This morning Jeff and I worked on translating the first handful of verses in the new book of Torah we're beginning this week, Vayikra (known to most English-speakers as Leviticus). Intriguingly, the book begins in media res: "And God called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting and spoke to him, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and tell them, when any of you makes an offering..." No grand "in the beginning" (or even "in a beginning") here; this book begins with a grand game of "telephone," God telling Moses to tell us how to make offerings. It's an instruction manual for holiness, antiquity-style.
Traditionally, Jeff told me, when children begin studying Torah, this is the first text they learn. That surprises me; I would have thought to begin with Bereshit (Genesis), both because it's a book full of great stories, and because, you know, it's the beginning. But apparently the rabbis who established the custom wanted to emphasize that the Torah is more than just great stories; at its heart Torah is about reaching holiness through law. And I mean "heart" here both literally and metaphorically; Vayikra is the middle book of Torah, framed by the symmetry of two books before and two books after, which makes it a kind of Holiest of Holies within the Temple of the text.
It's also a book that often alienates modern Jews. We might legitimately ask, what does all of this talk of sacrifices and purity have to do with our Judaism today? But to my surprise, I enjoyed my dip into the early verses, and learned some good stuff just from the vocabulary.
For instance: the word usually translated as "sacrifice," korban, comes from the root for "bring near." A korban is something which one brings to God, and something which brings one nearer to God. That's a completely different connotation than the English translation, and one I find fascinatingly compelling. (As Rabbi Norman Koch writes in his commentary on this week's portion, "While the English word 'sacrifice' immediately suggests giving up, or losing something, the Hebrew word korban, absent of English thinking, should draw us to thoughts of nearness.") And once I learned that root, I saw it all over the text, in both noun and verb forms. Instead of seeing a passage focused on outdated methods of ritual slaughter, I was able to also read the passage as deeply concerned with ways of drawing near to God. Much more interesting to me!
Or take the word samach, which appears in verse 1:4 . The text instructs one to lean, or place, one's hands on the head of the animal one is about to sacrifice. On the surface level, this describes a simple act, a way of physically connecting oneself with the beast before slaughtering it. But a fluent Hebrew-speaker might see, in that verb, a connection with the term s'micha, rabbinic ordination. (There's both a physical and a metaphysical resonance. When a rabbi is ordained, hands are placed on her head; and there's a sense in which rabbis lean on their teachers...) The more Hebrew I learn, the more Torah seems to me like a hyperlinked document: each word points to other, related, words and ideas, until the text becomes almost three-dimensional, impossible to fully translate in a single linear way.
That Hebrew is dense and relational isn't a new idea; many teachers have commented on it, among them Rabbi Marcia Prager, who writes (in The Path of Blessing) that "Just as each leaf must be understood as a part, fed by the roots of the whole tree, individual Hebrew words cannot be fully understood without reference to their whole tree." Every Hebrew word calls forth echoes of its relatives, which add layers of meaning to otherwise simple texts. That was abundantly clear to me this morning. We talked about the root meanings of the terms for different sacrifices, how the word for "weight" also means "honor," and why the existence of repetitive phrases ("the sons of Aaron, the priests") might hint at later (Deuteronomic) additions to a preexisting Levitical text. We actually ran half an hour overtime before either one of us glanced at a watch; I had to make a mad dash to hit the coffee shop before my 10:30 appointment!
Most years in shul I sigh my way through Leviticus. I've historically found it frustrating (and God knows there's a lot to quibble with in it: just wait until we get to the Holiness Code and my least-favorite verse, 18:22). But this morning was fun, and I'm beginning to hope that I'll find more resonance in the text now that I'm (slowly, painstakingly) beginning to learn to translate it. I'm endlessly glad that so many translations of Torah exist; I wouldn't have access to it without them. But I'm starting to see why it's worth it to read the words in the original, for myself. The layers of meaning are fascinating, and the thrill of putting it all together can, apparently, make even Vayikra fun.