The Hebrew root aleph mem nun is one of my favorites. From it comes the ubiquitous “Amen!”, the noun emunah meaning “faith”, and the adjective ne’eman or ne’emenah (plural ne’emanim or ne’emanot), meaning something like “faithful” or “trustworthy.”
This word shows up in our Torah portion but in an unusual context. Deuteronomy 28:59 comes in the midst of a rather frightening list of bad things that will happen to the Israelites if they fail to observe the covenant and keep God’s Torah. This verse covers one of the penalties of straying from the covenant: “God will inflict extraordinary plagues on you and your offspring, strange and ne’emanot plagues, malignant and ne’emanim diseases.” Yikes! But what does it mean – “faithful” plagues?!
Rashbam, naturally, explains.
Deuteronomy 28:59 LASTING (ne’emanim) [DISEASES]: Long and continuing [diseases], as in the phrase (Psalm 119:90) “Your faithfulness (emunatcha) is for all generations,” or (Isaiah 22:23) “I will fix him as a peg in a firm (ne’eman) place.” (Translation Martin Lockshin)
Rashbam lifts up the basic idea in faithfulness or trustworthiness, which is a sense of endurance and loyalty. These plagues and diseases will endure. The Torah’s wordplay here rises to the level of artistry, pointedly using not just once but twice the word “faithful” to describe punishments for people who were not faithful to God.
For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.