Bo: I Desire it ‘Na’ Now, Even Half-Baked ~ Yehoshua Steinberg
Article abstract for Parashat Bo:
The word נא appears in Parashat Bo four times, with arguably three disparate meanings.
Yet, Rashi comments " the word נא always means please" – a phrase he repeats no less
than nine times in his commentary on the Pentateuch. On the other side of the spectrum,
Onkelus consistently translates this word as "now," a word wholly unrelated to "please"
at first blush.
The key to understanding this word may ironically lie in a third seemingly unrelated
meaning of the term, found in all of Scripture only in our Parashah: "raw," used in
connection with the laws of the Passover sacrifice.
דַּבֶּר נָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב (שמות יא:ב).
Speak נא into the ears of the people, and let them borrow, each man from his friend and each woman from her friend, silver vessels and golden vessels (Ex. 11:2).
Rashi comments: “the word נא means aught but request (please) - אין נא אלא לשון בקשה. [The verse is saying] I ask you… [to ask their neighbors for belongings] so that… Abraham will not say He fulfilled… and they will enslave them and oppress them (Gen. 15:13), but He did not fulfill… afterwards they will go forth with great possessions (Gen. 15:14).”
The difficulty with the expression “the wordנא means aught but request” is that we find many examples of the word נא in Scripture that have no apparent connection to requests or appeals of any sort. One need search no further than our Parashah to find two very different meanings of this word:
A. Pharaoh uses the termנא to dismiss Moses from his court (Ex. 10:11).
B. The word נא denotes unprepared meat, and is used to describe the Passover offering, which we are enjoined from consuming while raw (Ex. 12:9).
Rashi’s super-commentators (e.g. Mizrachi, Siftei Chachamim) have already pointed out this difficulty. In response, qualify Rashi’s comments by limiting the aboutנא meaning request rule to the particular case under discussion, and so too in the Talmud, this expression is limited to specific cases.
In contrast to Rashi, Targum Onkelus (and Yonatan in the Prophets) renders נא in every single case where Rashi cites this rule (nine times in all) with the word כען - now. Ibn Ezra goes even further, interpreting every occurrence of נא throughout Scripture as now.
Rashi always distinguishes between the plain meaning and homiletic interpretations, especially emphasizing the simple meaning of a word. Thus, the fact that Rashi strays from the Targum in this case, where Onkelus’ translation seems the straightforward and simple denotation, is unusual for Rashi and requires further study.
We can suggest an answer based on a fourth definition of the word נא as explained by the author of Haketav Vehakabbalah in his commentary to the Siddur. In the Hallel services, we say the following verse: My vows to Hashem I will pay, in the presence נָּא, of His entire people (Ps. 116:14); Iyun Tefilla pg. 188 (paraphrased) - “The Targum renders נֶגְדָה נָּא לְכָל עַמּוֹ asאֲתַנֵי כְדוֹן נִסוי לְכָל עַמֵיהּ , meaning: ‘I will now relate His miracles before the people.’נָּא is thus interpreted as ‘His great, wonderful deeds,’ related to the word נאה (fitting, splendid)… similar to Rashi’s commentary onזה אלי ואנוהו (Ex. 15:2) - ‘this is My God and I will relate His beauty and praises.’” In short, according to this interpretation, נא can bear the meaning נאה as well.
We now return to Rashi's rendering of נא as an expression of request. An observer can discern right away that when a petitioner presents his case, he generally makes sure to do so in a pleasant [נא, נאה] manner (at least until he gets what he wants). And so, both meanings ofנא converge and dovetail quite nicely.
Regarding the other two meanings of נא (raw and now), we mentioned previously that Ibn Ezra interprets all instances of the word as being based on the meaning of now. According to this view, the meaning raw is related to now, in that the Torah commands us not to partake of the Paschal offering now - regardless of its state of readiness. But in that case, why indeed is there even a need for such a commandment, when few would consider eating raw meat in any event?
The answer may be hinted at in a Midrash expounding Gen. 18:4 - Let a little water נא be taken and bathe your feet. The Midrash says that Abraham was rewarded for the word “taken” (יוקח) with the Commandment of the Passover offering (they shall "take" a lamb). For the word “please” (נא), he was rewarded by the Commandment that they refrain from eating it while raw נא.
While the beginning seems a fitting match: “taking” for “taking” - both involving positive action; the second part is less intuitive. What is the connection between יוקח נא as an expression of a request and the second נא, which means raw? Moreover, this second Commandment is a negative one, directing the Israelites to refrain from partaking of Paschal lamb while it is uncooked. How was this a fitting reward for Abraham, whose entire life was dedicated to non-stop activity for others, as exemplified in his hosting of the angels?
The answer appears to be in Abraham’s outstanding quality of acting immediately, without delay. A person willing to eat raw food is demonstrating his great desire for the object in question. In the case of the Passover sacrifice, the Israelites’ fervor to fulfill the commandment immediately rendered irrelevant its state of readiness or lack thereof. They were so ready and willing to fulfill God’s command to the Paschal Lamb that they would have eaten it raw. This zeal to fulfill God’s commandment necessitated a special negative commandment to curb their enthusiasm. What greater reward could be promised to Abraham - who enthusiastically and immediately fulfilled every precept he possibly could - than meriting progeny imbued with the same passion? This is why the Midrash links Abraham’s zeal with the prohibition of eating the Paschal Lamb raw.
We may therefore suggest that the common theme of the three meanings of נא is in fact בקשה, as Rashi stresses so often, because the act of entreaty reveals the deep desire of the requestor to acquire the object or to accomplish the task now, immediately. The manner - polite or impolite - in which the request is presented is immaterial in this case, because the central point is the immediate desire to fulfill the בקשה / request. In this way, Rashi’s אין נא אלא לשון בקשה can indeed be applied to every instance of נא in Tanach.
We raise our hands in prayer that we may constantly seek [מבקש] to fulfill God’s precepts, just as the thirsting soul seeks water. May our actions be pleasant [נאה] to Him, and may Israel praise God now [נא] and forever.