“L’Exil de la Parole

“Exile of the Word”

Bezalel Naor

Parashat Shemot

Shovavim Tat

We begin this week a special period in the Kabbalistic calendar known as “Shovavim Tat.” This is an acronym for the Torah portions that we will be reading during this time span: Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshalah, Yitro, Mishpatim, Terumah, Tetsaveh.

The meaning of the Hebrew word “shovavim” is “naughty,” as in “Return naughty children” (“Shuvu banim shovavim”) (Jeremiah 3:14). According to the Kabbalists of old, this is an especially propitious time to return human seed scattered by nocturnal emission.

But this “tikkun” or fixing of souls may be taken to more abstract levels. In the heyday of the East-European Hasidic movement founded by Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, the great Hasidic “maggidim” or preachers would wander from town to town during this period to gather in the human elements that had been dispersed, bringing lost souls back to their divine source.

Perhaps in our own day the work of the “tsaddik” devoted to the cause of gathering in the dispersed souls may be made easier by the Internet. No longer must the righteous trudge through the deep snow to reach his destination. His work may now be carried out in Cyberspace.

Exile of the Word

According to the Zohar, speech was in exile in Egypt. The French Jewish thinker Andre Neher adopted this theme from the Zohar as the title of one of his studies, L’Exil de la parole, translated into English as Exile of the Word.

Developing this idea, Rabbi Isaac Luria punned that the deliverance from Egypt, Pesah (Passover) is actually two words: Peh sah (“talking mouth”). The redemption consists in the liberation of the word.

Whereas the Torah itself discusses only the speech impediment of Moses, who by his own admission was a stutterer and stammerer (kevad peh u-khevad lashon),[1] our great thinkers portray the existential condition of the Children of Israel in Egypt as one of collective muteness. Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik of Boston once remarked that the expressions the Torah employs to describe the Children of Israel’s reaction to the oppression of slavery (ze’akah, shav’ah, na’akah)[2] evoke the anguished outcry, the moaning and groaning of a wounded animal; nothing even approaching the eloquence of prayer. One might go so far as to say that their response is “preverbal.” (Rabbi Soloveitchik was preceded in this observation by Rabbi Abraham Tsevi Margaliyot, eminent disciple of the Hasidic Rabbi Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin.)[3]

One muses aloud that this is perhaps the symbolism of the Lithuanian custom of eating eggs at the Seder table on the night of the 15th of Nissan. Eggs have no “mouth.” They symbolize muteness. For this reason, traditionally they are eaten by mourners. As a result of the loss of a loved one, the mourner is plunged into a state of muteness. The eggs would come to remind us of the exile of the word in Egypt.

The one Hebrew who stands out as an exception to the mute scenario of Egypt is: Shelomit bat Divri. Rashi interprets her name in the following manner:

Shelomit—For she would chatter, “Shalom to you! Shalom to you!” She would chatter on, extending greeting to all. Bat Divri—She was (overly) talkative, speaking with everyone…

(Rashi, Numbers 24:11)

Rashi goes on to explain that Shelomit’s behavior led to her undoing, whereby she bore a son to an Egyptian. (This Egyptian man was none other than the Egyptian overseer slain by Moses in our Parashat Shemot.)[4] But short of committing adultery, her talkativeness alone was inappropriate behavior in that state of “exile of the word.” Just as it is improper in a house of mourning (beit ha-‘evel) to extend the greeting of “Shalom,” so in Egypt the greeting of “Shalom” was certainly out of character.



[1] Exodus 4:10. Interesting is Onkelos’ Aramaic version of “kevad lashon”: “’amik lishan” (literally, “deep of tongue”). Might this be an allusion to the Rabbinic tradition that Moses had a very deep voice? See Rashi to Exodus 2:6, s.v. ve-hineh na’ar bokheh: “His voice like that of a lad.” While yet an infant, Moses possessed the voice of a pubescent boy.

[2] Exodus 2:23-24.

[3] See Rabbi Abraham Tsevi Margaliyot, Keren ‘Orah, Va’era.

[4] See Rashi Exodus 2:11 and Leviticus 24:10.

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