David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

The various meanings of the root k-r-b (קרב) and their relevance to our lives today

The first section of Leviticus—the third book of the Torah which we read at this time of year— deals almost exclusively with the laws relating to sacrificial worship. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is “קׇרְבַּן” (korban) which derives from the root קרב (k-r-b) meaning “to get closer” or “to approach”. The premise is that in bringing a sacrifice, or an offering, to God, one seeks to strengthen the bonds with, and to come close to, God.

Unlike other years, however, this year we read this section of Leviticus while we are in the midst of a fierce battle against a cruel and despicable enemy in both the south and the north of Israel. The Hebrew word for battle is “קְרָב” (krav) which derives from the same Hebrew root קרב (k-r-b). But how can the root קרב mean both the “coming close” of one to another, as well as “battle” which reflects hostility and the creation of distance between them?

The same may be asked about the Hebrew root נשק (n-sh-k). On the one hand, the root נשק is the origin of the word “נְשִׁיקָה” meaning “kiss”. On the other hand, the same root is the source of the word “נֶשֶׁק” which means “weapons”. How can a word that refers to the display of intimacy aimed at strengthening bonds between people share the same root as a word that refers to that which undermines these very bonds?

It may be that these two Hebrew roots reflect one of the root causes of the tensions that sometimes arise within relationships. When we seek to come close to others, and to express that closeness through physical means, we make ourselves vulnerable, and that vulnerability can eventually be exploited by others seeking to harm us. Indeed, some of the most painful moments in life are when people we love, or once loved and trusted, abandon or betray us. Yet, without allowing ourselves to become vulnerable we will never be able to forge meaningful and long-lasting relationships. Thus, every time we enter a relationship we take the risk that one day “קִרְבָה” (kirva-closeness) will descend into “קְרָב” (battle), and “נְשִׁיקָה” (kiss) into “נֶשֶׁק” (weapons). Is there anything we can do to limit this risk or is it an inevitable feature of all relationships?

One way to limit it can be found in yet another word that derives from the root קרב (k-r-b) that appears within the context of sacrificial worship as well. The word “קֶרֶב” (kerev)—meaning “entrails” or “inward parts”— is a part of the animal that is either offered to God on the altar or consumed by the priest and the donor (depending on the specific type of sacrifice). Perhaps this is the Torah’s way of saying that the closeness we seek to achieve with God through sacrificial worship must stem from our “inwards parts”, our kishkes, and our deep yearning for Him, rather than from the desire for material or personal gain.

The same is true in our relationships with one another. If we want to come close to others we must be willing to invest our hearts and souls and, to borrow Buber’s language, to see the other as a “Thou” rather than an “It”, and we should expect the same from our counterpart. Too often relationships are based on interests or quid-pro-quos rather than a genuine desire for a personal connection. It is these kinds of relationships that are more susceptible to a descent from “קִרְבָה”” (kirva-closeness) to “קְרָב” (battle), and from “נְשִׁיקָה” (kiss) to “נֶשֶׁק” (weapons).

Finally, I believe the same can be said in the relationships between countries. When seeking alliances or pursuing peace treaties one must determine the intentions of the other side before formalizing any kind of agreement. Caution is advised when there is a reason to believe that the other side is motivated merely by the potential for political or financial gain, rather than a genuine desire for coexistence and peace. Caution is advised as well in addressing tensions between allies who have had a long-standing relationship based on shared values and deep-seated respect and appreciation.

Let us hope that in our personal and religious lives, as well as in our lives as a people collectively, we do our best to cultivate “קִרְבָה” rather than “קְרָב” and “נְשִׁיקָה” rather than “נֶשֶׁק”.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content.
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