Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayishlakh 5765

B'li Mirmah

Near the end of the Amidah, the Shemoneh Esrei, T'filah, the 19 out of 18 or whatever you choose to call this core of the Jewish worship service, is a penultimate concluding prayer, the "Elohai Netzor." It is also found in liberal siddurim, though it is often thought of as the "silent prayer." This is so partly because in the Reform and other liberal traditions, portions of the Amidah have become congregational readings, songs, and more, so this little piece of text became the time for "adding our own prayers." Lately, though, I have been to more and more liberal services where the Shemoneh Esrei has returned to its traditional "pray on your own" style.

[SIDEBAR: For those of you without a traditional siddur handy, the "Elohai Netzor" follows the Sim Shalom (or Shalom Rav) prayer. In traditional worship, the Elohai Netzor includes as its final two verses the "Y'hiyu L'ratzon" and the "Oseh Shalom" which have achieved status as individual prayers of attention in liberal siddurim, and which signal the end of that part of the worship service. In a traditional siddur, the "Elohai Netzor" is followed by another "Y'hi Ratzon" for the restoration of the Temple and ritual sacrifice. And unlike some liberal services where, after the Shemoneh Esrei the Torah service begins, in a traditional service, there is the whole Tachanun service first. It's hard to know what's missing when you haven't ever seen it! Think we only say Viddui on the High Holy Days? It's part of the regular Shacharit (morning) service Tachanun most days.]

In an odd twist of fate, Danny Maseng set the text of this penultimate "silent prayer" to some very moving music, and it is gaining fast acceptance in many congregations as a regular part of their worship music.

The text of this prayer begins:

"Elohai netzor l'shonei mei-ra, u's'fatai midabeir mirmah..."

"My Gd, guard my tongue from evil, and my lips from speaking deceitfully..."

All of which is a rather roundabout way of focusing on the last word above, "mirmah," which can be translated as deceit or guile.

Why is it such an important word? Well, it's only seen twice (in this form of the word) in the Torah, although it appears 39 times throughout the Tanakh. So it's somewhat rare, but not too rare. And other forms of its root word, r-m-h, resh-mem-hey can be found throughout Torah and Nakh.

Both times the word "mirmah" appears in Torah are in the Yaakov story. In this week's parasha, Vayishlakh, we find the second occurrence.

First , let's get the context. Shechem, son of Hamor, King of the Shechemites (confused yet?) rapes Dinah. The Torah notes, however, following the verse in which Shechem takes and lies with Dinah by force, that he was strongly drawn to Dinah, that he loved her, and spoke tenderly to her. Yet, as all this descriptive text occurs after the act, no matter how "well intentioned" it was still blatant rape. Hamor came to speak with Yaakov about the same time that Yaakov's sons, angry from the news they had heard about Dinah, returned home. (Notice, however, how both Yaakov and his sons finished their day's work before turning their attention to Dinah's rape.) Hamor, perhaps in a conciliatory gesture (?) or perhaps fearing repercussions (?) or perhaps to shut up his whining son (?) proposes that Shechem be allowed to marry Dinah, that the people of Shechem and Yaakov intermarry, that Yaakov and his people could live and trade in Shechem, and that Hamor would pay whatever bride price was asked of him.

The sons (and not Yaakov) respond, in 34:13:

"Jacob's sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor--speaking with guile (mirmah) because he had defiled their sister Dinah--"

Here the sons of Yaakov (and notice, here it does not say just Simeon and Levi, who later went on to slaughter all the men three days later, after their having agreed to be circumcised to they could intermarry with Yaakov's tribe) respond to Hamor's request to allow Shechem to marry Dina, and to allow intermarriage between the tribes, by stating that only if all the males of Shechem were circumcised could they allow this.. Yet they did it, according to the text, with "mirmah," with guile. Is the guile simply that they wanted to see these men circumcised, or was it foreshadowing of what Simeon and Levi later did to the recovering men, with, apparently, silent acquiescence from all their other brothers?

None of this yet explains what is so important about this appearance of the word "mirmah." Be patient.

Now, the first appearance of "mirmah" in Torah is a few parashiyot back in Toldot, Gen. 27:35. Yaakov has come and gotten his father's blessing first. Esau comes seeking Yitzchak's blessing, but is told that

"...Your brother came with guile (mirmah) and took your blessing." (Gen 27:35)

Yaakov, of course, gets a little payback in parasha Vayetze when he awakens to find Leah instead of Rachel in his bed. While the word "mirmah" does not appear, a cognate form, appears when Yaakov asks Laban:

"What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me (rimmitani.)" (Gen 29:25)

OK. Interesting. So what has any of this to do with why I decided to write this week about the word "mirmah." I'm getting there.

For the haftarah this week, we have more of Hosea. (I bad-mouthed him enough last week, so I'll pass on that today.) It's more castigation of Israel for its unfaithfulness to Gd. The rabbis and other scholars connect this haftarah reading from Hosea 11:7-12:12 with parashat Vayishlach as it mentions, in 12:5, how Yaakov strove with an angel and prevailed.

I think there's a more interesting connection. It's our old friend, the word "mirmah" which appears in this haftarah BEFORE the verse about Yaakov and the angel. A few verses earlier in 12: 1 we read:

"Ephraim surrounds Me with deceit. The House of Israel with guile (mirmah.)"

The remainder of the verse goes on to parenthetically praise the tribe of Judah for standing firm in their faith in Gd.

With mirmah, Yaakov steals Esau's blessing. Lavan deceives Yaakov. Yaakov's sons speak to Hamor and the men of Shechem with mirmah. And, through Hosea, Gd accuses the people of Israel of surrounding Gd with deceit and guile (mirmah.)

And every day we are supposed to pray 3 times the words of the "Elohai Netzor" asking Gd to guard our tongues from evil and our lips from speaking with mirmah.

I don't know about you, but that feels a bit like getting hit on the head with a hammer to get my attention. At least this week.

When we speak or act with mirmah, it's surely not pleasing to Gd. Not pleasing to those whom we are treating deceitfully. And ultimately, not pleasing to ourselves. Even without the threat of our chickens coming home to roost in terms of our sins of guile, it's clearly not a behavior that we should allow to become normative. Sure, there's plenty of guile and deceit in Torah, and our ancestors were no strangers to the practice.

Or am I all wet? After all, the whole messy saga leading up to Sinai could never have happened without the mirmah of Yaakov stealing Esau's birthright and blessing. And is the Torah excusing Yaakov's sons acting with mirmah by qualifying it with the words "because they had defiled Dinah" ?

I think not. Hosea certainly uses the term as a negative. And Zephaniah had the last word in the Tanakh, when he says:

1:9 In the same day also will I punish all those that leap over the threshold, that fill their master's house with violence and deceit (mirmah.)" (Zep 1:9)

Perhaps the key here is thinking long-term, and not short-term. Yaakov suffered minimally, at first, for his deceit. As for Lavan, who knows what comeuppance he may have received for his little Leah/Rachel trick. Yet it was a bit of payback for Yaakov. Yaakov's sons suffer not for their little act of deceit, although their silent acquiescence leads to the heinous act of Shimon and Levi, and the brothers receive their eventual comeuppance at the hands of brother Yosef. So Gd's creation seems to maintain a little balance. Still, could it hurt for us to help things along a little, by heeding those words we should be praying three times each day? By striving to avoid acting with guile and deceit, we make that much less work and effort for the One that keeps the universe in equilibrium (bearing in mind that our concept of equilibrium and Gd's concept of equilibrium might not be the same.) The more we strive to live b'li (without) mirmah, the better for others, ourselves, and Gd's creation. If good can ultimately come even from Yaakov's deceit, then how much more so could good come from situations in which there is no mirmah? Even if you don't pray three times a day, maybe these words are worth repeating thrice daily:

"Elohai netzor l'shonei mei-ra, u's'fatai midabeir mirmah..."

"My Gd, guard my tongue from evil, and my lips from speaking deceitfully..."

I know it wouldn't hurt me one bit.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some additional musings on this parasha:

Vayishlakh 5761-No Doubt? No Wonder!
Vayishlakh 5762-Don't Get Mad--Get Even!

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