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במדבר פרק יד: ד – ויאמרו איש אל אחיו נתנה ראש ונשובה מצרימה:

Numbers 14:4 – They said to each other, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt”.

If the intention is (as per the translation here) to appointing a king or leader, the (Hebrew) wording seems a bit awkward. In II Sam. 8:5-6, for instance, the phraseology appears much more straightforward: “set up for us a king,” or “give us a king.” Why the word ראש here, and the lack of a connecting term, such as לנו or עלינו, as we find elsewhere? Additionally, Rashi cites a second explanation from Chazal (Ex. Rabba 24:2) that נתנה ראש meant that they wished to appoint an idol to lead them back to Egypt! Now, it could be that they wanted an idol, but would that really help direct them back to Egypt? What are Chazal telling us here?

Chazal cite this verse as an example of how הקב”ה punishes and rewards in a manner commensurate to our actions and words: Lament. Rabba 1:57 – You find that with the thing through which Israel sinned they were punished, and with the same thing they were comforted. They sinned with ‘head’, were punished with it and comforted with it. They sinned with ‘head’, as it is written, Let us make a head, and return into Egypt (Num. 14:4); were punished with ‘head’, as it is written, The whole head is sick (Is. I:5); and are comforted with ‘head’, as it is written, And their king is passed on before them, and the L-rd at the head of them (Micah 2:13).

This basic idea—of Hashem dealing with Mankind—measure for measure, מדה כנגד מדה is well-known and oft-repeated in Chazal. The punishing “measure” expressed by Isaiah is then the fitting one – but why the “comfort” in Michah – are we to be rewarded for sins?!

This too is actually a recurring motif in the Torah, to wit, Hashem loves כלל ישראל and seeks to shower us with good —and find good in us— even when we are undeserving, and even concomitantly with unavoidable punishments. For example, while the Torah warns of the terrible exile from the Promised Land…

Lev. 26:32 I will make the Land desolate.

…Rashi makes the astonishing observation that there is blessing even in this curse:

Rashi – I will make the Land desolate This is actually a good thing for Israel, namely, that since the Land will be desolate of people living in it, the enemies will not find contentment in Israel’s Land.

So too here, Hashem reminds us that even in a time of downfall, Hashem leaves the door to repentance open and hints that better times lay ahead.

But I believe another lesson is being taught here as well. We asked above about the unusual and indirect wording of the verse נתנה ראש ונשובה מצרימה. There are times when a person will say something and immediately wonder where those words came from – it is as if words suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Words are powerful tools, and Hashem wants us to pay close attention to each and every one voiced—even after we have spoken it, to reconsider; perhaps a better path can still be chosen. Perhaps in this case this strange phrase was planted in their mouths in order for them to take stock, to hesitate, to consider —put their “heads” to— their own words and their ramifications before proceeding.

The word ראש usually has positive connotations, but not always. A negative example is:

דברים כט:יז – פן יש בכם שרש פרה ראש ולענה

Deut. 29:17 – Perhaps there is among you a root that produces hemlock and wormwood.

Hemlock! Poison! If I stop to consider before proceeding, I might realize that that is indeed a possible meaning of the words that I just uttered: Let’s take poison and go back to Egypt – let’s commit suicide!

What words precede these? A desire to serve idolatry:

Deut. 29:17 – Perhaps there is among you a man, woman, family, or tribe, whose heart strays this day from the L-rd, our G-d, to go and worship the deities of those nations.

Yes, idol worship is tantamount to suicide by poisoning, as is choosing a leader of any kind other than G-d.

On the other hand, those same words נתנה ראש could have and should have reminded us of the true and great Head we ought really to be following, as expressed by Michah, cited above:

…and the L-rd at the head of them.

The words themselves should have given them pause. They should have reverberated with a resounding message, an opportunity to reconsider their actions before starting out onto a road that may be a one-way path to misery.

But the amazing comfort that the Torah provides is that even so, it is never too late. Even on that very one-way train to Purgatory we can choose to build an opposing lane, to about-face, to turn our backs on idols of every sort, of the seductive allure of the riches and culture of Egypt, of poison and death… to use our own heads, and follow the one true Leader, the real Head, to bring us to the greatness, in this world and the next.

 

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg

Founding Director, Editor-In-Chief at Veromemanu
Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg is the Founding Director and Editor-in-chief of Veromemanu and it' website BiblicalHebrewEtymology.com.

Yehoshua is a retired U.S. Army Chaplain and currently lives in Israel with his wife and children.

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg