So Near and Yet So Far: Derech Rechoka and Pshuto Shel Mikra

אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יִהְיֶה טָמֵא לָנֶפֶשׁ אוֹ בְדֶרֶךְ רְחֹקָה

If any man will become impure through a corpse or will be on a distant road.[1]

Introduction: Defining Distance

One of the events discussed in our parsha is Pesach Sheni. The verse relates how certain people, who were unable to bring the Pesach offering on the fourteenth of Nissan, complained to Moshe about being excluded from the mitzvah. The response from Hashem was that they could bring the offering a month later on the fourteenth of Iyar – known as Pesach Sheni. The criteria for eligibility for his second opportunity are set forth in our verse, which describes the person’s state during Pesach itself that rendered him unable to bring the offering together with everyone else.

Commenting on the term “דֶרֶךְ רְחֹקָהa distant road,” Rashi writes:

נקוד עליו, לומר לא שרחוקה ודאי אלא שהיה חוץ לאסקופת העזרה כל זמן שחיטה

There is a dot on [the word רחוקה], to say, not that [the road] is actually distant, but that [the person] was outside the threshold of the Courtyard [of the Mishkan] for the entire period of slaughtering [the korban].

The background to this comment is a dispute recorded in the Mishnah[2] regarding our verse:

·      According to R’ Akiva, the term “rechoka” denotes, as it implies, a person who was geographically too far away from the Beis Hamikdash to be able to get there in time to offer the Pesach.

·      According to R’ Eliezer, it refers to anyone who was outside of the Temple courtyard for the duration of the offering. To this, R’ Yose in the Mishnah there adds that this approach is supported by the dot on top of the word “רחוקה.”[3]

Accordingly, we can summarize by saying that Rashi has adopted R’ Eliezer’s view in the Mishnah regarding “a distant road”, and not that of R’ Akiva.

Ramban’s Objection – Prioritizing Pshat

The Ramban cites Rashi’s interpretation and objects to it very strongly. Firstly, he points out that the halachah appears to be in accordance with R’ Akiva’s view. Now, of course, that alone is not sufficient grounds to reject Rashi’s explanation. After all, Rashi’s job is not to inform us as to the halachah, but rather to present the pshat interpretation of the words in the verse – and halachah and pshuto shel mikra are not always identical. However, the Ramban adds that in terms of pshat as well, R’ Akiva’s explanation is to be preferred, for surely the pshat meaning of the words “דרך רחוקה” is “a distant road”!

The Mizrachi’s Response – Defining “Mikra”

Rabbeinu Eliyahu Mizrachi, foremost among the commentators on Rashi, responds to the Ramban’s objection in a disarmingly simple way, namely, that in light of the dot on top of the word “רחוקה”, R’ Eliezer’s view emerges as closer to pshuto shel mikra than that of R’ Akiva!

What are we to make of this exchange? After all, the Ramban, too, is well aware of the dot on top of the word, as can be seen from his commentary. About what, then, are they arguing?

It appears that what we have before us is a most unusual dispute regarding pshuto shel mikra. Normally, a dispute in this realm would revolve around what is the pshat in a particular verse. In our case, however, the matter being disputed is the definition of the term mikra itself! What is the entity that is called “mikra” whose pshat meaning we are endeavoring to explain?

·      According to the Ramban, “mikra” comprises the words in the Torah that make up the verses. Any other elements that feature together with the words, such as dots on top of the letters etc., are not categorized as mikra. As such, pshuto shel mikra will only take into account the words themselves.

·      According to Rashi, “mikra” – scripture – is defined as everything that is written in the sefer Torah. This includes, first and foremost, the words themselves, but it also extends to anything else that is written in the Torah, including dots on top of the letters. Accordingly, pshuto shel mikra will also factor in the presence of those dots and their contribution to our understanding of the word.

Text and Context in Pshuto Shel Mikra

A further dimension in Rashi’s interpretation is presented by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.[4] He reminds us that when learning Rashi, it is important to pay attention, not only to what Rashi says, but also to the words that he cites in his dibbur hamaschil (headline) as the words on which he is commenting. In our instance, Rashi’s dibbur hamaschil is “או בדרך רחוקה” (or on a distant road). Now, seemingly, Rashi’s comment only concerns the two words “דרך רחוקה.” Why, then, does he also include the word “או” in his headline?

The Rebbe explains that it is actually the word “או” that causes Rashi to adopt R’ Eliezer’s approach. The verse first discussed someone who was tamei and thus unable to offer the korban Pesach. By the fact that it then presents the alternative scenario of “or on a distant road,” we see that the verse is addressing the fact that there can be more than one reason why a person would be unable to bring the korban. However, by the same token, there can be more than two reasons! Why make a point of giving more than one example, while then leaving the list of possibilities incomplete?

For this reason, Rashi adopts R’ Eliezer’s approach, whereby “a distant road” actually incorporates any reason that would leave the person physically unable to be present in the Temple courtyard. This, together with the halachihc ineligibility expressed by “tamei”, now makes up the entire range of possibilities!

We see from here that the idea of pshat often goes beyond simply translating the words. Rather, it also embraces a syntactical sense of the role of these words within the verse. 

Additional Pshat Considerations: Was there a “distant road” in the Wilderness?

Taking the discussion one stage further, one of the classic commentators on Rashi, the Be’er Basadeh, maintains that R’ Eliezer’s minimized understanding of “a distant road” can be demonstrated from within the verse itself, which reads:

אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יִהְיֶה טָמֵא לָנֶפֶשׁ אוֹ בְדֶרֶךְ רְחֹקָה לָכֶם אוֹ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם

If any man will become impure through a corpse or will be on a distant road, for you or for your generations.

We see that the two scenarios of “impure” and “a distant road” are presented as being of relevance both “for you,” i.e. the Jewish people in the Wilderness, as well as “for your [subsequent] generations.” Now, in the Wilderness, no one among the Jewish people was actually distant from the Mishkan, as the entire people were encamped around it, yet we nevertheless see that they could be in the category referred to as “a distant road.” This confirms R’ Eliezer’s view that the distance is not geographical in nature, but rather represents the inability to be present in the Courtyard at the time of the Pesach offering! Thus, with the verse itself having stated that “a distant road” applies to the Jewish people at that time, Rashi adopts R’ Eliezer’s position as the pshat.

This is a most compelling point, so much so that it moves us to wonder how R’ Akiva could explain “a distant road” as denoting actual distance, when no such distance existed for the Jewish people at that time!

The explanation of R’ Akiva’s position will take us back to an idea we have discussed earlier on, which we referred to as the “A-B, A-B structure,” whereby a verse will sometimes first present two things and then proceed to elaborate upon them respectively. In other words, the verse starts [phrases one and two] by presenting idea A and idea B and then goes back [phrases three and four] to further develop or qualify idea A and idea B.

Applying this approach to our verse, we note that it begins by mentioning two situations: 1) impure and 2) on a distant road, and then presents two elaborative phrases: 1) “for you” and 2) “for your generations.” Applying the A-B, A-B methodology, the Chasam Sofer[5] explains that the verse is indicating that the first situation – “impure” – can indeed apply “to you” in the Wilderness, while the second situation – “on a distant road” – is one that applies only “for your generations” and not to you, since no one is that distant from the Mishkan, Looked at in this way, the verse actually supports R’ Akiva!

It is indeed fascinating to see how two seemingly straightforward words lead us to analyze anew every element within the verse, as well how these elements relate to each other, and thereby endeavor to determine which interpretation answers to the designation of “Pshuto Shel Mikra.”

[1] Bamidbar 9:10.

[2] Pesachim 93b.

[3] How does the dot contribute a message in this matter? Rashi (Pesachim ibid.) explains that a word with a dot on it should be considered as if it is not there, leaving just the term “דרך” which implies any road, even not a distant one (see Gur Aryeh as to how to understand the Torah’s use of the word “רחוקה” in this case) . Alternatively, the Yerushalmi (Pesachim 9:2) notes that only the letter heh at the end of the word has a dot on top. In this instance, the word is to be read as if that letter was not there, leaving the word “רחוק” in the masculine form, which implies that the person was distant, i.e. withheld from entering the Temple Courtyard, even though he was not necessarily far away.

[4] Likkutei Sichos Vol. 8.

[5] Responsa sec. 141.