February 04, 2005
I found a refreshing window of focus this morning. It didn't come during meditation; unsurprisingly my attention wandered often, and I kept having to call it back (using a liturgical melody helped -- every time I caught my mind spinning I hummed Rabbi Jeff Roth's "Kol Haneshama" to myself, which brought my focus back to the melody and my breath). The focus came during Hebrew study. Jeff (not Jeff Roth; my other Rabbi Jeff) spent forty-five minutes with me translating the first few lines of this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, and it felt great.
I knew many of the words off the top of my head, and I was able to puzzle out some of the ones which were foreign to me. Jeff was terrific: he didn't put pressure on me, didn't make me feel sheepish when I didn't know things, but also didn't allow me to give up too easily. When I got stuck, he'd say things like, "Okay, what part of speech is it?" And I would identify the word as a verb. And then he'd say, "What tense, what person?" And I would stare at it for a minute, and finally come up with those answers. And then he'd say, "Do you know any other words that relate to that root?" Only when I was entirely stymied would he actually answer something for me.
I learned that the dagesh (a diacritical dot) in the first letter of the word mishpatim ("laws" or "judgements") denotes a missing letter; there used to be a lamed before that word. In an apparent digression, he asked, "What's the Arabic name for Jerusalem?" Al-Quds, I said. "And what does it mean?" It means The-Holy; the Arabic qds shares a root with the Hebrew word kodesh, and we too call Jerusalem "The Holy City," in Hebrew ir ha-kodesh. Turns out that same diacritical dot (the one denoting a lost "l" sound) appears at the start of the word kodesh: in some Semitic linguistic ancestor of Hebrew, we too would have said ha'l-kodesh. Al-Quds by any other name...
Anyway, I worked my way painstakingly through these verses and these verses. I learned how to tell the word "yaldah" (daughter) from "yal'dah" (she bears). I learned when the diacritical marks (vowels and cantillation markings) were first written down, and by whom (thanks, Masoretes.) And then it was time to go.
This is a hundred times more engaging than practicing verb conjugations. This is why I want to learn Hebrew in the first place! I'm a little bit amazed by how fun that was, and how satisfying, and how much more helpful it is to have someone coaxing and nudging me through the work than to be doing it alone. (Guess the tradition is pretty wise on that count; traditional Jewish study always takes place in pairs.) I hope Jeff is getting something out of this, because it's immeasurably useful and enjoyable for me.