Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Haazinu 5766/ October 15, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




Between a Rock and a Soft Place


 Prof. Dov Landau


Department of Hebrew Literature and Comparative Literature


The Rock! [Heb. ha-tzur] – His deeds are perfect [Heb. tamim],

Yea, all His ways are just;

A faithful G-d, never false,

 (Deut. 32:4-6)

In the first line we have a paradoxical expression, containing an internal contradiction between the word tzur (rendered in the New JPS translation as “rock”) and the word tamim (rendered in the New JPS translation as “perfect,” but also meaning innocent, naïve, pristine).  “Rock” (tzur) in the Bible is taken to be flint (halamish), an especially hard rock that does not crumble, is not washed away by water, and provides excellent defense.   This can be seen from the phrases which contain the word halamish and from the use of tzur “rock” as the parallel to “flint.”  The sense of hardness follows from the verse, “Therefore I have set my face like flint” (Isa. 50:7), meaning to make one’s face stern; also the phrase, “who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock” (Deut. 8:15); as well as the parallel “He fed him honey from the crag, and oil from the flinty rock” (Deut. 32:13); or the contrast “who turned the rock into a pool of water, the flinty rock into a fountain” (Ps. 114:8). All in all, the word tzur “rock” is a contradiction to the characteristic of temimut (being tamim), better rendered as innocence, and which has connotations of being soft and gentle, the opposite of hard. 


To help us arrive at an understanding of the expression, “the Rock – His deeds are perfect” [Ha-tzur, tamim po’alo] (Deut. 32:4), found in this week’s reading, we shall analyze the following verse from II Sam. 22:2, which has its parallel in Psalms:

O Lord, my crag, my fastness, my deliverer!

O G-d, the rock wherein I take shelter;

My shield, my mighty champion, my fortress and refuge!

My savior, You who rescue me from violence!

            (II Sam. 22:2, cf. Ps. 18:3, 31:1-4, 71:2, and 144:2)

Ostensibly the entire passage from Samuel, quoted here, is built on synonyms of the word sal`i – my crag – without any substantial changes of meaning.  Practically all the other words (metzudati, mefalti, tzuri, etc.) are parallel expressions for functions of the word “rock” or “crag”. We know, however, that any parallel which is not a precise, literal repetition is to be taken as a dynamic parallel that adds a change of nuance, according to the critic Robert Alter. [1]   Since we do not take the approach of those who say that what we have is no more than a repetition in different words, we must ask how the nouns in this passage differ, all of which are used as epithets for the Holy One, blessed be He, and all of which have a similar meaning.  For lack of time and space, we shall limit our discussion to three words, and those who are inspired may draw their own conclusions regarding the rest.   We shall consider the words sal`i (my crag), metzudati (my fortress) and tzuri (my rock).   First we shall examine the difference between “crag” and “fortress,” taking the approach that says “crag” expresses passive trust in the Lord whereas “fortress”, which is, after all, a human creation, hints at the need for human beings to make some contribution to their own welfare.

Sal`i:  sela (rendered here as crag) is a metaphor for the Holy One, blessed be He, not only by apposition of the words, “O Lord, my crag.”   According to the situation described, this metaphor contains a paradoxical component, for someone who is in need of defense is not usually in a high place.  Be that as it may, a “crag” is defense that the Holy One, blessed be He, grants through the natural world.  In the usual way of things, a soldier on the battlefield cannot take time in the midst of the battle itself to prepare himself a trench or pile of stones to conceal himself.  Any fold of earth or large rock serve him as natural hiding spots.   Therefore “crag” is a safe spot that a person might find in nature to defend himself against beasts and foe.

Metzudati“my fortress.”   This word is ambiguous.   It could come from the root tz – u – d  or the root tz – d – h, “to hunt”, as in the word matzod (trap), also the meaning conveyed in metzudat daggim, a net for catching fish.  On the other hand it is a place of defense, protecting one against being hunted, and in that sense parallel to sela – rock – as in:   metzadot sela’im, rendered in the New JPS translation as “inaccessible cliffs” (Isa. 33:16).  

The root tz – u – d in the sense of a place of defense is found in beit metzudot or “citadel” (Ps. 31:3), metzudat Zion or “stronghold of Zion” (II Sam. 5:7; I Chron. 11:8).   In these places the meaning extends to a mighty structure built of large strong stones, made by human beings to protect themselves against the enemy.  The ambiguity of meaning, “trap” and also “fortress”,  perhaps hints that metzudah is a place of refuge which also carries with it the danger of being captured within.

Uncertainty as to which of these two meanings is intended can exist only when the word occurs alone, without synonyms.   However when the words sela – rock – and metzudah – fortress – come together common sense dictates that they are being used in parallel, pointing to the sense of metzudah as a place of defense; however there is still a difference in their meanings.  Henceforth we can say that sela – rock – is a place of defense given a person by nature, a refuge that G-d provides for a person’s protection, and metzudah is a place in which a person has invested great effort to assure himself protection and security.  Here we find the difference between the approach that says one should stand by and do nothing – “The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!” (Ex. 14:14) – and the approach that says you must make an effort, as Nahshon son of Aminadav did when he marched into the sea up to his neck before the waters split (Sotah 37a).  Be that as it may, one must admit that the metzudah or fortress approach also involves taking a definite risk.

Thus the expression sal’i u-Metzudati – “my Rock and fortress” – reveals two different approaches in requesting the Lord’s deliverance.  One rests on blind trust and the other is willing to takes risks and prepares a person for deliverance by making a spiritual effort as well as a physical one.   Indeed, the Hazon Ish, who holds that there is no place in Judaism for blind faith, wrote the following in his booklet, “Ha-Emunah ve-ha-Bitahon,” [2] (loc. sit., beginning of Chapter 2):

A long-standing mistake has become rooted in the heart of many concerning the concept of trust.  The noun ‘trust’(bitahon), a highly praised characteristic of central importance among the Hassidim, has become intertwined with the notion of the duty to believe that in all those instances that a person encounters where one faces an indecisive future and two roads lie ahead, one good but the other not—certainly only the good one will come to be. And if that person has doubts and fears about which path he will travel, he is thought to be lacking in faith. This notion of bitahon is incorrect, for as long as the future has not been made clear by prophecy, the future indeed is undecided; for who can know the Lord’s judgment and His way in reward and punishment? The matter of trust or bitahon finds expression in the belief that there is nothing incidental in the world, and that all that happens under the sun occurs by proclamation of the Lord, blessed is His name.

Since the future is largely undetermined, it follows from what Hazon Ish said that a person always has the possibility of entreating, of praying, of repenting and becoming more devout, of trying harder to influence the Lord’s decision regarding his uncertain future.   It is in this regard that the Sages said, “Even if a person has a sword at his neck, he should not rule out the possibility of mercy” (Berakhot 10a; meaning, “Do not despair in the face of disaster”).

Tzur – rock or flint – is harder than stone; little wonder that it is also used for preparing arrowheads and spearheads, weapons of attack and not just defense.  Therefore we see that tzur can be interpreted as active defense, one that contains an element of offense.  We observe that the expression tzur is used in may contexts as one of the stock epithets for the Holy One, blessed be He, as we see in the prayer for Redemption:  “Rock of Israel, arise to the aid of Israel,” in which the word “arise” is an active evocation; likewise in the prayer for the well-being of the State:   “Our Father in Heaven, Rock of Israel and its Redeemer.”  Ironically, the attempt to avoid mentioning G-d in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, resorting instead to “Rock of Israel,” was to no avail; for the phrase “Rock of Israel” itself is patently one of the names of the Holy One, blessed be He.

In the verse from this week’s reading the “Rock” is described as tamim, or innocent, thus expressing the paradoxical essence of the Holy One, blessed be He.  He is indeed like a rock, strong as flint, like a stone fortress, yet all the same, “his deeds are tamim.”  Perhaps precisely because He is a rock his deeds can also be tamim.   His might and strength are what enable Him to act with kindness and to have mercy on us as a father has mercy for his sons.  It is customary, in fact, to think that the strong are not truly cruel, for cruelty is a weakness; and therefore cruelty does not exist in the Holy One, blessed be He, “Yea, all His ways are just.”

[1] R. Alter, The Dynamics of Parallelism”, The Art of Biblical Poetry (N.Y.:1985), pp. 3-26.

[2] Sefer Hazon Ish al Inyanei Emunah Bitahon ve-Od, published by Rabbi S. Graineman, Jerusalem 1954.