[URJBiennial] The Biennial begins!

Reading Rashi

I studied my first bit of Rashi today, and I feel so cool!

Rashi was a medieval Jewish scholar who lived in northern France. Though the first Crusade decimated his community, he survived, and made it his life's work to transcribe the teachings he had received so they wouldn't be lost. He wrote incredibly detailed commentary on all of Torah and Talmud; I can't overstate how definitive or relevant his commentaries have become in mainstream Judaism. (The wikipedia entry on him notes that "Rashi's works are so well respected that he is often cited simply as 'the Commentator.'")

Reading Rashi is complicated for a bunch of reasons. It's printed in a typeface called "Rashi script," which is a stylized version of Sefardic handwriting -- some of it is recognizable to me, but several of the letters are new and strange. (Here is a great chart that shows how Rashi script and ordinary Hebrew diverge.) He wrote in a late-medieval Hebrew idiom that matches neither Biblical nor Modern. His knowledge was encyclopedic, so his stuff is full of references. And though he always begins by answering a question, he doesn't tell you what the question is -- you have to infer it from the text at hand. So reading Rashi is a cross between literary analysis and puzzle/problem-solving, plus it's written in an archaic form of Hebrew and in a font I can't easily decipher. Does it make me weird that I totally enjoyed this?

We spent an hour on Rashi's explication of the title of this week's Torah portion, לך לך (lekh lekha), usually translated as "Go you forth." Our first challenge was figuring out the question or problem he seeks to address. Looking at the grammatical construction lekh lekha brought us to our question: lekh by itself is a fine imperative, so why redouble the syllable? Literally translated those words could mean, "go forth for you(rself)," or "go forth to you(rself)" -- what's up with that? Once we had those questions, we could begin deciphering the answer.

And slowly, painstakingly, I managed to read the words of Rashi, learning the typeface as I went along. When I hit a word I didn't know, Jeff helped me figure out its root, and then look it up in Jastrow's amazing dictionary. And bit by bit, we arrived at Rashi's answer to the question of the lecha, as well as Rashi's interpretation of what "go you forth" means and implies. Because his commentary is so full of references, it's incredibly dense -- in fifteen words, Rashi opens up a whole new way of seeing the passage. I'm a little bit awed to realize how Torah unfolds: one word of Torah leads to fifteen words of Rashi, which in turn lead to volumes. "Turn and turn it for everything is in it," indeed!

I'd read Rashi in translation before, but this was my first time wrestling with the Hebrew. I was outwardly calm, but inside I was blowing noisemakers and throwing confetti; in my halting, beginner way, I've just joined a party that's been going on for a thousand years, and that's pretty cool. Rashi is such an essential thing for an educated Jew to be familiar with. Like -- I dunno, the way any English-language poet worth her salt ought to read Chaucer, because the Canterbury Tales were so formative in that field. Though it's clear that I have miles and miles to go before this is easy, it's exciting to have started on this piece of the journey.

Because of the Biennial and Thanksgiving, Jeff and I won't meet again for a few weeks, so he gave me homework: to do my best to decipher Rashi's first two wee bits of commentary on parashat vaeyra. I know it will be tortuously slow going, but somehow, I can't wait to try it again. Blessed are You, Eternal one, source of all that is, who has kept me alive and sustained me and enabled me to reach this moment!

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