Yes or No?
Ha'azinu is a covenantal song, a poem that tells the story of the ups and downs of the relationship between G-d and His beloved people. A defining characteristic of poetry is use of simile, metaphor and allegory; words and phrases mean not what they say but what they stand for. It is perfectly acceptable for a poet to refer a woman's eyes as "stars of heaven", not expecting that we understand that literally but, as that they are in some sense, beauty or preciousness, like stars. Similarly, the sounds and interplay between meter, alliteration and esthetic are important features of poetry unlike prose. In a certain sense all of the Torah partakes of the poetic, intentionally incorporating meanings beyond the pshat. Just as poets express meaning on levels beyond that of the purely dictionary meaning of words, so does the Torah rely on patterns, encoding and, even alliteration to carry meaning.
This insight of the Netsiv of Volozhin in the introduction to his Torah commentary (#3) can bring us a long way to understanding why the Rabbis so often "darshin" the sound, as well as orthography of a word. They sometimes disagree whether the way that a word sounds or the way it is spelled in the primary vehicle for meaning in a particular passage, expressing it with statements such as, "yeish eim l'mikra" versus "yeish eim l'msores" or, whether in a particular passage "dvarim kiksovom".
An example of such a disagreement, though such terms are not explicitly used, is found in the Sifri Ha'azinu, 3 regarding an obscure verse in Devarim 32,5. שִׁחֵת
For this whose computers cannot reproduce Hebrew, I transliterate: " Shiches lo (lamed vav), lo (lamed aleph) bonov mumam. "
Let us us leave the first lo, the one that follows the word "shiches" aside for now and focus solely on the second lo (Lamed aleph). If understood as written, it says something to the effect of "it is not blemishes of His children". If read as it sounds, it would mean "children who are His, it is their blemishes". The meanings are opposite. Here, following the pronunciation (lamed vav) will result in an opposite meaning than when following the spelling (lamed aleph).
Let's look at Sifri:
Even when they are full of blemishes they are called sons as it says "lo bonov mumam". Words of R. Meir.
R. Meir admits that they have blemishes but they are still called "His sons". Apparently he reads the 'lo' as lamed vav - His children, even if with blemishes. He follows prnounication, not the spelling of the word 'lo'.
And so R. Yehuda said: "There are no blemishes in them as it says "lo banov mumam".
R. Yehuda appears to read "lo" as lamed aleph in accordance with spelling.
The Sifri goes on to adduce various Scriptural proofs that Jews are called sons even when they sin. One might ask: "Why disagree? Why not darshin both?"
The reason for the disagreement appears to be that in our case darshinig spelling (there are no blemishes) leads one to the conclusions completely opposite to those when you darshin pronunciation (there are blemishes but they do not matter). A similar situation is found in a mishna in the fifth chapter of Sotah.
R. Yehoshua ben Hyrkanus taught: "Iyov served Hashem only out of love, as it states "Though he slays me for Him (lo- lamed vav), I pine." However, the meaning is still not certain for perhaps, it should be understood as "Though He slays me, I do not pine" (lamed aleph)? It is rather the former for is states: "I shall not loose my integrity till I die".
Here, Iyov either pines or does not pine - there is no middle position. R. Yehoshua ben Karcha considers both possibilities, reading with lamed vav as written, or understanding with lamed aleph as it sounds. He selects one on the basis of other textual evidence.
When the two ways of reading do not contradict one another we repeatedly find that the word 'lo' is darshined both ways.
[ואם לא יגאל
מלאת לו שנה
הבית אשר בעיר
לדרתיו לא יצא
אשר לוא חומה
אף על פי
שאין לו עכשיו
והיה לו קודם
בית חלוט בהו).
Houses in walled cities can be redeemed after one year after they are sold but subsequently become completely the buyer's. What is walled city? "Asher lo choma" (Vayikra 25:30). R. Eleazar ben R. Yosi in Erachin 32a understands it to mean "It does not have a wall now but had it at some past time". That time is the period of Yehoshua bin Nun. The phrase is understood as if both lamed aleph (does not have now) and lamed vav(but had at some point) are valid meanings and darshined accordingly.
A similar approach is found in a midrash quoted in Rashi to Bamidbar 32, 42. It describes how Novach conquered the city of Knaz and called it by his own name, Novach. "Vayikra lo novach bishmo". Here the usual splelling of "loh", lamed hei, would not sound like the word lamed aleph, for it would usually be spelled with a mapik in the hei. A possessive mapik, as is now usually taught, adds strength to the pronounciation of the hei and would make it sound different than either lamed vav or lamed aleph. However, this mapik is missing and it sounds like either of those. Ramban cites two other instances of a missing mapik and in all these cases the word is darshined as if it is both 'lo' (lamed hei) and 'lo', lamed aleph. In this particular instance, it is understood to convey that the name that he gave to the city of Knaz did not survive into the future. In all of these three instances, the word 'lo', lamed hei, because it is read without a mapik and sounds like lamed aleph, is understood as a composite. The name was given and lasted for some time (lamed hei) but did not persist into the future (lamed aleph) .
These six instances, and I probably missed other examples, potentially open a window on a great number of hard to understand derivations in Tannaitic literature. We remain with the hard to understand fact that at least some Tannaim evidence a tendency, and not only in these examples, to favor the meaning carried by sound of a word over that carried by the spelling. This is a quandary that we will address repeatedly and solve, G-d willing, as we continue with Midrash and Method.
1 Literally, is the way the source reads or the way the source spells. As Tosafos in Sanhedrin 4a, s.v. kulchu points out, all Tannaim in some instances 'darshin' both spelling and pronounication; the issue is which is primary in cases when they both cannot be valid, when they contradict each other. The same appears to be true of "dvarim kiksovom", see Talmudic Encyclopedia, entry, dvorim kiksovom.
2 A similar disagreement between R. Meir and R. Yehuda is found in Kiddushin 36a, except that there R. Yehuda holds that Jews are called sons only when they do not sin. Of interest, there the disagreement is presented in purely philosophical terms and while a number of various verses is adduced, our verse is not mentioned. This suggests that their disagreement here is about how to darshin whereas their disagreement in Kiddushin is formulated in broader terms.
3 The Gra emends this view to read R. Meir, probably to avoid the contradiction to the version in Kiddushin.
4 It must be pointed out that R. Yehuda is the primary champion of the principle "dvarim kiksovom". He expresses this term 4 times in the Talmud, disagreeing with it only once, and that only to negate it in the first part of the verse under discussion in order to uphold it in the second part of the same verse. This may be the same tendency that we find in this Sifri. See footnote 1.
5 We have a keri (lamed vav) and kesiv (lamed aleph) here; it is possible that Rashi had the word spelled as lamed vav aleph, see Tos. ad. loc. s.v. asher.
6 A good example of what happens when academic inanities are substituted for serious application to depth and breadth of Torah study, is found in M. Fishbane, The garments of Torah: essays in Biblical hermeneutics, Indiana University Press, 1989, p. 20. Completely oblivious to the real way in which drash functions, he suggests that there must have been different spellings of lo in various manuscripts. " ... instances of creative exchange between textual forms and Midrashic formulations...". Unable to still explain the contradiction that would arise out of reading both "textual forms" at the saem time, he escapes into post-modernistic academic-speak. "R. Eleazar manifestly interprets Scripture both with and against official synagogue reading. The dynamic role of midrash as both a conserver and converter of tradition is thus clear". Clear, indeed. Fancy phraseology does often cover a multitude of sins.
7 A beautiful homiletic -ethical refelction on the meaning of this midrash is found in R. Shimon Schwab's Mein Beis Hashoevah, Mattos.