The Ox Knows
We now begin the fifth and last book of the Five Books of the Torah.
Parshat Devarim always comes on the Shabbat preceding the Fast of Tisha B'Av. And on this Shabbat, fitting the Churban (the Destruction), the Haftarah is "Chazon Yeshayahu," the first chapter of the book of Isaiah. There we find the following verse:
"The ox knows its master and the mule its feeding trough. Israel does not know, My people does not perceive."
Let us compare two commentaries to see their different interpretations of this verse and their different approaches to commentary.
My people does not perceive - IBN EZRA: The meaning is repeated as is the case for many prophetic utterances and in the Song of Ha'azinu, and the sayings of Bilaam.
The meaning here is: For I have raised them but they don't acknowledge Me.
WHAT IS THE IBN EZRA SAYING?
To summarize his point we could say that Ibn Ezra sees the two phrases ("The ox knows" and "the mule does not perceive") as parallel phrases, similar in their meaning. Likewise for the second part of verse, parallel phrases, with similar meaning.
Let us compare this with Rashi.
The ox knows its master - RASHI: He prepares it for plowing in the day and since he has become accustomed in this, he knows him; but the donkey is dumb, he doesn't know his master until he gets food from him. Israel did not become wise to know as the ox when I called them "Israel" and I taught them some of My laws, but they abandoned Me... And even after I brought them out of Egypt and I fed them the Manna and I called them "My people, Children of Israel" – they did not perceive (even as much) as a mule.
Do you see the difference between them?
Ibn Ezra sees no special significance to the two parallel phrases. They are repeated in different words for their poetic effect. Rashi, on the other hand, always finds subtle differences between parallel phrases in the Chumash and Tanach.
A CLOSER LOOK
Can you see upon which differences in the phrases Rashi bases his interpretation?
PICKING UP THE NUANCES
An Answer: Rashi focuses on each difference in the verse's parallel parts. First he notes the difference between the ox and the mule. The ox knows his master from the repeated work of plowing, while the mule only knows his owner by being fed by him. Israel was neither as smart as the ox nor even as the mule. Israel first was trained by mitzvot as the ox is trained. Later in the Wilderness they were fed by Hashem as the mule is fed by his master. That is one comparison Rashi makes. But he focuses on another difference in the second half of the verse. What are they?
PERCEIVING THE SUBTLE DIFFERENCES
An Answer: Our verse first calls us "Israel," then we are called "My people." Rashi shows that even when God is closer to us and we are His People and he feeds us, even then we do not recognize Him, as even a mule would his master.
All the subtleties to which Rashi responded, the Ibn Ezra passed over with a general statement, "For I have raised them but they don't acknowledge Me."
Ibn Ezra is considered an unswerving advocate of p'shat, however sometimes, when we make more demands of the verse, it enables us to see its nuances.
Shabbat Shalom, and an easy fast.
May it be the last Tisha B'Av
on which we need to fast.