Sunday, May 17, 2009

Professor Robert Alter was the visiting scholar at Adas this past shabbos. His shiur Friday night focused on the use of repetition as a literary device in Tanach. He dismissed the idea that minor variations in re-tellings were a glitch in oral transmission, and pointed instead of the use of those variations to draw comparisons or to intensify a pattern.

Looking fairly randomly into Tanach, two examples in the first and second chapters of Melachim Bet (II Kings 1:9-15 and 2:1-6) jump out. Let's take a quick look.

The first example is a classic three-tuple: two identical repetitions with negative outcomes, and a third with a dramatically different outcome that shows what should have happened in the first place. A divine messenger instructs Eliyahu the Prophet to rebuke the wayward King Ahaziah. The message reaches the King, who send a troop of 50 soldiers to...well, it's not clear what the military mission is, we don't hear the orders of the King himself. The captain with the first troops arrives at Eliyahu on the mountaintop, and shouts out that the King orders him to come down ("reida"). Instead what comes down, at Eliyahu's command, is fire from heaven (1:10), consuming the troops and the captain. Events with the second troop of 50 soldiers and their captain unfold exactly the same way, word for word, except that the command is come down NOW! ("meheira reida").

The third captain, a devout or at least an observant soul, tries a different approach, acknowledging the fate of his predecessors, and imploring Eliyahu that his soul, and the souls of these fifty servants, may be precious ("tikar-na") in Eliyahu's eyes. At which point the divine messenger tells Eliyahu to go with them to the King. The message driven home by this three-hold repetition could not be clearer -- in a contest between military force and divine force, there is no contest. And it doesn't hurt to say please.

The second example seems subtler. It is time for Eliyahu's ascent to heaven, and he instructs his disciple Elisha three times to stay behind. Elisha refuses all three times, and eventually accompanies Eliyahu up to the moment of his ascent, and literally assumes Eliyahu's mantle ("aderet Eliyahu"). The three repetitions, as Eliyahu makes his way to Beit El, then Jericho, and finally the midst of the Jordan River, are *nearly* identical, but not quite.

Beit ElYerichoYarden
Va-yomer Eliyahu el Elisha, "Sheiv-na...Va-yomer lo Eliyahu, "Elisha, sheiv-na...Va-yomer lo Eliyahu, "Sheiv-na...
Eliyahu said to Elisha, "Please stay...Eliyahu said to him, "Elisha, please stay...Eliyahu said to him, "Please stay...
Va-yerdu Beit ElVa-yavou YerichoVa-yelchu sh'neihem
They went down to Beit ElThey came to YerichoThey went together

These tiny variations in the midst of a nearly identical three-fold repetition carry a potent message. Eliyahu is about to leave this earthly existance forever; Elisha may or may not be a worthy successor. With each repetition, Eliyahu addresses his friend in just-slightly more intimate ways. And with each repetition, their travel together becomes more unified, until the conclusion of Eliyahu's request that Elisha stay behind is stated with utter clarity: "They went together".

These are small, nicely self-contained examples of the power behind Professor Alter's method, a method which the meforshim (classical commentators) have long employed. What examples in Tanach have you noticed lately?

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