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Shabbat Parashat Chayei Sarah 5783

Parashat Hashavua: Pshat, Drash, and the Ben Ish Chai

Harav Yosef Carmel

In our haftara, one of the supporters of the eventual succession of Shlomo to David’s throne was a powerful, loyal, and capable follower of David, Benayahu ben Yehoyada. In Tzofnat Shmuel, we discuss the different approaches to the navi’s coded description of the man, which begs deciphering (see Shmuel II, 23:20-22). Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1835-1910), the great and influential halachist and kabbalist, chose the names to several of his sefarim, including the one by which he is known, the Ben Ish Chai, from these p’sukim.

We will go through some of the descriptions in the p’sukim and see explanations of commentaries in both p’shat (simple, linguistic meaning) and drash (homiletic explanations). Of course, both “these and those are the words of the living G-d.” It is clear that in choosing the names of his sefarim, Rav Yosef Chaim was thinking in terms of the drash.

Ben ish chay(il) – While this literally means the son of a living man, Targum Yonatan renders the meaning: one who was fearful of sin. Abarbanel adds on that his father was so righteous that even when he was dead, he was considered alive. Mahari Kara and the Ralbag connect it to the word chayil and say that these words refer to Benayahu’s physical valor.

Rav pe’alim – while all agree that it means, like the words indicate, that he did many notable actions, Targum Yonatan and the Radak explain it means righteous actions. Mahari Kara and Ralbag explain it as acts of military skill and bravery, of which the navi shares four.

Mikabtz’el – Mahari Kara explains simply that he was from a town by that name. The gemara (Berachot 18a) expounds that he gathered many people to be involved in Torah study.

Hu hika shnei ariel Moav – Yonatan translates it along simple lines: he smote two great warriors from the Kingdom of Moav. Mahari Kara continued along the lines of p’shat, that he smote two palaces (ariel) of Moav, meaning the people who filled these palaces. The Ralbag explained similarly, that it was talking about the people of two fortresses, as the word ariel is made up of two words, lion and strong. Rashi on the above gemara goes in the direction of drash, that there was no one like him in the time of the two Temples, as Yeshayahu (29:1) talks about ariel as parallel to the place David built. The mishna (Middot 4:7) also says that the Temple resembled a lion, which is wide in front and narrow in the back.

He went down and smote the lion in the pit on the snowy day – All of the early commentaries explain this according to its literal meaning. They explain that fighting in such frigid conditions showed special bravery. With the lion in a desperate state and in confined quarters, the reality of near death to one of them made the feat more daring.

He smote the Egyptian, the man of appearance – Yonatan translated this piece literally. The Radak points out that the parallel version in Divrei Hayamim renders it as a man of measure, meaning unusually large size, as we find regarding the spies in the desert (Bamidbar 13:32).

These are examples of the p’shat and drash complementing each other. This is appropriate for the Ben Ish Chai, who, on the one hand, was a great expert in the “revealed” areas of Halacha, while at the same time being a great expert in hidden matters.

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