I’ve begun hand-copying books of the Bible, three verses at a time. It’s an idiosyncratic version of something the three Peoples of the Book do—to gain intimacy with the word of God (and therefore Godself) by moving one’s arm and hand slowly through it. I’ve chosen to copy Jeremiah, because I’m working on a Jeremiah poem and I don’t see that it matters this time where I begin.
Today’s portion includes some well-known Hebrew wordplay: Jeremiah sees shaqed; the LORD shoqed—or Jeremiah sees an almond-tree branch, and the LORD agrees he is “watching over [his] word to perform it” (Jer 1:12). I try to shape the Hebrew in my mouth; they are so very close in sound. I try laying the senses on top of each other, and trading them, to see whether the pun is only meant in the one direction. I find myself wishing I knew how the ancient Israelites felt about almond trees.
When I was a young’un, I became fascinated by extra-sensory perception. Some of this had to do with it being the 1970’s; ESP was incredibly trendy… or maybe that’s what we could talk about on TV instead since LSD hallucinations weren’t considered appropriate. A hefty slug of my fascination, however, would be from my own sense of other-ness—in hindsight, I’m surprised I didn’t end up obsessed with the X-Man franchise. Teleportation, telekinesis, clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy… . Moving myself or others intrigued me; knowing the future in advance seemed fraught; but sharing understanding without the uncertainties of words? That’s what I’m (not) talking about! Sign me up!
I can’t tell you when I first got interested in the struggle and the joy of words. Because I can’t remember when I wasn’t holding the rope that tugs between mutual understanding and confusion. Would my multi-lingual babyhood be a part? Would my early reading have stoked my word-hunger? I can’t even recall a time when I wasn’t aware of the mysteries of translation—perhaps because my mother’s preferred Bible used its words differently than the one I was given in 3rd grade (New English vs. Revised Standard Versions). Besides, by 5th grade I myself owned two Bible editions, since I’d received a Good News paraphrase edition. (If you missed this, it was a “relevant” version designed to reach “today’s youth.” I thought they were being condescending, which ticked me off.)
But having multiple Biblical translations gave me the room to explore and play within God’s teachings that I had sensed was available. By taking a phrase or a section of story and reading it first in one English translation, then another, and yet another, I could see either consensus—all versions using the same words in the same order—or I could overlap the English on top of itself like filters over a camera lens, pulling out ever more dimensions of what we humans might possibly discover about God. Or at least what the ancestors jotted down in Hebrew for us.
Taking Hebrew is something I’ve envisioned since… well, since I was in middle school, when my Jewish friends were learning their Torah portions. In my younger years, I assumed reading in the original would bring me closer to the mind of God, just like reading St. Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince in French shifts me that much closer to the aviator’s heart. Now I’ve learned that reading ancient Hebrew has a lot in common with arriving at an archaeological dig: we know a lot, but there’s always some that we’ve lost. It’s much less like God-telepathy than I had inarticulately hoped. Still, there are qualities to reading a text in its own tongue that translation loses—my mother loves the rhymed and assonantal complexity of French poetry, something that’s almost completely unavailable in English. I’m not wrong to hunger for the source.
So this fall I come to the moment I’ve been waiting nearly forty years for. Even as I arrive, I can laugh at how I still won’t gain what I’d wanted. In’sh’allah/be’ezrát hashém, I will unwrap Hebrew words and phrasing into my English-formed brain… and I will still be automatically operating in English, the ancient words will frequently expose their meaning only through context (which, as one skilled in wordplay, offers me wide possibilities), and the mind of God will remain open to me in precisely the ways it always has—that is, through the action of the Holy Spirit, inhabiting all the spaces in between.
There is a veil across the Holy of Holies in the ancient Hebrew temple. There is a veil of non-understanding between our own mind and all the rest. Let the veil be torn; let us come heart to heart with God.
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Back to almond-branch in ancient Hebrew… several commentaries (https://www.studylight.org/commentary/jeremiah/1-11.html) note that the word translated as “almond” is translated elsewhere as “watchful” or “early-waking,” due to the almond’s flowering there in January and fruiting in March. “I see a watchful-tree” — “You’re right, I’m watching.”