Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Lesson From Sinai: Hebrew is not beyond our reach!

During a recent discussion about the holiday of Shavuot (“Festival of Weeks” which celebrates the giving of the Torah), I asked a group of 3 and 4 year-olds why they thought the Torah was revealed on a mountain.  The students thought for a moment and then offered a variety of answers that centered around the same theme: “the Torah is so special, it needs to be kept in a safe place where we can’t touch it.”

This response is consistent with the students’ life experiences--think about the breakable artifacts preserved on high shelves and used only for ceremonial purposes.  We often do the same with bits of knowledge that feel too challenging for our comprehension (Physics for Poets, anyone?).

But that is not true of the Torah, or truth be told, the Hebrew language.  There is a beautiful collection of verses in Deuteronomy (30:11-14) that speak to this theme.  Moses gives some of his last guidance to the entire gathering of the Jewish people before his death:

“...לא בשמים היא... ולא מעבר לים” It is not in the Heavens... and it is not across the sea...

Moses wants to dispel the notion of keeping the Torah on a pedestal.  He urges the Jewish people to take ownership of it, use it until it becomes a part of them, despite any number of difficulties in observance, differences of opinion, linguistic challenges and other perceived roadblocks.

“...כי קרוב עליך הדבר מאוד, בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו”  It is very close to you, in your hearts and in your mouths to do it.  

Moses’s strategy here is brilliant; he focuses on accessibility by breaking down barriers through language:

The word is close to you”

The text uses the word “davar,” often translated as “thing,” but really means “word” (as in “dvar Torah”--lit: words of Torah).  Strictly speaking, Moses tells the people to use words to bring the Torah close, to express love and take it into hearts through their mouths.

Any language learner notices the significance of word choice, and in this case, the text speaks particularly strongly in favor of Hebrew knowledge.  Though one does not need to know Hebrew in order to study the Bible, an awareness of the language adds many layers of nuance to the text.

American Hebrew learners can take encouragement from this idea that Hebrew is not beyond our reach.  The more we engage ourselves with it’s use, the more we will appreciate it’s richness and depth.  The first step is to create opportunities to explore and practice our skills.  If we keep the words in our hearts and in our mouths, surely, we will gain greater appreciation for this beautiful language.