediately thought of Rebecca and her querying of what was going on in her own womb when she went to God and demanded answers. The song itself is beautiful and full of hope and compassion (here).
WRAPPED IN MERCY (atuf be-rachamim)
Blue deep light,
Wrapping you in mercy.
You float and dream
Hovering in high worlds.
Perhaps you know everything,
And you see the manifest secrets.
You are very calm,
It wraps you in mercy
You rest inside your mother,
She will give you always everything,
When your day comes
You will have always a place where to fall.
In the end you will be born
And immediately you will feel pain
Strong light hits the face
And you will feel hungry.
Don’t rush to come out
To the moment of Truth
Don’t break up.
In the end you will come out, to me,
When I will take you into my arms.
I will always love,
It will certainly hurt,
Because even if God guards,
Outside, it sometimes burns.
You are kicking again,
I know, you lost your patience,
You sprout inside me
And weave to yourself an identity
In the end you will be born
And immediately you will feel pain
Strong light will hit the face
I will wrap you in mercy (אעטוף אותך ברחמים).
OTEF AZZA IS A MISNOMER AND NAMES DO MATTER
And now, in this very circuitous manner, I come back to the point of this blog. The word otef has many associations, both positive and negative. I question whether it should continue to be the name associated with the communities that live in the Southwest of Israel. When the communities surrounding what is left of Gaza come back to live there and rebuild their lives (whenever that will be), I think the name of the area should be renamed. Such a suggestion was actually made in an article that appeared more than four years ago.
In August 2019, Tamir Idan, the head of the Sdot Negev Regional Council in Southern Israel, who recently announced his resignation from the ruling Likud party, wrote an article in Yisrael Hayom, entitled לא עוטף עזה – אלא מגיני ישראל Not Otef Azza, rather Defenders of Israel. In the article (remember this was 4 years ago) he said that it is wrong to define the Israeli communities in the vicinity of the border fence as יישובי עוטף עזה “Gaza-adjacent.” He does not consider this to be a minor matter, even though it has no bearing on the issue of security. He writes: Don’t call us “Gaza-adjacent communities!” We don’t just sit there – we defend the Israeli border. Furthermore, he was angered by the fact that they are always referred to as the periphery. Interviewers on TV come and thank him and then say “From the Gaza periphery – now back to the studio.” His feeling is that when they are referred to as “Gaza-adjacent” or “Gaza periphery” communities, there is a sense of dismissal. He wrote that their existence and lifestyle had nothing to do with their neighbors to the west. And he suggested changing the name to the Communities of the Western Negev. Why? Because names do matter; words have meaning! (here).
And just when you thought I was finished, I want to return to a Psalm which juxtaposes the word hamas and otef. I present this as a teaser with no comment: It appears in Psalm 73. The author envies the wicked who engage in lawlessness (hamas), whose evil is wrapped (otef) around them :
As for me, my feet had almost strayed, my steps were nearly led off course, for I envied the wanton; I saw the wicked at ease. Death has no pangs for them; their body is healthy. They have no part in the travail of men; they are not afflicted like the rest of mankind. So pride adorns their necks, lawlessness enwraps them as a mantle לָ֭כֵן עֲנָקַ֣תְמוֹ גַאֲוָ֑ה יַעֲטָף־שִׁ֝֗ית חָמָ֥ס לָֽמוֹ …They scoff and plan evil; from their eminence they plan wrongdoing. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth. So they pound His people again and again, until they are drained of their very last tear (Psalms 73).
I think this speaks for itself. And don’t worry, the author of this psalm chooses good over evil and thus there is a happy ending for now.