Gratuitous Destruction

The vocabulary in the Torah is paradoxical: the number of words is relatively small, but the ways in which the words are used (and the contexts in which they appear) are splendidly multifaceted.  One particular word came to my attention this week, because the way it is used is so illustrative of a provocative range of meaning.

The word is comprised of three letters, transliterated it would read as “nvl”, meaning “carcass”. The use of this word “nvl” is different from the word the Torah usually uses for the dead, “meis” (which is the same word we find in the game of chess: “mate”). “Nvl” has a special meaning, and the text explains it to us as we walk it back in the Torah to its earliest uses.

Most commonly in the Torah the word “nvl” is simple: it means a carcass, like an animal that is found dead on the side of the road. Jews are forbidden to eat an animal that died by itself or was torn apart by another animal. We cannot eat or touch such a carcass; contact renders us incapable of becoming more holy. (Lev.11:8)

Odd use of a word, right? But still straightforward enough.

It gets deeper. If we look at Deut. 21:23, we see that the word “nvl” refers not to an animal, but to the body of a man who has been hanged for his sins. And that same verse says that we are supposed to bury the man because otherwise it makes it impossible for the earth to be spiritually elevated. Now that is interesting, because in order for an animal to be killed for food, we must return the blood to the earth before the animal can be kosher. (Lev. 17:14) Which means that putting a body/blood into the earth enables holiness for both the earth, an animal and even the person who eats that animal.

We see a shared connection: the dead must be united with the earth to allow for a productive outcome. Burying a man gives his death some glimmer of redemption. I think people have an almost instinctive understanding of this; it is part of the urge to “give a proper burial,” or perhaps as per Gen. 3:19: “For dust thou art, And unto dust shalt thou return.” 

Ex. 18:18 has advice from Moses’ father-in-law: “you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” The word for “wearing yourself out,” is the same “nvl”! Jethro tells Moses to learn to delegate, because arbitrating every single case is exhausting and not a productive use of Moses’ time. “Nvl” in this case means “a waste,” or even, “an opportunity cost.”

Well, that puts things in a new light. If we take this use of the word and look again at the carcass by the side of the road, we see it as a lost opportunity. An animal that died naturally was an opportunity lost. An animal that was killed for food, by way of contrast, had a higher purpose – both a physical component (sustaining life) and a spiritual component (giving life a meta-meaning), and gets a different word to describe it! (This, by the by, might be a Torah argument for eating meat.)

In the case of the criminal, this means even more: a man who earned the death penalty is the ultimate “nvl”, the ultimate lost opportunity. A man whose accomplishment in life was to incur the ultimate penalty rightfully inflicted by society is compared by the Torah to an animal that died by itself.  Wasted life is wasted opportunity.

There is an understanding that the definition of a word in the Torah is when it first appears. And the first use of this word “nvl” is not for a carcass, or a corpse, but for something else entirely!  

The very first time the word “nvl” is mentioned in the Torah is the rape of Dina, the daughter of Jacob. Gen 34:7 “The sons of Jacob had come in from the field as soon as they heard of it, and the men were indignant and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.” The word that is translated as “outrage” is the same “nvl”. And this connection suggests that the crime of raping a girl was not just rightfully anger-inducing: raping Dinah was a terrible loss of opportunity, a waste of potential that she otherwise possessed. Indeed, the connection to the way the word is used elsewhere in the Torah suggests that rape is like being torn apart by a wild animal; rape causes irreversible damage to a life.

All this from a single word!

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production!]

Comments are welcome!

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