By Simone Cohen Scott
Back in September, during the High Holy Days, the JP&N ran a short story by David R. Topper, senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg. It was entitled Rizpah’s Vigil, and I perked up immediately because the name Ritzpah means something special to me. Topper’s story was developed from a line or two of scripture in the Tanach, specifically from Nevi’im.
In one sentence Samuel II: chapter 21, verse 10, relates that Ritzpah, King Saul’s concubine, is guarding her two sons and five others of his offspring, all having been impaled, from birds and beasts of prey who would otherwise devour their decomposing bodies. She does this from the beginning of harvest until the rains come, camping day and night on a bed of sackcloth over rock, wielding a torch, according to the author, to ward off predators.
With the scene thus set , the author imagines the woman’s musings during those hazardous months. She alternately converses with herself, argues with G-d, discusses her perspectives and situation with a visitor she calls “the scholar,” even considers the meaning of her name. Apparently she cannot read or write, but she is sensitive and articulate. She expresses bitterness, humiliation, anger, mingled with her grief, and her love. During a storm – which she may only have dreamed, she experiences a direct encounter with G-d. Does this bring deliverance? The story ends inconclusively.
Sixty years ago I borrowed a brand new novel from the Toronto Public Library by one Charles E. Israel. In that day romantic fiction was right up my alley. A later verse in Samuel II, this time chapter 36, verse 7, mentions this woman again by name, providing a second point of reference, which, together with the other, enables Charles Israel to build an historical novel.
The voice he uses in the telling of her story is that of an old woman, Rizpah’s companion through the years – from her initial capture by Philistines, through her developing devotion to the new King Saul until his death, then subsequent fondness for his general Abner, until he is killed. She flees with her sons to escape King David’s murderous intent, but does not succeed, hence the scene depicted by Potter. What was I thinking? Not a romantic novel at all. The title of the novel was Rizpah, and I fell in love with the name.
At about this point in my life I saw, for the very first time, an Afghan hound. Oh, how gorgeous it was! I had my husband let me out of the car so I could go over and pet it. We already had a dog, but I decided then and there that one day I would have an Afghan hound, and when I did, I would name her Ritzpah.
It was a long time coming. Life happens, and whenever I would come close, I would get cold feet. I was warned about the grooming, the shedding, the temperament, not to mention the expense, the exercising. Finally, with the turn of the millennium, I gave myself permission. I flew to Toronto, rented a car, drove to Woodstock, found the kennel…… There were two members of the purebred litter remaining, a male and a female, the size of cats, though still puppies. “Why not two?” I thought, but dismissed the idea. Ritzpah was duly registered with the Canadian Kennel Club, and I brought her home.
I was in the Shaarey Zedek Choir at the time and I had missed some practices in order to carry out my errand. The other members all knew why I’d been away, so when I returned with the dog, everyone was excited for me. I was so happy…….until I overheard someone ask: “Why would anyone name their dog ‘Floor’?” I couldn’t believe my ears. I was told the word “ritzpah,” in Hebrew, meant “floor.” Nobody had heard of the concubine.
Next morning I phoned Henny Paritzky, whose Hebrew class at the Jewish Library I’d been attending. Sure enough, she told me that in Hebrew, in Israel, the word for “floor” is “ritzpah.” She had never heard of Rizpah the concubine, either. At that point I shied away from telling Jewish people my dog’s name. If I did and they snickered or smirked I would trip over myself explaining she was named after one of Saul’s concubines. No one was interested.
I became really angry at Eliezer Ben Yehuda, whose decision and effort it was that revived the holy biblical tongue. I looked into how he had arrived at new/old words for the new/old country. What I learned was that his group of teachers, fluent in ancient Hebrew, found words for new concepts in their own brains. Daily they analyzed the various words they had extrapolated from their personal vocabularies, organizing them for the dictionaries they subsequently wrote.
At that point I stopped trying to learn conversational Hebrew, and focused instead on Torah and Haftarah tropes. Then, one Shabbat, as I was following along in the Hebrew while someone chanted Haftarah Yitro, where the angels are singing “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh” back and forth to each other, and Isaiah realizes he is being urged to go and tell everyone about this, I noticed something. “Woe is me,” Isaiah says, “for I am a man of unclean lips…,” and immediately one of the seraphs flies over to the altar, picks up a live coal with a pair of tongs, and purifies Isaiah’s lips. And guess what? Reading the Hebrew I see the word “ritzpah;” I check the English translation and it says “live coal.” Wow! “Ritzpah” was a special word after all! This wonderful gem of information, this vindication that I had just received, didn’t impress anyone.
All this happened before the web was part of my life. What a difference the internet makes! Not expecting anything, just before I concluded this article, I typed “Ritzpah” into Google. To my surprise, a cornucopia of material appeared. Biblical scholars, rabbis, educators in Christian and Jewish colleges, authors and editors of anthologies, all had something to say. It seemed the entire intellectual world was discussing who Ritzpah was, taking lessons from her life, mentioning the meaning of her name as “hot coal.” There were several beautiful paintings and at least one sculpture of the lovely concubine. Several analyses of the woman’s probable life seem to be providing material or various Women’s Studies programs around the continent. The 60 years of emotion I spent, holding a woman’s name in my heart, giving it to my elegant dog, struggling for its appropriateness, suddenly seems so mundane.
A different “Ritzpah” story
By Simone Cohen Scott
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