The Unspeakable Language of Passion

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, and Sexual Struggles.

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Have you ever noticed that among lovers our expressions of love and endearment usually take few words (aside from the great poets); but that our expressions of hatred and anger are often lengthy tirades? “I love you.” Such a short phrase. Add up all of the words from the marriage vows, the “I love you”s, and the birthday and anniversary cards, and how do you think that number will compare to the sum of all words uttered in anger and argument? I suspect that we use far more words to lambast each other than we do to express our affection.

And have you noticed that we are capable of a viciousness when we are angry at people we love, that we would never display to someone with whom we are far less intimate? That we sometimes deliberately choose words calculated to cause the maximum amount of damage and pain on the ones we love the most?

We’re taught by psychologists and other such wise people, that love and hate are two sides of the same coin – the coin being passion. When we find someone whom we are passionate about, we lose (some of) our ability to moderate our feelings. I can’t just like her – I love her! I can’t just dislike him – I hate him! Everything in a passionate relationship is more intense. The love is more intense. The wound is more intense. The anger is more intense. Nobody can make you want to rip the hair our of your own head as much as your own beloved spouse – because the pain caused by one’s spouse runs that much deeper.

So that explains the second proposition. But how about the first? If love and hate between lovers are two sides of the same coin, then why do we use so many more words out of anger than those that we employ in the service of love?

That (I suspect), is because love and hate are not quite equal sides of the same coin. Love is a fulfilling feeling; it makes us feel more complete, more content. Hate, on the other hand, is an unsettling feeling, a void that leaves us feeling empty. When we are content and spilling over with love, we don’t need a lot of words; the few words that we use are more than sufficient to give voice to the warmth and affection that we feel. With hatred, on the other hand, we are always left unsatisfied; the wound-void yearns to be filled, and we try in vain to fill it with words, and more words, always hoping that with these last angry words, the ache and the pain that we feel will finally be assuaged.

As it turns out, we’re not in bad company.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we live through the promise of the blessings that we will receive if we remain true to G-d, and the curses that we will suffer if we do not.

The blessings are beautiful; in 14 verses, G-d expresses His love and appreciation in ways that encompass every conceivable area of our lives.

Then the curses. There are a full 54 verses allotted to the curses – nearly 4 times the number of verses devoted to blessings!

And these are not bland or mellow words. These words are truly chilling – almost as though G-d went out of his way to conjure up the most terrifying and horrible threats possible. Some of these expressions might even be described as “over the top.” This is very unusual, and therefore very significant.

Some context:

We had learned as early as Parshat Noah how exceedingly careful Torah is not speak in negative terms, but to rather focus on the positive. Even when something is not positive, Torah will usually describe it terms of the absence of positive traits, as opposed to focusing on it as a negative. For example, when Noah is commanded to bring the animals onto his ark, he is told to bring aboard seven of each “pure” animal, “and of the animals that are not pure, two.” Genesis, 7:2. See how careful the Torah is not to describe the animals as “dirty” or “impure,” but rather to simply focus on how they are simply “not pure”; the absence of a positive trait, as opposed to the presence of a negative one. And this is a lesson that we ourselves can learn in how we relate to and speak of each other – always focusing on the positive, rather than the negative.

Or how about the very genteel and respectful way the Torah describes sexual intercourse? “And Adam knew his wife Eve.” Genesis, 4:1. “And he [Abraham] came to Hagar.” Genesis, 16:4. In fact, when Jacob verbalized that identical expression, saying to his father-in-law Laban “Give me my wife, for my days are completed, that I may come to her,” Rashi feels like he must apologize for the coarseness of Jacob’s words, saying: “Now, isn’t it true that even the most degenerate person would not say this? But it is because he intended to beget generations that he spoke thus.” Genesis, 29:21.

When we get to the curses in this week’s Parsha, however, all bets are off. The usually-diplomatic language of the Torah is abandoned in favor of what would appear to be extremely crude and explicit language. Take, for example, the curse: “The most tender and delicate woman among you, who would not venture to set her foot upon the ground because of delicateness and tenderness, will begrudge the husband of her embrace and her own son and daughter and the infants who emerge from between her legs, and her own children whom she will bear, for she will eat them in secret, in destitution, in the siege and the desperation which your enemies will inflict upon you, in your cities.” Deuteronomy, 28:57.

Forget if you can, for a moment, the truly horrifying cannibalistic content of this curse. Since when does the Torah refer to childbirth as graphically and indelicately as “the infants who emerge from between her legs”??

There are more examples of unspeakable language, which – it turns out – are are literally unspeakable. There are two spots in Chapter 28 (the only two such places in the entire Pentateuch) in which the words used by the Torah were deemed so crude that the sages of the Talmud have instructed us to verbalize different words than those written. See Babylonian Talmud, Megillah, 25b. One is in verse 27, in which G-d threatens to smite the Jewish people with hemorrhoids. Interestingly, the word for the hemorrhoid’s location actually written in the Torah is “ba’apolim”; when reading it verbally, however, we are told to read the word “ba’tchorim.” The former is viewed as much more explicit reference to the anus than the latter, which is a far more delicate expression; in English, the equivalent might be the difference between “asshole” and “orifice”.

The second example occurs in verse 30. There, G-d threatens that “You will betroth a woman, but another man will lie with her.” The word meaning “lie with her,” however – “yishkavenah” – is not the word actually written in the Torah. That word is “yishgalenah” – a far more explicit and crude expression; so indelicate, in fact, that our sages require us to substitute the word for a more polite one. Again, the equivalent distinction in English might be the difference between “someone else will sleep with her” and “someone else will fuck her.” It is essentially Divine cussing.

And it’s not just in the language itself. In verse 68, it says: “And the Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships, through the way about which I had said to you, You will never see it again.” But – didn’t You say that ‘you will never see it again’? Every parent knows the importance of being consistent and keeping your word. If you commit to never doing a particular thing again, then doesn’t that have to mean something? Can it possibly mean “I won’t do it again, so long as I am in not in the mood to do it again”?

In verse 63, G-d says: “And it will be, just as the Lord rejoiced over you to do good for you and to increase you, so will the Lord cause to rejoice over you to annihilate you and to destroy you.” Really? The joy of annihilation will be just the same as the joy of doing good? No difference at all? Not a punishment and discipline meted out by a reluctant and disappointed, but the very same level of joy?

What kind of parent talks like this?

This Parsha then, perhaps more than any other, illustrates the true nature of our relationship with G-d. Not the parent-child or king-subject relationship that G-d himself describes and showcases – although those too are certainly dimensions of our bond – but rather the relationship revealed by reading between the lines of G-d’s expression. The language in this week’s Parsha is not the calm and measured lecture of a parent to a child. It is the tempestuous language of passion; of warmth, intimacy and love when all is well, but of enraged jealousy at even the thought of infidelity. It is from G-d’s no-holds-barred curses that we catch a glimpse of the true measure of His pain at the thought of our being unfaithful – which, conversely, gives us a sneak insight into just how much we mean to Him.