Thursday, May 17, 2012

Two-minute Torah: Strangers and Sojourners

Both English and Hebrew have pleonasms, phrases which express in more than one word something that could just as easily be expressed with only one word. We often speak of "tuna fish" when "tuna" would convey exactly the same thing. My late Uncle Max used to say that something has "all the vitamins and minerals" and lawyers often speak of "rules and regulations." Yes, technically a vitamin is not a mineral and a rule is not a regulation, but we recognize both of these usages as simply figures of speech.

In the Hebrew Bible we find the terms "ger v'toshav," "stranger and sojourner." When he seeks to buy a burial place for his wife Sarah, Abraham describes himself to the native Hittites as a "ger v'toshav." And in this week's parasha, in Lev. 25:23, we are told that the land cannot be sold in perpetuity, because we are "gerim v'toshavim" with God, which the new JPS translation renders as "for you are but strangers resident with Me."

We accept "ger v'toshav" as a pleonasm meaning something like "resident alien."  But I recently came across a teaching from my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, the Dubner Maggid, where he says that they are actually opposite. 

"Ger carries the connotation of temporariness while toshav carries the connotation of permanence. God said to Israel: “The relationship between you and Me is always that of ‘strangers and settlers.’ If you live in the world like strangers, remembering that you are only here temporarily, then I will be a settler in your midst, in that My Presence will dwell with you permanently. But if you will regard yourselves as settlers, as permanent owners of the land on which you live, forgetting that the land is actually not yours but Mine, My Presence will be a stranger in that it will not dwell in your midst.“

“In any case, you (Israel) and I (God) cannot be strangers and settlers at the same time. If you act like a stranger, then I will be the settler, and if you act the settler, I must be the stranger.”

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