On a Distant Way
Be'halot'cha (Numbers 8-12 )
The Torah discusses the laws of a person who could not bring the Pascal offering because he was either ritually impure or because he was at a distance from the Mishkan (or in later generations, from the Temple). He is to offer his Passover sacrifice a month later, on the 14th of Iyar.
"Speak to the Children of Israel saying: Any man of you or of your generations who will be impure or is on a distant way nevertheless, he shall bring the Passover sacrifice to Hashem."
Or on a distant way - Rashi: There is a dot on the letter "heh" (in the word "rechoka" - "distant" - which means that the letter is then regarded as non-existent) and this tells us that the Torah means that the way need not really be a distant one but merely outside the threshold of the forecourt during the time of the sacrificing of the Passover offering.
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
Rashi explains the meaning of the dot on top of the letter "heh" in the word "rechoka" which we find in the Torah scroll. Whenever a word has one or more dots on top, the Talmudic Sages interpret the significance of this strange phenomenon. The rule is that when the majority of the letters of a word have dots above them, then the meaning of just these letters is interpreted. When a minority of the letters of a word have the dots, then only the undotted letters are interpreted.
In our case, only one letter is dotted, so it is dropped and the word is read without the letter. The word that remains is "rachok" which also means "distant" but is the masculine form of the word.
Rashi tells us the significance of this. It teaches us that the words "a distant way" refer to a subjective distance and not an objective one. So the person need not actually be distant from the Temple to be excused from bringing the Pascal offering - as long as he is merely outside the entrance of the Temple he is excused, since that "distance" was enough for him to be delayed in making the sacrifice. The journey itself was not distant; the man was.
The meaning of this interpretation is based on the fact that the Hebrew word "way" ("derech") is feminine while the word "ish" ("man") is masculine. Therefore, once the letter "heh" is dropped, the word "distant" becomes a masculine adjective and refers back to "man" and not to "way."
Considering the rules of dots on top of letters in the Torah, this is a reasonable interpretation.
But for a deeper understanding let us look at the Midrashic source of Rashi's comment.
THE MIDRASHIC SOURCE
In the Tractate Pesachim (93a) we find a dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer on this issue. Rabbi Akiva says that the distance is as far as the town "Modi'in," which is about 15 miles from Jerusalem, while Rabbi Eliezer says (based on the dot interpretation) that the distance here is only beyond the threshold of the Temple entrance.
The problem is that Rashi has chosen Rabbi Eliezer's interpretation, which is neither the law nor the closest to the simple meaning (p'shat) of the verse. Why would Rashi do that?
Can you think of an answer?
A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF RASHI
An Answer: It would seem that Rabbi Akiva's simple interpretation of the word "rechoka" as objectively distant (until Modi'in) would be the one that Rashi should have chosen for his commentary, since Rashi prefers p'shat interpretations. But he does not choose Rabbi Akiva's interpretation because Rashi characteristically sees p'shat in a unique way. He sees p'shat through the eyes of the Sages. And since the Sages have a rule about interpreting words that have dots on top of them, then Rashi too bases his interpretation on this principle. So Rashi is left with the word "rachok" (without the letter "heh" at the end) which must refer to a masculine noun - that is to "man" and not to "way." This interpretation also finds some support in the Torah text itself. See verse 13 where it refers to "way" but does not mention the word "distant." This would support Rabbi Eliezer's view that the journey need not actually be "distant."
So Rashi has chosen the p'shat interpretation considering the Sages' principle about interpreting the dots on top of letters in the Torah.
My daughter, Elisheva, has suggested another answer to the question: Why did Rashi not choose Rabbi Akiva's interpretation (distance means "until Modi'in") since it seems closest to p'shat and since the halacha is like Rabbi Akiva?
Her answer is that the verse (9:10) says: "Any man of you or of your generations" ( see the complete verse above). Now the distance of Modi'in is about 15 miles from Jerusalem, while the complete Camp of Israel in the wilderness was only 12 miles square (see Rashi in the book of Joshua). So the verse cannot possibly mean "until the distance of Modi'in" as Rabbi Akiva said because Moses was speaking to "YOU" (meaning this GENERATION in the wilderness) and to future generations. So this generation had no Jews living at that distance (15 miles) from the Mishkan! So even according to p'shat Rabbi Eliezer (who says beyond the entrance of the Mishkan) would seem to fit the verse better than Rabbi Akiva.
I think that's a brilliant answer, even if I do say so myself!