Rabbi Steve Folberg | Congregation Beth Israel, Texas, USA
All of the different translations of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, have a philosophy, a way of going about their task. And part of that philosophy is wrestling with an important dilemma: How “smoothly” should you try to convey what the Bible, or in our case, the Torah, is trying to say?
Biblical Hebrew is full of puns, rhythms, and poetic nuances, not to mention places in the Bible where even the most respected scholars aren’t sure what the Hebrew means.
At one extreme, some published English language Bibles adopt a “smooth,” easy-to-read translation that shields you from Hebrew that is difficult or obscure. At the other extreme, some Bible editions choose to festoon their text with scholarly, critical footnotes, alerting you to every quirk, every strange turn of phrase in the Hebrew, every place where even the really smart people aren’t quite sure what the text is talking about.
But there’s another approach. In 1995, a new translation was published. The translator, Everett Fox, attempted to do for the Bible in English what the great, 20th century Jewish teachers, Martin Buber and France Rosenzweig, did in their German Bible translation. Buber and Rosenzweig tried to fully reflect and even mimic the quirkiness of Biblical Hebrew in their German language translation. Everett Fox does the same thing for English readers, so as to make reading the text of the Bible, even in English, a jarring and startling experience. Fox’s odd translation may or may not please you, but it won’t leave you apathetic.
Some people love Fox’s translation, and some people find it gratuitously weird. But I want to share with you one place in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, where I think he really gets it.
Here’s the way the Jewish Publication Society Torah translation renders the verse in question:
You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children, orphans.
This is “what goes around comes around” covenantal language in its strongest form. Note that the Torah is utterly obsessed with this eternal, urgent question: How do people with power treat people who are powerless?
Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that Jewish Publication Society translation, but the way Everett Fox handles it highlights a grammatical device used here to very dramatic effect: a series of emphatic doubled Hebrew verbs. Here’s how Fox does it:
Any orphan or widow you are not to afflict. Oh, if you afflict, afflict them…! For then they will cry, cry out to me, and I will hearken, hearken to their cry, my anger will flare up and I will kill you with the sword, so that your wives become widows, and your children, orphans!
Now that’s more like it, in my humble opinion! Those amazing, doubled verbs: “if you afflict, afflict… they will cry, cry… I will hearken, hearken” says God.
Everett Fox’s translation of our verse paves the way to appreciating a gorgeous piece of Torah commentary attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. He comments:
“Three doubled verbs appear in this verse, something which is unforgettable in Scripture. The Torah wants to emphasize that there is no comparison between the oppression of an orphan or a widow and the oppression of some random person. When you do injustice to someone, when you cause them physical pain or monetary loss, they only experience the suffering of that wrongdoing, or of that pain or loss that you caused them. But if it is an orphan or widow, it’s natural that the wrongdoing or pain or loss also raises within their hearts the special suffering of their orphaned state or widowhood. The heart of the orphan weeps within him and cries out, “If my Daddy were alive this man would not have hurt me!” And so it is, too, with the widow. Therefore, the Torah said [using a series of three doubled verbs], “if you dare mistreat them (ano’ t’aneh) – [that is,] when you abuse an orphan – your abuse is doubled! Therefore, their crying out is doubled (tza’ok yitz’ak) [as well] – which is why God says, “my listening to them will also be doubled” – shamo’a, eshma!” [Itturei Torah, volume 3, p. 186].
I can’t think of any piece of Torah commentary that I love more than this one! It is so insightful, and so full of wisdom and guidance for our current situation. Although Menachem Mendel lived before the age of clinical psychology, what he is talking about here is, in a word, trauma. He understands that any kind of cruelty or oppression, individually or in our larger society, has the power to trigger intense emotional suffering in the heart and mind of any person who has suffered physical or emotional loss or abuse. They therefore feel their mistreatment more deeply, their pain and tears are even more copious, and therefore we (like God!) must listen deeply and carefully to their experience.
Our world is full of widows and orphans, not only literally, but also metaphorically. All of us have been battered by the experiences of living through this pandemic, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel counsels that we be particularly careful and gentle with each other, mindful of our shared trauma.
Think, as well, of the many others in our midst whose “doubled” cries we are called upon to hear with doubled attention and intensity: victims of sexual abuse and harassment, those who carry within their bodies the painful emotional scars of anti-LGBTQ violence, the “invisible poor,” and so many others. All of them cry out to us, and we, like God, must hear that doubled cry.
Let our awareness of the painful memories that all of us carry lead us to be more gentle, patient, and compassionate with each other. Let it also energize us to lift up the stranger, the orphan, the widow and all the vulnerable and forgotten souls in our midst.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).