I spoke yesterday of the hubris of Hillel, the cleverest man in Chelm. I am aware there is a good measure of Chutzpah inherent in my taking my personal surface reactions to a reading of the Torah and making them public. Furthermore, we are mostly beginners in my group, and so at our first meeting, we didn’t get even half way through the parshah. The alternative to chutzpah is to not do it. May as well do as not do. Maybe, against all odds, it will start a conversation in the comments section, and I’ll learn something.
Aptly enough, the first impression I get from my first reading of the first part of the first Torah portion, more obvious in Yiddish than in English translation, is the essential Hebrewness of Torah. There is a reason Jews preserved the Hebrew for centuries after they stopped speaking it in daily life. There are places where it won’t translate, either because it is poetry, or because it uses the nature of the language to make its point, or more occasionally because there is no Yiddish equivalent of a Hebrew word.
God uses words to create the world. But that does raise the issue of what language God spoke—poetry being notoriously difficult to translate. You could split hairs forever over the connotations of individual words, and meanwhile, the rhythm conveys meaning as well. The first and best place this comes through is when God says: Y’hi or. “Light will be. And light was.” The Hebrew is perfectly compact, and confined to the verb ‘to be’. English is eight words rather than four, and also “let there be light” includes the extraneous action of ‘allowing’. Was light trying to come into existence all along and God finally relented, and ‘let it’ happen? God here is not the first mover, but a mere gatekeeper. The Yiddish is also different than the Hebrew in feel. Zol vern likht. Un es iz gevorn likht. ‘There should/shall be(come) light. And light became’. Light shall come into existence. God here seems to be indicating, through ‘zol’ (should or shall), that there is some alternative possibility and this is the preferred one, or the one that he will order into happening. To me it feels less all-powerful to order something than to simply say it into being. The future tense of existence does have the idea of ‘becoming’ inherent in it, perhaps. But the Hebrew feels somehow more sudden, and more magic. “will be / and was” compared to “It should become / it became”.
Another place I saw how word-bound, or untranslatable, the Torah is was when the nature of language was used to bolster a story about the essential nature of things. In version two of the creation of woman (in version one, humans are created equally—male and female in God’s image) God wants a companion for Adam. He parades the animals in front of Adam, who sees and names the animals one by one. But he is still alone. Then God puts him to sleep (the first surgery) and creates Eve from his rib. When Adam sees Eve, because she is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, he says she will be called Froy. Vayl fun a man… because she was made from man. This fails. In Hebrew “Isha” because she comes from “Ish”. In English, she is called “woman” because she was made from a “man”.
You can also see this untranslatable aspect of the text when Yehoash, determined though he was to make a proper and clearly understandable Yiddish bible, resorted to keeping the Hebrew word. The spirit of God was over the face of the תְּהוֹם – [t’hom]. T’hom elswere means “the deep” (bottomless abyss) and is rendered that way in most English translations. But it is also closely tied to Tohu (as in tohu va bohu) and so besides depth, also has connotation of “confusion, formlessness and waste.”
For “tohu va bohu” Yehoash gives: The earth was “wist un laydik”, which is roughly waste (or desolate) and empty. But the related t’hom is not translated as ‘wasteland’ (wisternish), nor as ‘the deep’ (tif), but instead the Hebrew word is simply given. There is no Yiddish word that means both depth and also chaos or indistinctness. The English word ‘unfathomable’ doesn’t do it either, and in any case is used only as an adjective.
Yehoash’s readers were closer to Hebrew than a contemporary secular Jewish reader or a Christian reader could be assumed to be. But it’s also legitimate to say, “this part doesn’t translate.” Again the poetic force of the work forbids putting in an entire phrase: “Well, you see, it’s deep and empty, but also chaotic and indistinct.” That’s what commentary was for. The initial pre-creation state was said to be not an empty vacuum, but also had a feeling of ruin and mess. Really? Then what created the mess? The set-up for good jokes.
I run out of time too quickly. I wanted to talk about the physicality of Yiddish prefixes and directional adjectives. Er zol fanandersheydn tsvishn vassern un vassern. And it (the firmament) will be a “from-one-another-separation” between waters and waters. You can feel the physical act of separating in the words. I will talk more about this, and the related issue of the doubling of directional adjectives later. Along with the earth “grassing out grasses”, something the Yiddish was better than English at emulating from the original, the nature of the language helps the action to feel both concrete and poetic at the same time.
Finally, I never knew what the heck a Firmament was. The Yiddish word choice here is אויסשפרייט (oysshpreyt). “Firmament” comes from Hebrew רקיע (r’kia. And thank you, Wikipedia). Where the Hebrew means ‘dome’ or ‘vault’ the Yiddish picks up on the connotation of ‘spreading out’. Better, because more visceral than the English word, ‘expanse’, it describes the dome or vault of the heavens as being spread out as one might create a plate or a bowl by spreading out clay. The firmament was believed to be a solid thing, on which the stars were hung. Yes, their astronomy was limited. But still, I’ll take an oysshpreyt over a firmament any day.
——– Postscript ———————–
[Added Sunday, 10/19] This coming week I hope that since I don’t have to write a long introduction/disclaimer I’ll have a little more time for Noakh than I had for Bereshit.
One other specific word choice I did notice at the beginning of creation was how on day six, God ersht saw that it was very good. Only now (following the creation of human beings) did he look on his work with complete satisfaction. Up to then it was just good. Even in looking at the earlier days, the question has been raised, why God would say “that it was good”, when it must have been self-evident. A Midrash says that this was not God’s first effort at creation, and this time he finally got it right. Other storytellers pointing out the double account of the creation of humans (first, male and female created he them, then he created Adam again out of dust and Eve from his rib) say that there was a first woman, Lilith, who was banished after challenging Adam for domination, and Eve was a second creation. And of course the flood story we are about to read will have a creation, followed by erasure and starting over. But even were God assumed to get it perfect every time, there is still the unfolding of creation over time, and how on the sixth day, “only now” was it very good.
To a beginner, as a Yiddish student, as a blogger, and certainly as a Torah commentator, I find this heartening. I don’t have to do everything at once, or get it perfectly on the first try. Later on the commandment “You should be holy because I, your Lord, am holy,” pointedly does not say, “perfect”.
Similarly, two weeks ago our teacher shared the saying with us: “God runs the world, but he does not run it like a Mensch.” The Yiddish proverbial God, who is so often greeted by challenge and even skepticism, disappoints us, but also takes some of the pressure off when we disappoint ourselves.