Friday, July 28, 2006

Nine By Four Or Ten by Five? (Devarim 5766)

Deuteronomy, playing now at a synagogue near you, contains a curious mixture of encouragement, historical review, law, poetry, admonition and blessing. It is, in effect, a long speech, delivered by Moshe to the Jewish people in the weeks before his death. One of its most perplexing references is to Og, of whom we learn in this week’s reading:

Behold his bedstead was a bedstead of iron, is it not in Rabat Beney Amon, nine cubits by four cubits…. (Devarim 3:11)

This obscure verse was treated in an even stranger way by one mediaeval source, which seems to have suggested that it was added into the Torah later on. This is hard to square with the normative position that the entire Torah is the unmitigated word of God. Let us look at another way of understanding this.

Og was a king who had died in a battle with the Jews described in the book of Numbers. Og was distinguished by the fact that Moshe was afraid of him until God informed him that he need not be afraid. Why was Moshe scared of Og, when he seemed unafraid of the other foes encountered on route to the Land?

Our tradition contains many profound concepts couched in a unique literary form called Midrash; without it we would struggle to unravel this story. We must go back to Avraham and his servant Eliezer. To our surprise, we discover that Og is identified with Eliezer, who informed Avraham that his nephew Lot had been captured by warring chieftains. This enabled Avraham to rescue Lot and bring the war to an end. Conveying this message involved Eliezer/Og in great personal danger, for which he was rewarded with extreme longevity. When Moshe encountered Og centuries later, he was worried that he would not be able to overpower him; God assured him that Og’s time had come as the blessing of long life had expired.

Og’s trouble was that he spent his life cruising – relying on the merit that he had accrued in the distant past and on good fortune beyond his control. He may indeed have been circumcised by Avraham himself, helped to save Lot and embarked on a successful mission to find a wife for Yitzhak, but these were a very long time before. More recently, he had been sitting back drawing on his past, without much to show for the last few hundred years. Actually, the name Og means ‘circle’, indicating a man who was trapped in a closed, progress-free existence.

Back to the bed – do we really care that it was nine by four? The Ishbitzer Rebbe answered in the affirmative – the bed is the measure of the man; his spiritual, as well as his physical dimensions. Inspired people are measured by their spiritual achievements, by the extent to which they use every moment of existence to meet God and holiness face on. Their ‘beds’ – the lives they make for themselves – are dedicated to the pursuit of God – yah (yod = ten and heh = five). Og in comparison, and despite appearances to the contrary, was an also-ran, whose life can be circumscribed by the numbers nine and four.

How are we doing? Are we ten-by-fives or nine-by-fours? It’s worth some thought.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish News.

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