What’s in a word?

A doctoral candidate was preparing for his comprehensive oral examination, covering 100 major books. To consolidate the information, he wrote a one-page summary on each book. He then wrote a ten-page outline covering the hundred books. Next, he reduced the outline to a one-page précis. Finally, he reduced the précis to a one-word mnemonic. Every day, he practiced using the one word to unfold all the information he had memorized.

Came the day of the exam, and the professor asked him the first question. The student totally panicked, and he could not remember the one word. He then explained to the professor that he had brilliantly reduced all of the information to one word, which however he could not now remember.

“I don’t believe a word of this,” barked the professor. “It’s nonsense!”

“Nonsense?” cried out the student. “Thank G‑d, that’s the word!”

Such words have coded within themselves powerful lessonsIn many of the Torah’s portions, a single word appears in an unusual fashion that draws the eye. Such words have coded within themselves powerful lessons. One such word appears in the beginning of this week’s reading, Va’etchanan. That word involves the Hebrew root ayin-beit-reish. This is a very rich, potent and multidimensional root. Such a linguistic analysis would have pleased my father, of blessed memory, who was a linguist, polyglot and polyhistor.

Here, I will attempt to show how this root offers a solution to the problem of marital anger.

The context of this week’s portion began one year after the Israelites had left Egypt. As described in the fourth book of the Pentateuch, Numbers, they send spies to reconnoiter the Land promised to them by G‑d. Upon their return, ten of the spies totally dishearten the people, saying that the mission is impossible. That night (the 9th of Av) the people blame Moses and G‑d, saying, “We would have been better off had we stayed in Egypt or died in this wilderness” (Numbers 14:2). G‑d replies that it will be as they have spoken: the current generation of adults will wander in the desert for forty years until they have died off, and it is the next generation that will inherit the land (ibid. 14:33).

Fast forward to the fortieth year of the Jews’ wandering in the desert. Miriam has died, and the well which followed the Jews in her merit has disappeared. The Israelites complain over the lack of water. G‑d tells Moses to gather the Jews to see a miracle: Moses will speak to a rock, and water will stream forth from the rock. Instead, Moses, provoked by the mocking crowd, hits the rock in anger, and the rock yields a flow of water. G‑d says to Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify My name in the eyes of the Israelites, you will not bring this congregation to the Land” (Numbers 20:12). Joshua is then appointed as Moses’ heir apparent (ibid. 27:18).

We now begin the fifth book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy. The Israelites have conquered the eastern side of the Jordan, and are about to cross the Jordan River and enter the Land of Israel. They are camped in the plains of Moab. Moses reviews their history and G‑d’s commandment that they conquer the Land. He reminds them of the sin of the spies, resulting in G‑d’s decree that only the next generation would merit to enter the Land. Moses adds, “G‑d also became angry with me because of you [the Israelites], saying that I also would not come there” (Deuteronomy 1:37).

Grammatically, it is a very unusual form of the root ayin-beit-reish

And thus we come to this week’s reading, Va’etchanan, which means “and I implored.” Moses has accepted that he will not lead the Jews to conquer the Land. But Moses beseeches G‑d to let him cross over the Jordan River, so that he can at least see the Land of Israel (ibid. 3:25). The words for “Please, let me cross over” are e’ebrah na, from the root ayin-beit-reish, meaning “to cross over.”

And this word grabs one’s eye. Grammatically, it is a very unusual form of the root ayin-beit-reish.1 Furthermore, it occurs very rarely2 in the Pentateuch. In contrast, the root ayin-beit-reish occurs with great frequency.3

Well, is it just a coincidence that this eye-grabbing, unusual use of that root appears in this context? No. Because in the very next verse we see another very unusual use of the same root.

The next verse (3:26) begins with the words va-yit’aber Hashem bee, “And G‑d was angry with me.” The word va-yit’aber also has that same root ayin-beit-reish, yet it means “to be extremely angry, wrathful, enraged,” rather than “to cross over.” Note: we have a similar situation in English, where “to be cross” with someone means to be angry with him. The root ayin-beit-reish has another connection to anger: a noun from that root, evrah, means “wrath” or “fury”; but again, evrah is unusual in that it appears only once in the Pentateuch.4

The use of the word va-yit’aber here, meaning “to be angry,” is unique5 in the Pentateuch. Typically, when referring to anger, Tanach will rely on other more frequently used words; for example the root ka’as, meaning “anger,” appears over 100 times in Tanach. Given how unusual the word va-yit’aber is, the Torah commentator Rashi bothers to define it. This infrequent use of va-yit’aber is all the more dramatic when one considers that the basic root ayin-beit-reish occurs so frequently in Tanach (see footnote 4).

Incredibly, the root ayin-beit-reish appears four times, with three different meanings, in the first seven verses of this week’s reading. In addition to the two instances we have already cited, in verse 28 G‑d says, “You will not cross the Jordan,” again using the root ayin-beit-reish. In the next verse (3:29), the root is used with a slightly different nuance: G‑d says that it is not Moses, but Joshua, who will lead the Israelites, using the expression ya’avor lifnei, which literally means “he will pass in front of.”

What might we learn from the use of this unusual word and its connection to the more usual use of the root ayin-beit-reish, meaning “to cross” or “to cross over”?

The single greatest factor that predicts marital success is the ability to manage and minimize anger

A considerable part of my work as a clinical psychologist involves marital counseling. I have learned that the single greatest asset enabling a couple to create a loving, stable marriage is the ability to resolve differences without falling into anger. This is a point of agreement between Torah philosophers, marital therapists and social scientists: the single greatest factor that predicts marital success is the ability to manage and minimize anger, to disagree without being disagreeable.

There are a whole set of communication and behavioral techniques that therapists teach clients so that they have alternatives to anger. It is easier for people to adopt these techniques when they have an ideological, philosophical or spiritual commitment that it is primarily their job (not their partner’s) to defuse their own anger, even when their partner is wrong.

One of the most powerful exhortations to avoid anger is found in the Talmud,6 where again we see another form of our key root ayin-beit-reish. If, when others transgress against us, we calmly overlook or forgo what is due us, G‑d promises to forgive all of our sins. The word for “overlook” or “forgo” (to go away from) here is ma’avir.

People who come into marriage with a Torah perspective have a tremendous advantage. They know, at least on an intellectual level, that Torah expects a person to take responsibility to free him- or herself of anger. That they know it intellectually does not guarantee that they can translate the concept into feelings and behavior. But at least they have a head start. Often, my first point of struggle with a client in marital therapy is his belief system; namely, they believe that if their partner has wronged them, they have a right to be angry, and it is primarily their partner’s responsibility to defuse their anger. Torah makes absolutely clear that we have no right to speak or act angrily, even in cases where we may have to take assertive action to protect our legitimate interests.

Once a person has taken on an intellectual commitment and obligation to minimize anger in his life, he will seek out ways to do so: through traditional Jewish texts on character development, current popular psychological or self-improvement techniques, or through a personal relationship with a spiritual mentor or therapist.

The fact that we have no divinely sanctioned right to be angry is alluded to in the fact that the Hebrew word for anger has the same ayin-beit-reish root as the Hebrew verb for “to sin” or “to “transgress” (etymologically, transgress literally means “to step over” or overstep appropriate boundaries). In Hebrew, the noun “sin” is aveirah; the adjective “to be sinful” is to be oh-ver. In the current macronic mix of Hebrew, Yiddish and English spoken informally by many Orthodox Jews, to commit a sin is “to be oh-ver an aveirah.

There are two messages relevant to marriage that I see in this week’s Torah reading’s drawing our eye to the root ayin-beit-reish.

How did Moses gain this concession? He too drew on the Feminine Force

First of all, note how even a great person such as Moses was deprived entry into the Promised Land because of one incident where he let himself be influenced by anger. Joshua, not Moses, will in fact lead the people to cross over into the Land—and the words for “lead” and “cross over” are based on our root ayin-beit-reish. Joshua, more so than Moses, draws more heavily on the Feminine Force, the ability to connect, rather than to stand independent.7 Thus, Moses protects Joshua in changing his name from Hoshea, by adding the letter yud to his name. Where did this yud come from? According to the Midrash, this yud came from our matriarch Sarah, who gave up a yud when G‑d changed her name from Sarai.

Moses, however, does gain a concession from G‑d. He is not permitted to enter the Land, but G‑d permits him to see the land from a mountaintop. How did Moses gain this concession? He too drew on the Feminine Force, by using va’etchanan, a feminine energy of beseeching in contrast to demanding. How much more will our daily ability to resist anger enable us to create a “promised land” in our marriage.

Second, when we become angry, we “cross over” the line: we momentarily lose our connection with the love that we have for our partner, and we become irrational. We become a little insane. Torah says that our marital joys are a taste, one-sixtieth, of the joys of the world to come. We could say, in parallel, that anger is one-sixtieth of madness. The “madness” of anger causes people to disconnect from their spouse. The spouse becomes just an object, not a loved person with whom we simply have a disagreement. And in such a disconnected, isolated state a person can, G‑d forbid, say and do harsh, unforgivable things, unconstrained by the boundaries of empathy and love.

Our root ayin-beit-reish is also the basis of two very holy concepts. The word ivri means “a Hebrew,” the name of our people. It contains the concept of transcending, or going beyond, “crossing over,” the mundane and physical into the spiritual and mystical. When we face anger, we have a choice: we can either descend and transgress, or we can transcend and transform. Anger is always an opportunity to assert the primacy of the love in our relationships over the particular mundane irritations and pressures.

So, as is always the case in Torah, we face a choice about being angry: to transcend (literally, to “go beyond” our normal limitations) and transform, or to transgress (to “go outside” of Torah wisdom and leave behind our loving connection to the other person) and deform; to be an ivri who overlooks, or to be one who is “oh-ver an aveirah.”

May our awareness of our task to master anger, and of the rewards we receive for doing so, enable us all to dwell in the “Promised Land,” both in the metaphoric sense of our marriages, as well as in the literal sense, with the immediate revelation of Moshiach.