This week, another double reading will take us from early in Deuteronomy 29 all the way through the end of chapter 31, as we get closer and closer to the end of the Torah as a whole. There are just three more chapters of Deuteronomy after this week.
We read the Torah for meaning, and the straightforward meaning of a text — the peshat, as Jewish tradition names it — depends on understanding the words of the text. Today’s column is brought to you by the root נדח.
That’s n-d-ḥ in transliteration; in the Torah this verb is used only in the book of Deuteronomy. It features prominently in Nitzavim-Vayelech, so it’s our verb of the week. It’s used here in the Niphal and the Hiphil. Lesson 15 of my Hebrew course will give you a basic understanding of what these forms do (don’t forget you can watch Lesson 1 for free here); but for now, a quick basic look:
- Niphal: something happens to the subject of the verb
- Hiphil: someone causes someone to do something else
In the case of נדח, the root itself has something to do with “scattering.” In the Niphal, then, you are scattered; in the Hiphil, when someone is causing you to do something, they are leading you astray. In both cases, you are moving away from something that should really be of extreme importance to you. You are off center and therefore off kilter.
Our first example comes from Deut 4:19:
Lest you lift your eyes to the sky, see the sun, moon, and stars — all the host of heaven — and go astray [וְנִדַּחְתָּ֛] and bow down to them and worship them, whom YHWH your God has allotted to all the other nations under heaven.
The stars in the sky are gods, all right, but minor ones, good enough for the other nations, but not for you, Israel.
Now we turn to Deuteronomy 13. The prophet who tells you to be disloyal to God … what is he trying to do when he’s urging disloyalty to the Lord? According to Deut 13:6, what he’s trying to do is to “make you stray,” once again נדח but in the Hiphil binyan: he’s actively trying to scatter you, to cause you to stray from God.
We find the same again in Deut 13:11, but then Deuteronomy 13 continues by imagining an entire town “subverted” (in the NJPS translation) by some lowlifes (b’nai b’liyya’al), who try to get everyone in town to worship other gods. And what verb is translated as “subverted”? You guessed it: yaddiḥu, the Hiphil of נדח. They have “caused them to stray” from what should be their intellectual, spiritual, and emotional center, the belief in God. In Jewish tradition, the imaginary city this happens to is known as the ir niddaḥat, “the city that has been נדח’d.”
Now let’s go back to this week’s reading. In Deuteronomy 30, what does the text suggest might conceivably happen to the Israelites? Vv. 15–16, sounding very Deuteronomic, promise all the wonderful things that will ensue once the Israelites enter the land of Canaan and begin to follow God’s laws there. But “if your heart turns” and you worship other gods … oops, skipped a word: וְנִדַּחְתָּ֗ v’nidaḥta, “if your heart turns and you stray and worship other gods,” then (as we saw last week) you are in big trouble.
We usually think of the English word “stray” as involving animals, and when Deut 22:1 instructs you to return animals that have gone astray, נִדָּחִ֔ים niddaḥim is exactly what they are. Jeremiah regularly uses the Hiphil, the causative form, to describe the Israelites as sheep whose shepherds have led them astray. And in Jer 8:3, it is their Shepherd with a capital S who has done so. We see the same thing from an imagined retrospective in this week’s reading as well, in Deut 30:1:
When all these things come true — the blessing and the curse that I set before you [in the previous chapters] — and you bring them to mind once again among all the nations where YHWH your God scattered you [הִדִּיחֲךָ֛ hiddiḥakha] …
Here too God is pictured as doing the same thing that the scoundrels were doing. It suggests that this is not understood as a punishment inflicted on the Israelites, but something that they themselves would fall victim to — first by false prophets; eventually by God himself. YHWH would seduce them, trick them, lure them, force them into leaving the land of Israel.
All of which is to say that this verb means to go (Niphal), or to be pushed (Hiphil), off center. You can imagine that in such a situation it would be pretty important to get back and be centered again, especially as Rosh Hashanah is coming up. That’s next week on Shabbat (and on Sunday), so there is no weekly reading. Torah Talk will be back in two weeks, when our second-to-last reading, Parashat Ha’azinu, comes around.
Next week, when the Jewish New Year begins, seems like a good time to hope for the fulfillment of the promises in Deut 30:3, when YHWH will …
- restore our fortunes;
- take pity on us; and
- gather us back from where we have been scattered among the nations — even, as v. 4 promises, if we have been scattered to the far end of the sky. A sweet New Year to all.