What's in a Word?

For the week ending 2 June 2018 / 19 Sivan 5778

Running Away

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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The Torah mentions a special prayer which Moshe would say when the Ark of the Covenant would begin to travel (we say this prayer when taking Torah Scrolls out of their holy ark). He would say, “Arise G-d, and let Your enemies be scattered, and Your enemies shall flee (veyanusu) from before You” (Num. 10:35). In this passage the Torah uses a cognate of the verb nas to mean “flee”. However, the verb boreach (or the noun bericha) also means “runs away” in Biblical Hebrew. As we know, the Hebrew language is intrinsically holy and each word carries its own nuanced explanation; no two words can mean the exact same thing. What, then, is the difference between these two words which both seem to mean “running away”?

Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1475-1550) in his commentary to Genesis 31:21 and Jonah 1:3 explains that boreach is when somebody runs away for fear of a future threat and there is nobody chasing him, while nas connotes somebody who runs away from an active threat and/or somebody chasing him. Similarly, Malbim writes that the difference between nas and boreach lies in the urgency/immediacy of the danger. The verb nas applies to somebody who runs away while being pursued by something dangerous or something which was very close to him. The word boreach, on the other hand, connotes one who runs away due to a specific fear or future danger — those are more abstract reasons to run away, as the threat is less tangible and less immediate.

Malbim offers another two differences between the act of nas and the act of boreach. Firstly, one who is boreach runs away clandestinely, so that even if another sees him, it would not be readily obvious to all that he is on the run. By contrast, one who is nas is very obviously fleeing in terror. Think of the difference between somebody running away from a poisonous snake and an informant hiding in the witness protection program. Secondly, one who is boreach runs away from an intelligent being (be it another person, an animal, or even G-d), while one who is nas can also be fleeing some non-intelligent element (like running away from extreme weather).

Malbim explains that these two ideas are correlated because one running away from someone/something intelligent must sometimes go “undercover” and conceal oneself. On the other hand, when dealing with a non-intelligent element, one need not go “undercover”. Simply putting some distance between him and the threatening element suffices.

Sefer HaChochmah, ascribed to the late 12th century Asheknazic scholar Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms, explains that nisah refers to running away to a close place, while bericha refers to running away to a distant location.

In explaining the difference between nas and ratz, Malbim writes that both mean “run,” but the former means to run from and the latter means to run towards. Nonetheless, Rabbi Naftali Hertz Treves of Frankfurt (1493-1540) points out in his work Sefer HaGur that there are at least two places in the Bible (Ex. 14:27, Jer. 16:19) wherein cognates of the word nas refer to running towards something and not away from something. In light of this we can better understand Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer’s assertion that the difference between boreach and nas is in whether or not one is running away to a specific place. The word boreach focuses on one who is running away from a specific place (without focusing on his destination), while nas focuses on one who seeks refuge in a specific destination. In this way, nas may be related to the word nasa with an AYIN, which means “travel”.

Aramaic does not make these distinctions between different forms of running away. The Aramaic root arak (AYIN-REISH-KUF) serves as the only word for running away. This root even appears once in the Bible i.e. in Job 30:3. Most of the Targumim generally translate both nas and boreach as arak (although Onkelos often translates boreach as azil, which simply means “went”).

  • L'iluy Nishmat my mother Bracha bat R' Dovid and my grandmother Shprintza bat R' Meir

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