I had a conversation with a woman not so long ago trying to set up a time for a shiur she would host at her house. At the end of the conversation she said in Hebrew, “It all sounds good, but let me ask ‘ishi’ (my husband) and I’ll get back to you.” It took me a few seconds to catch on that she has used the word ‘ishi’ for husband and not the more common word ‘baali’. It was the first time I had heard a woman refer to her husband as such but then over the course of the following weeks, I heard it a few more times.
How did we start calling our husbands Baali – my owner? And once that became the standard name for husband, why would a woman want to change from baali to ishi? What was bothering this woman and why was ishi a better term?
And so my life continued without much of an answer until I started preparing this dvar Torah. As I was reading over the parsha along with various commentaries, I came across Nechama Leibowitz on Parshat Bamidbar and one of her essays immediately appealed to me: “Haftarah—what’s in a name? Ishi or Ba’ali?”
First, a little background. In Breishit chapter two, when G-d creates woman the psukim state:
And man said, “This time, it is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called ishah (woman) because this one was taken from ish (man).” Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
In these psukim the woman is referred to as isha and Adam’s wife is called ishto. From there we learn that if you want to say in Hebrew my wife, one should say ishti—which means haisha sheli. However, we don’t have any reference in these psukim as to how the isha should called by Adam. Nevertheless, Hebrew grammer can assist us. Man is referred to as ish and, therefore, one would say my man, ishi – Ishi and Ishti. It also makes sense to have a woman and a man refer to each other in the same basic language especially based on the psukim that describe their relationship as one flesh. The man leaves his home and cleaves to his wife and they become one. Two equals that form into one.
Leibowitz approaches this theme from this week’s haftarah.
Hoshea chapter 2, according to Dr. Shawn Zelig Aster, describes a spiritual cleanse and bad-habit detox (to use today’s terms). In the beginning of the chapter, G-d sends Bnei Yisrael to the desert to break their commitment to idols and reliance on foreign politics. He exiles them to the desert, a desolate place without any chance of survival, stripping the nation of its materialistic goods, leaving the Jews with their only true possession, G-d. Surprisingly, Hashem then courts Bnei Yisrael. Bnei Yisrael recognizes G-d and forges a new and stronger connection – G-d helps Bnei Yisrael re-enter into Israel.
Describing the new relationship Bnei Yisrael created with G-d, psukim 18-19 state:
And it shall be at that day saith the Lord that thou shalt call me ishi and shalt call Me no more ba’ali for I will take away the names of the baalim out of her mouth and they shall no more mentioned by their name.
What is the difference between ishi and baali? Rashi explains:
You shall serve Me from love and not fear. “Ishi;” An expression of marital relationship and young love. “Baali”: An expression of lordship and fear.
At first glance this Rashi is problematic because of the way it colors our relationship with G-d as something negative. Though in Judaism we know that fear and love can co-exist. Nevertheless, Radak offers an alternative explanation:
The word “Baal” is a homonym. Some called heathen idols baal. He, therefore, said that you shall call me no more Baal, in order to wean Israel away from even utterance of the term Baalim.
The Radak said that the difficulty with Baal is its connection to the avodah zara of the same name. The change of name was to remove Bnei Yisrael’s connection to this foreign paganism and connect Bnei Yisrael to Hashem.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber takes it one step further, saying the difficulty was not in serving baal rather in serving Hashem in a similar manner. Worshipping the diety Ba’al required acts deemed highly inappropriate by the Torah as it was a fertility cult. G-d, in no uncertain terms, does not want Bnei Yisrael to serve Him in that way.
What did G-d want? G-d wanted Bnei Yisrael to call him ‘Ishi’. This is a clinging together of two flesh similar to that which was stated in Breishit chapter 2, a relationship where a husband and wife are partners who come together to form one. This is what G-d strove for in the week’s haftarah in Hoshea and this is what He asks of us today, as well.
It is my hope that we create relationships with our spouses (or future spouses) built on these fundamental traits which will then hopefully translate into deeper more meaningful relationships with G-d. Then we can truly say, “And it shall be at that day that thou shalt call me ishi and shalt call me no more baali”.