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Parshas Ki Sisa - Parah (5769)

Of Palindromes and Ponzi Schemes

Richard Lederer, the famous wordsmith and syndicated columnist on the craziness of the English language, writes at www.verbivore.com:

A palindrome is a word, a "word row," a sentence, or a longer statement that communicates the same message when the letters of which it is composed are read in reverse order. Palindromes make us exult, "Ah ha!" "Oh, ho!" "Hey, yeh!" "Yo boy!," "Yay!" "Wow!":Tut-Tut!" "Har-har!Rah-rah!" "Heh-heh!" "Hoorah! Har! Ooh!" and "Ahem! It's time. Ha!" rather than scratching your head like a dud, boob or poop and mumbling "huh?"

You are a palindromic child. Even before you were a tot playing with your sis and pup, you were the offspring of mom (a mama) and pop (a papa), or dad (a dada).

In the loopy universe of palindromes you'll find everything from the primordial MADAM, I'M ADAM (Adam's introduction of himself - in English, of course - how convenient - to Eve, the mother of all palindromes), to the epiphanous WON TON? NOT NOW, to the elegant A MAN, A PLAN, A CANAL, PANAMA, to the political STAR COMEDY BY DEMOCRATS, to the hiply contemporary MEN, I'M EMINEM, to the sinister NO, I TAIL A TERRORIST, SIR - OR RETALIATION!, to the wifty, wiggy, loopy, lunatic GO HANG A SALAMI; I'M A LASAGNA HOG, to the astonishingly long yet coherent DOC, NOTE, I DISSENT. A FAST NEVER PREVENTS A FATNESS. I DIET ON COD.

According to everyone’s favorite source of knowledge these days, Wikipedia, palindromes date back at least to 79 CE, as the palindromic Latin word square "Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas" was found as a graffito at Herculaneum, buried by ash in that year.

But that’s what you get when you rely on user-generated, online encyclopedias …. The fact is that the palindrome is actually much older than that, as it can be found in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Ki Sisa. The Torah commands the Jewish people, “V’nasnu … every man shall give [an atonement for his soul] … a half-shekel ….”(Exodus 30:12-13). The Vilna Gaon points out that the Hebrew word v’nasnu – “and each man shall give” – is a palindrome. He also points out that the trop, or cantillation marks, on top of the word v’nasnu are kadma v’azla, which means to “be quick and go”.

He explains the meaning of this palindrome and trop with the help of an interesting passage in the Talmud in Shabbos 151b:

Rav Chiya said to his wife: ‘When a poor man comes to the door, be quick to give him bread, so that others will be quick to give bread to your children.’ She cried out: ‘You are cursing them [that they will have to rely on charity]!’ He said: ‘[While discussing the obligation incumbent upon every Jew to perform charitable deeds] the Torah (Deuteronomy 15:10) tells us – ‘For [biglal] because of this thing, G-d will bless you...’ - and it was taught in the school of Rabbi Yishmael, ‘The Hebrew phrasing ‘biglal’ implies that there is a revolving wheel, galgal, of fortunes in this world.’

Thus, says the Vilna Gaon, the Torah expresses the obligation to give charity as a palindrome which can be read equally backwards and forwards - v’nasnu – to remind us to give now, because one day we (or our children) might lose our money and need others to give us. This is also why the trop is kadma v’azla – be quick and go. As Rav Chiya taught his wife, we must “be quick” to give now while we still have, because one day our money might “go” away and we will be left with nothing to give.

We who live today in crazy financial times, when you’re rich one minute and totally broke the next – when Ponzi schemes can wipe out entire fortunes saved over a lifetime and leave people destitute with not a penny to give to charity – can fully appreciate the meaning of the Torah’s palindromic message. Nothing in life is guaranteed … so we need to do the best we can with what G-d has given us while we still have it.

There is hope, though. The wheel of fortune will eventually turn for the better, with G-d’s help. Things will improve. As the old palindrome goes: Are we not drawn onwards, we Jews, drawn onward to New Era?

And, of course, we can always look towards the Messianic Age, when all will be prosperous and financially well-off. As the famous Rabbi and poet, Avraham ibn Ezra once wrote (as a Hebrew palindrome, of course):

?אבי, א-ל חי שמך, למה מלך משיח לא יבא - “My Father, Living Lord is your name, why won't King Messiah come?”

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