Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Communicating across the millenia

Krum as a bagel
What amazes me about Torah learning is the ability of ancient hebrew texts communicate accross centuries, or even millenia, and speak to me, sitting at a table in 2005. The same cannot be said for even relatively recent english texts. I find it a leck of a lot easier reading Mishne Torah than, say, 17th century english poetry. I am sure there are many obvious reasons for this, but I find this fact remarkable nonetheless. Lanuguage is a fundamental product of society and the society in which the key Jewish texts were written are vastly different than our own.

However, we often come accross biblical phrases that simply have no meaning to us. We understand each word of the phrase, but the manner in which they are arranged do not seem to make sense. One example: " וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל-עַמָּיו." (Bereishis 49:33). This phrase is literally translated as "he was gathered unto his people" and is used in connection with someone's death. The phrase pops up throughout Chumash (see Bereishis 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:33; Bamidbar 20:24; 27:13; Devarim 32:50). Yet the phrase seems inscrutable. First, the juxtaposition of the verb "gather" and the word "unto." You gather something "up" or "together" but not "unto" something or someone else. Second, gathering connotes the bringing together of things which are spread out, such as wheat. How do you gather a single person? Third, gathering connotes bringing together to one place. Yet, in the verse, the gathering is to "his people," which suggests more of a distribution than gathering. Obviously, the phrase is some sort of ancient idiom which is metaphorical. Because of the how vastness of the separation between ancient Israel and modern society, I don't believe there is any way we can truly understand that phrase.

Another example: וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ, אֶל-לְבָבֶךָ (Devarim 30:1). This phrase literally means "you shall return unto your hearts." Again the words of this phrase are arranged in a seemingly meaningless way. How can you return to your own heart? A similarlr enigmatic phrase: "וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם" (Malachi 3:24). Here, the heart is doing the "returning": I shall return the hearts of the fathers onto the children and the hearts of the children onto the fathers."

Any other examples?

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