“PaRDeS”

Deuteronomy is a tough book.  It’s four long speeches from Moses retelling the stories of the Torah, prophesizing how things will go in the holy land; it’s blessings and curses, descriptions of the fairness of God, and how important loyalty is for the Israelites. There’s a lot in there, and this week is no different. This week’s parsha begins with the words “V’haya Eikev,” which is translated as  “And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your fathers.”[1]  It’s a beautiful translation.  Eikev, the name of the parsha, is translated here as “if.”  By reading it just in English, it’s fine and we get the gist of it all: more commandments, and if we follow them, God keeps our covenant.  Hooray!  That’s the surface, it’s what the rabbis call “Peshat,” the surface, the direct meaning.

 

But there are, according to the rabbis, four approaches to looking at text: Peshat is the first, as we just saw.  The next is “Remez” which means “hints, or the deep meaning beyond just a literal sense; third is “Drash” – “to seek” – the comparative meaning, from other sources; and finally, “sod” – the “secret” – the esoteric/mystical meaning as given through inspiration or revelation.  Together, these approaches form the acronym PaRDeS, the formula to studying text: the plain meaning, the allegorical meaning, the metaphorical meaning, and the hidden meaning.  This is how students of Torah have learned how to approach the text for generations, and it’s how rabbis are taught today.

Here’s the problem.  The PaRDeS approach requires that we read the text in…Hebrew.  Why?  Well, first of all, the Torah, and the Tanakh, are written in Hebrew.  But also, a translation is meant to create the easiest and smoothest read in the vernacular.  In other words, we only see the word translated, so we only get the surface.  And how much we miss!

 

The word Eikev, the name of our parsha, is translated by our JPS scholars as “if,” or some translations have it as “because.”  That’s the Peshat, the surface.  What’s underneath?  Well, for starters, the word Eikev shares the Hebrew root with one of our Patriarchs, Ya’akov (Jacob), whose name was chosen because he came out holding the heel of his brother Esau.  Eikev is of the same root, so it has something to do with a “heel.”  So how do we go from “heel” to “because”?  Easy.  The word Eikev means “on the heels of” which means “as a consequence of,” or more simply, “because.”  That, right there, is the Drash; we saw the root, recognized it, and asked where we’ve heard it before, thus understanding why that word was chosen.

 

The English term for this process is etymology—studying the origin of words, the idiomatic understandings, and how they have evolved throughout history.  There are plenty of times we speak English, saying idiomatic phrases, or using words with origins in Latin, or German.  All the more so do we use idiomatic phrases or words from other cultures that have become part of our speech patterns.  Jews are notorious for sprinkling in Yiddish words into our speech. For example, “it’s a shlep to walk up Synagogue Hill.”  A non-native English speaker might have some issues with that sentence, unfamiliar with the etymology of the word “shlep.”  They’d miss out on the nuance of what we were saying.  Sure, we could translate “shlep,” or try to. It means…a tedious or difficult journey, but it also means to haul something or carry something, and sometimes it means dressing down in comfortable clothing.  In other words, if you don’t know the word, you don’t quite get it, but if you do, you get it right away.  That’s the beauty of etymology, of idioms, of slang—there are things that are just not translatable, yet we understand them.

 

Hebrew is the same way.  The example I want to speak about tonight comes from the next verse in Eikev.  Let’s hear it in English first.  Ready?  “God will favor you and bless you and multiply you; God will bless the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, your new grain and wine and oil, the calves of your herd and the lambs of your flock, in the land that God swore to your fathers to assign to you.”[2]  So what’s the Peshat here?  God’s going to do some awesome stuff for us.  It’s a quasi-poetic explanation of what’s waiting for us in the holy land.  Grain, wine, and oil are the principal products of Israelite agriculture, so that’s good to know that they’ll be there in the holy land.  But what’s underneath? What’s the Remez, the Drash, the Sod?  It’s pretty cool.

 

So let’s Drash for a minute.  Grain, wine, oil.  If we reverse the order, we might see something familiar: oil, wine, grain.  Three things that tonight, on Shabbat, we will be blessing.  Oil (our candles), wine (kiddish), and grain (motzi).  We see, therefore, a connection between Shabbat and agriculture.  On Shabbat we bless the three principle products of Israelite culture, and why? Well, because in Deuteronomy, that’s what we were told was waiting for us in the holy land.   Of course, we teach completely different reasons for blessing our candles, wine, and bread, reasons that evolved throughout the centuries, but the origin of these practices come from right here.  But this one we could figure out in the English translation.

 

Now here’s what we missed by not reading the Hebrew.  Here’s the Sod, the “secret.” The words in Deuteronomy used for grain, wine, and oil aren’t the ones we’re used to.  For wine, we’re used to hearing “yayin” or “gefen,” and for bread we know the word “lechem.”  But in this parsha, when Moses is describing these wonderful things, he uses different words: the word he uses for grain is “dagan,” for wine, the word is “tirosh,” for calves, it is “sheger,” and for lambs it is “astarot.”  Now in English, we missed this, but it’s as clear as day in the Hebrew.  Something’s off here.  So what is it?  It turns out that these words are familiar, but not for the reasons we might’ve thought.  Dagan, the word Moses uses for grain, is actually a name.  Dagan was a prominent Semitic god on the eastern Mediterranean coast.  Dagan was a god that controlled grain.  Tirosh, a Semitic god of wine, Sheger, a god of livestock, and Astartes, a god of fertility.  All of these words are actually names of Canaanite or Mediterranean deities.

 

Just to clarify, we are in the book of Deuteronomy, a strongly monotheistic book in our Torah, in the midst of discussing how Adonai, the only God, will be delivering us bounty in our holy land.  We were going along just fine, reading the English, and discussing how wonderful it is that the oil, and wine, and bread will be waiting for us in Canaan.  But now we have different questions, don’t we?  Why would these words be chosen? Who chose them?  Did the author know what he was doing when he used these words?  Would the readers know the etymology of the terms at the time?  Is it a dig against the gods because the author wanted to show they didn’t exist, or is it a dig against the gods because we wanted to show that our God was more powerful?  And if we believe that this book was whispered to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, why did God choose these words of our neighboring deities?

 

Commentary on the text seems to indicate that the Israelites were most likely unaware of the etymology of these terms.  They compare it to the English use of the word “cereal,” which is related to the Greek goddess Ceres, who was in charge of agriculture in some way.  So with that in mind, why would the author use these words if he knew the Israelites wouldn’t get the hidden meaning?  To philosophize on these questions would mean delaying our own kiddish and motzi for at least an hour, so we aren’t going to answer them this evening.

 

Hopefully, however, you can see through this little exercise the importance, the complication, and the mystery in the Hebrew text.  For rabbis, engaging in this work is a daily part of our lives. We are constantly studying texts with the PaRDeS method, looking to find the allegory, the metaphor, the secrets in the text. But it is not our job alone. As I have said many times over, Jews—all Jews—are first and foremost scholars. This is why, as your Rabbi, I don’t just study using the PaRDeS method, I teach it to you. To truly understand our texts, to mine them for all that they have to offer, we have to investigate them on multiple levels. And we have to do this, as often as we can, in Hebrew.

 

Now I know what you’re thinking. The last Hebrew class you took was when you were a teenager. Well, I’ve got good news. After the High Holy Days, Hebrew is making a comeback.  Starting in November, we at The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas will host Hebrew classes, twice a month. Many of you have expressed to me time and time again a desire to learn (or relearn) Hebrew. Whether it is to properly read the prayers we say, or to be able to speak the language in Israel, you have each had your reasons. I hope tonight, however, that whatever the reason might have been before, you have a new reason now. Come to Hebrew class so that you can PaRDeS. Come to understand the complexities of our ancient language, to appreciate the deliberate choices authors have made. Come to expand the possibilities of what Judaism is, and what Judaism can be.

[1] Deut 7:12 JPS (adapted)

[2] Deut 7:13 JPS (adapted)

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