Shaya Cohen -


Deep Dive: Ruin does not Extinguish Hope

I have often written on how the Torah shows that anything can be turned for good or bad – even the word for “holiness” is first used in the Torah to describe a prostitute. There is a flip side to every person, thing, act or word – and the difference is found in the choices we make.

Take, for example, the mountain on which the Torah was given. Sometimes it is called “Mount Sinai,” but it is also commonly called “Horeb.” (The root is ch-r-v.) This is the place at which Moses saw the burning bush and first talked with G-d:

Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

Moses returned to Horeb with the people after the Exodus, and it is where he ascended the mountain and was given the Torah. Horeb is where the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments.

But the very same root word also means something quite different! Ch-r-v refers to the sword and destruction! Simeon and Levi use ch-r-v – their swords – to lay waste to Shechem in response to the rape of Dina. The Torah uses the very same phrase to describe how the Jewish people kill Bilaam, who had corrupted the Jewish people with the daughters of Moab. Death is dealt to those who leverage lust for selfish and evil ends.

G-d similarly promises to destroy the cities of the Jews if we ignore G-d – if we ignore our own potential to spiritually grow:

I will lay your cities in ch-r-v and make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not savor your pleasing odors. (Lev. 26:31)

And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheath the ch-r-v against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ch-r-v. (Lev. 26:33)

What is the possible connection between Mount Sinai and the ruination and destruction by the sword promised elsewhere?

One answer is found by examining the other uses of that root word – and the meaning will become clear. The word is used, for example, to describe the ground beneath the Sea of Reeds, the dry land that the people walked on in order to leave Egypt:

Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and G-d drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into ch-r-v. The waters were split,

ch-r-v similarly seems to refers to dry land after the Flood:

In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first of the month, the waters began to ch-r-v from the earth; and when Noah removed the covering of the ark, he saw that the surface of the ground was ch-r-v.

What is the commonality? The word ch-r-v refers to potential. The earth, having been washed, is now ready for new life, for physical and spiritual growth. Similarly the Jewish people, walking out of Egypt are reborn in the midst of the waters, also ready for growth. In both cases, there was total ruin – but there was also life, the possibility of creating anew, hope for the future.

Which puts an entirely different understanding on the word “Horeb” for Mount Sinai. Perhaps the giving of the Torah was not the culmination of Jewish History, but the start of it, the place from which we were supposed to only grow from – not back toward?! This would explain why G-d orders the people to leave Horeb: “Our G-d spoke to us at Horeb, saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain.” The place of revelation is only the launching point, the place where we receive our mission: the execution of that mission is how we are meant to flourish.

We are not supposed to remain stuck at ch-r-v. It is a passageway, a stepping stone to a higher plane. Isaac blesses Esau that “by your sword (ch-r-v) you shall live,” blessing him that Esau’s existence would always be one of primal constraint, permanently kept in an unfulfilled state. This is the same unfulfilled state as that of all the men who perished in the flood, described as “All in whose nostrils was the breath of life [mankind], all that was ch-r-v, died.” Horeb, Mount Sinai, is where we start, but not where we aspire to end – because those who are stuck at ch-r-v perish having never fulfilled their potential. They are the embodiment of wasted opportunity.

How do we grow past ch-r-v? We know that Noach did it because he heard G-d. So did Moses when he, at Horeb, saw the burning bush and talked with G-d. Both were spurred into action by the contact with the divine, just as the Jewish people were charged by G-d for all time when we received the Torah at Horeb (ch-r-v).

Indeed, the word ch-r-v is connected to fertility, to the potential that plants and animals offer. When Jacob complains to Lavan that he had labored to manage and grow Lavan’s flock, he says, “I was consumed by ch-r-v by day.” Jacob had been obsessed with his job, consumed by the need to make the sheep breed, to maximize their physical potential.

The Torah connects ch-r-v to an offering, a mincha:

Further, any mincha that is baked in an oven, and any that is prepared in a pan or on a griddle, shall belong to the priest who offers it. But every other mincha with oil mixed in and/or ch-r-v, shall go to the sons of Aaron all alike.

What is the difference? The cooked mincha is finished, elevated, and consumed by the priest who cooked it. But the uncooked mincha is comprised of fruit or grain – and is thus able to procreate and create more fruit or grain! This is indeed how the Torah describes the first minchas offered in the Torah: Cain and Abel both brought minchas, one from the flock, and the other from the fruit of the land. Both were theoretically able to reproduce.

The next mincha are the gifts Jacob sends to appease Esau:

[Jacob] selected from what was at hand these mincha for his brother Esau: 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses.

Note the pattern: Jacob gave a present that had maximum potential for procreation, for growth! It was a way to break the curse that Isaac had given, that Esau would live by his sword, his ­ch-r-v, remaining perpetually as a potential instead of someone able to grow. Jacob gave his brother the antidote – animals that were designed to maximize growth! Admittedly, the growth in this case was purely physical and not spiritual – but he was helping Esau to break his father’s blessing.

The Torah ties these all together: the ch-r-v speaks to potential for growth. And that potential, when in a mincha offering, is to be shared between all the priests equally, a renewal of their ability to grow ever-closer to both G-d and the Jewish people.

The very first time in the Torah that the word ch-r-v is found is when it describes the angel on the path to Eden:

East of the garden of Eden were stationed the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword (ch-r-v), to guard the way to the tree of life.

Think of the imagery after what we now know of this word! The angel is the guardian of the potential that is within the tree of life, blocking us from the potential, the might-have-been, had we stayed in Eden. That ch-r-v is now barred from us, and that chapter closed.

But human potential remains. The Torah is telling us that we need to remember that new things can come from the ashes of even divinely-inflicted ruination (note that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah never uses ch-r-v – those places are destroyed for eternity, becoming remembered as the Dead Sea). Hence all the references to Horeb, the place where we received the revelation of the Torah, the starting point for the Jews as a single nation charged with a shared mission for ourselves and for the world.

Ch-r-v is the starting gate, the moment and place of potential and possibility. It is the way in which we can – and must – grow both physically and spiritually in order to connect with G-d and achieve everything that we can become.


[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]


Comments are welcome!

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