I am fascinated by the contranym (also called heteronym or spelled contronym).
Parshat Ekev: Deuteronomy
It is a word that has contradictory meanings. For example, when you hear that a woman received a citation, did she earn an honor, or did she break a law? When you hear that oversight is occurring at a workplace, is there close monitoring of the employees or none at all? Phrases, too, can be internally contradictory. When “it’s all downhill from here,” either the best or the worst is ahead.
We can also be confused when two different people have identical or similar names. When Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan first ran for office in 2013, he faced a long list of opponents in the primary, including one named Mike Dugeon. Fortunately for the mayor, the name confusion did not deny him a victory. Of the 95,000+ votes cast in the primary, Mr. Dugeon received only 17.
Though identical or similar names did not impact this election, two examples of name confusion from Jewish history are most significant.
The Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 55b-56a) includes the story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza. A certain man was a friend of Kamtza and an enemy of Bar-Kamtza. In planning for his upcoming party, the man sent his servant to invite Kamtza, but the servant mistakenly delivered the invitation to Bar-Kamtza.
When the party’s host saw Bar-Kamtza seated at his feast, he immediately told Bar-Kamtza to leave. Not wanting to be embarrassed, Bar-Kamtza offered to pay for his food and drink, rather than leave in disgrace. After the host refused to agree, Bar-Kamtza offered to pay for half the cost of the feast, and even the entire cost, if he could just stay. Despite those generous offers, the host did not relent, and he promptly threw Bar-Kamtza out.
As a result of the embarrassment he suffered, Bar-Kamtza played a role in causing the Romans to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem and take the Jews into exile.
Whenever we recall the Temple’s destruction, as we did last week on Tisha b’Av, we can’t help but think how senseless hatred within the Jewish community, as related in the story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza, is more harmful than the might or evil of an enemy nation.
The other story of name confusion comes from the haftarot of this season. Two weeks ago, we were introduced to the prophet Isaiah, who expressed God’s anger and frustration with the Israelites’ straying from God’s chosen path for them: “I reared children and brought them up And they have rebelled against Me. (Isaiah 1:2)
With these words, Isaiah is warning the people of the Northern Kingdom in the eighth century B.C.E. about the impending attack of the Assyrians.
This Shabbat, and on all seven Shabbatot from Tisha b’Av to Rosh Hashanah, we hear a different voice from Isaiah. It is the voice of comfort for the residents of the Southern Kingdom, who have witnessed destruction and exile at the hands of Babylonia in the sixth century B.C.E.
To the people who assume that God has abandoned them, the prophet reassuringly declares: “Can a woman forget her baby?” (Isaiah 49:15).
Modern Bible scholars explain this gap of nearly 200 years by teaching that there were two different prophets named Isaiah, both represented by the same book of the Bible. Traditional scholars maintain that there is only one Isaiah, but that Isaiah is accurately foreseeing into the future.
In all cases, we acknowledge that the mention of the name Isaiah calls to mind the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, that there are two
voices of prophecy — one who sternly warns people to improve their behavior; the other comforts the suffering in the aftermath of destruction. Significantly, Isaiah’s words represent both aspects of classical prophecy.
Elliot Pachter is director of student services at Frankel Jewish Academy and rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’nai Moshe, both in West Bloomfield.