Sermon for Shabbat 25 July 2020 – Devarim

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 27 July 2020

In one of the wars between David and the Philistines, the Philistines capture the Ark. In Biblical terms that’s the equivalent, or worse, of a medieval army losing the King’s Standard in battle. It was a loss of honour, a national and – in the case of the Ark – a religious humiliation. Hence the jubilation when David recaptures the Ark and brings it in triumph back to Jerusalem. Michal, David’s wife, looks out of the Palace window, and sees David dancing and celebrating in the street, caught up in the emotion of returning the Ark to its rightful place. When David goes home, Michal berates him for having made a spectacle of himself in the streets, accusing him of “exposing himself in the sight of the slave-girls of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself.” (2 Samuel 6:23) The episode concludesוּלְמִיכַל בַּת־שָׁאוּל לֹא־הָיָה לָהּ יָלֶד עַד יוֹם מוֹתָהּ: The 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation reads: “and Michal had no child until the day of her death.” The 1978 translation, however, reads, “so to her dying day, Michal had no children.”

There is, of course, a world of difference between the two. “And Michal had no child” simply makes a statement of fact. But “so Michal had no children” contains an implicit, maybe even explicit, judgement of Michal. “So” feels like ‘therefore.’ Her childlessness appears like a punishment for having criticised David’s behaviour.

In Hebrew a lot can hang, not even on a single word, but on a single letter – as here. It’s that letter vav at the beginning of the verse. Classical Hebrew has a small vocabulary, so every word, even letter, often has to serve a wide range of purposes and meaning. Vav does mean ‘and’ – but it can also mean ‘so,’ ‘then’ ‘however,’ therefore,’ ‘now,’ ‘but’ and so on.

Which means that a translation is, by definition, unavoidably an interpretation – because when you move from one language into another, there might be two or three possible words you could use to translate the word in question. What you finally end up choosing will be determined by how you understand the text – as was evident in those two translations about David and Michal.

Words have always been very much of the essence of Jewish thinking. Indeed, ‘words’ is the English name of this week’s sidra, devarim.

How we translate something shapes, and is shaped by, our theology. Saying “so Michal had no children” implies a cause-and-effect relationship between what she said and what happened to her. Few of us, I imagine, I hope, would find that an acceptable theology.

But that’s the trouble with only looking at a translation – how we understand the text is determined for us by the translator, by how they understand the text and what words they choose in their translation. When you stay with the Hebrew, with that little letter vav, for example, with all its variant possibilities, we have to wrestle with questions of cause-and-effect, meaning and so on – rather than having the translator tell us.

Without ambiguity, most texts become boring. You can’t read a Mills and Boon romance, I imagine, more than once – maybe not even once…. The meaning is clear and there’s little point or enjoyment in reading it again. That’s why Mills and Boon isn’t great, classic literature, but Shakespeare, Moliere, Dostoievsky or the Bible are.

It’s that very ambiguity in the text that leads us to puzzle over the meaning, the motives of the characters and so on.

15 years ago, we had a big discussion in the Assembly of Rabbis when we were putting this siddur together about whether or not to include transliterations. As something of a Hebrew grammar anorak, I was initially against including them. I was so in love with Hebrew that I thought there would be no incentive to learn to read it if there were transliterations. But I came to see that transliterations help people stop being passive spectators in synagogue, feeling almost like strangers in a place where they should feel at home. Those of you who came to this country from another language, or who have lived abroad and learned another language, know how important just the very sound of a language is.

But of course it goes deeper than that. If you want to understand what your Judaism is really about, you can’t do it in translation. English is largely based on Greek, Latin and Anglo-Saxon, on the ways of thought, the philosophy, implicit in those languages. Moreover the influence of Christianity on English is, not surprisingly, enormous. There’s a world of difference between the English word ‘charity’ and the Hebrew צדקה. Each carries its own particular bundle of overtones and undertones. If you don’t know what the word represents in Jewish thought, you will, inevitably, see it through spectacles tinted more by Christianity than by Judaism. This is no criticism of Christianity but a plea that we as Jews take the responsibility of grasping Jewish ideas as they have been mediated to us by Hebrew through centuries of Jewish teaching and practice. The same would apply to any number of key ideas in Judaism: tefilah rather than prayer; Torah rather than law; shalom rather than peace, emunah rather than faith or belief and so on.

Devarim “words” – just words? When I first encountered Reform Judaism in my mid-teens, I came from the world of the davenners and shockelers. I could daven and shockel with the best of them. But I had little idea what the words I was racing through meant.

But when I began to learn what some of those words meant the service became so much more of a 3 dimensional experience for me. Simply understanding some of the Hebrew can make an enormous difference to the feeling of being at home in a service.

But of course knowing Hebrew doesn’t automatically resolve the difficulties we might have with prayer. They don’t arise, essentially, because we don’t know Hebrew or because we only get the meaning as it comes filtered to us via a translation and the translators ‘imposition’ of meaning on the words before us. They arise because we have questions about God, about just what do we understand is going on when we say these devarim these words.

Knowing Hebrew doesn’t make our doubts and questions go away – but what it can do is to put them in another context, in a continuum of understanding, putting us in a place where countless generations before us have stood and giving us the tools – if we want to pick them up – to grapple with the questions. They too had their doubts and questions. But when you, we, are on the ‘inside,’ as it were, those doubts and questions assail us in a different way, enabling us to live with them, to struggle with them – to be able, in this case, to be in an act of prayer and still, nevertheless, be able to say these devarim, these words with some measure of personal integrity.