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Hafakh ba, v'hafakh ba, Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught. Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it, and through it you will perceive clearly, grow old and gray in it and do not depart from it, for there is no better pursuit for you than it. (Avot 5:25)
It is, indeed, a practice I engage in, encountering the text over and over, seeking each time to gain a better understanding of its meaning. However, there are different ways of going about this, and not all of them are a productive as others. Sometimes, it might even be an impediment.
This year, I had trouble just getting past the first word of our parasha, Va'etchanan. This open word is an odd verb form. It's an reflexive form of the verb root khet, nun, nun-sofit, to show favor or be gracious, in the imperfect masculine singular, with the initial vav reversing the tense. There will be a short test on all this later. In any case, it's a tricky idea to translate. "I favored myself." "I was gracious to myself." There are many possible ways to interpret this one word. I found myself pondering on this for hours on end. I consulted all my reference books, assorted commentaries, et al in an attempt to understand the concept that was trying to be conveyed with the use of the verb in this particular form. I spent so much time on it, that I didn't get to study the parasha much beyond that first word.
While there can be great reward from the effort of focusing narrowing on a single letter, or word, or pasuk, have we any chance of perceiving the whole of Torah if we spend so much time on one small part?
Of course, maybe that's the whole point. If we revere Torah as Gd's teaching, the surely we must come to understand that, like Gd, perhaps we can never know Torah in its entirety. It may be beyond human capability.
This idea, of course, seems to conflict with what the torah itself teaches later in the book of D'varim, "lo bashamayim hi," the Torah is not in heaven. The rabbis teach us that this means that, with the giving of the Torah to Israel, Gd is through issuing commandments. We'll speak more about this when we reach Nitzavim again this year.
Yet we are not taught that you WILL understand, we are taught that we CAN understand. And the implication is that we must therefore make the effort to try and understand.
So we're left with the struggle between methodologies. I hesitate to simplify them in terms like "quantity" versus "quality" as I'd like to think that all study of Torah is a matter of quality, and not of quantity. Yet there is a lot of Torah to learn.
While there is certainly reward in the effort I have put in to understanding this one word, I also realized that, in this particular cases, maybe there was little need to re-invent the wheel. After all, the scholars who assembled the JPS and other translations basically seem to agree on a simple and plain meaning (though as we know, often the Torah hides layers and layers of meaning underneath the surface ones.) And one primary reference source matter-of-factly states that some times verb form, known as hitpael, can simply indicate "an active meaning." (BHRG)
Still, somehow, the scholars push and tug at the form and render it, most often, as "I pleaded." (Just to give it some content, this is Moses yet AGAIN pleading with Gd to let him enter the promised land, and Gd cutting him off with a quick "enough already." Need I comment further? A yes, there is double-entendre here.)
So, the question I am asking myself is (and how appropriate that all this is centered around a verb in reflexive form,) should I simply say that this cigar is just a cigar, so that I might press on and glean yet even more for this parasha-which, as I have often complained, is almost too rich. I think perhaps they could have made divided thing sup a bit differently, and not put so much "good stuff" in parashat Va'etchanan," which includes the sh'ma, and the restatement of the Aseret HaDibrot, the ten things, words, commandments, choose your translation? Is it OK, even if I don't really believe this cigar is just a cigar, to just accept that it is for the moment so that I might press on? Or has the exercise of focusing on trying to decipher meaning from this one word been worthy enough that I should stick with it, and consider in the future using the same technique, even at the risk of ignoring other worthy words of text in the same parasha?
Some might say the point is moot, since I've written my musing. But Shabbat awaits, and more Torah study will happen. I'm not a gambling man, but, if I were, I'm not sure what odds I might give on whether I'll read on or stay stuck on this first word. If you're interested in the outcome, just ask me after Shabbat, and I'll let you know.
So how do we know when a cigar is just a cigar, and when it is something else? Freud never figured it out. (Then again, we're speaking of someone who has a real odd theory about who Moses really was.)
So, is this musing a cigar, or isn't it?
©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some previous musings on this parasha
Va'etchanan 5758-63--The promise (It's a yearly ritual)
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