There is a danger of too often stressing the limitations of translation. We always want the door to be open into Judaism instead of closed, and constantly raving that our texts can only be appreciated in Hebrew can be off-putting to those that have struggled to learn Hebrew or those whose relationship with Judaism comes primarily through other gateways than through Hebrew texts. Still, there are moments where there is a particular joy at learning or teaching something that simply cannot be seen outside of Hebrew context.
One of my favourites is contemplating the singular and plural uses of “you” in the first two paragraphs of the Shema. The first paragraph, the V’ahavta, exclusively uses the second person singular while the second, the “vayim shemo’a” uses the second person plural. Unless you are from certain southern states in the USA where “y’all” can be used or in Philadelphia where “yous” is entirely appropriate, we read both identically in English as “You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, with all your strength and with all your resources,” and then “It shall be that you shall continuously hearken to my commandments that I command you today.”
It seems subtle, but the first paragraph with the singular voice is speaking of the responsibility of teaching commandments and the second of fulfilling them, meaning that every individual has the personal mitzvah of Talmud Torah (the learning of our sacred texts and obligations) while we are collectively “judged” for how we collectively succeed or fail at bringing that into practice. Looking solely at the word “you” in English removes this delicious subtlety from our exploration of the text.
This week in Ki Tavo we can point to nearly any section of the text and go deep into interpretation around the nature of the “you” that is used in the Hebrew. One that I had never seen before comes in the first few verses. In the first two verses of the parashah we read: “When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving to you (1) as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land the Eternal your God is giving to you (2), put it in a basket and go to a place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish His name.” But this time the difference is not singular vs plural. The first italicized passage in Hebrew is “notein lecha,” second person masculine, and the second is “notein lach,” second person feminine.
Since English is a non-gendered language, we miss the opportunity to ask why this one switch in gender happens. The rest of the sentences following are exclusively second person masculine, which is the linguistic norm in the Torah when speaking to individuals in general. Seriously, the “notein lach” nearly looks like a mistake.
The usual commentators that deal with the clear meaning of texts, such as Rashi and Ibn Ezra are conspicuously silent on the gender shift. You have to get a little obscure to find commentators directly dealing with this. Rabbi David Rabinowitz-Teomim z”l, a 19th-century Lithuanian rabbi commented that the female “you” is used specifically to mean “you and not them” where the “them” means thieves and other sorts of criminals. Essentially, the “notein lach” is rendered, “When I give the land to you as opposed to those who will not wish to follow my laws.” An 18th century Yerushalmi rabbi, Haim Yosef David Azulai z”l or “the Hida,” however, delves much more deeply. He says that the switching of gender reflects the mitzvah of the verse, that of bringing the first fruits to temple, and reminds us of a woman giving birth and dedicating the firstborn to the Eternal. He further explains that because of the mutual joy between the Eternal and a woman at childbirth, thus shall be our joy at giving first fruits. He concludes by saying that the act of tilling the soil (when the produce is something that will be dedicated to the Eternal) should be done with the complete soul as in childbirth.
I think there is a profound hidden truth in this that comments accurately on our contemporary attempts to bring about relevant Judaism with passionate and dedicated community members. We no longer have a temple system that requires first fruits, but we nonetheless have our communal centers of Jewish life that have become the ersatz for the temple—our homes and our synagogues.
When we bring our toil to our Shabbat table at home or into the synagogue itself, what is the attitude of our sacrifice?
The reality is, regardless of what it is we are doing, there is nearly always something else in that moment that we wish to do. It is a product of having evolved to have our choices limited to the world around us that we can see and the survival techniques needed to exist in that place. Now I have seventeen simultaneous series that I am trying to get through on Netflix, and if I don’t get back to it, I am going to forget the storyline(s). Have we ever waited forever to get tickets to that concert or play and then while there found ourselves thinking of what was happening afterward? We are overloaded with choices which constantly bombard our “present” and our attempts to stay present in the present with the other things that we could be doing. It doesn’t mean those things are better, they are just there. Certainly, that bleeds over into our communal religious gatherings. One of the greatest honors is to be called to Torah, but how many times have we been to some shul and seen someone treat the honor as if it was a burden? At a certain time in history that aliya would have been a peak experience, to be talked about among family members to glory in the moment of public acknowledgement. Today, it is probably not more interesting than a really well-posed selfie.
Of course, I am being sarcastic and possibly even playful, but it is worth thinking of the Hida’s explanation. If our fulfillment of communal sacred obligation had the same gravity of holding a child and dedicating that child to “holy” purpose, how would we respond to our distractions in the moment? Would our minds wandering to an upcoming football game have as much power over us to wish the moment to pass quickly or would we be more encouraged to pull ourselves back into the present and be present? And then what does our communal space and what do our collective rituals and activities look like when we approach our altars with the gravity of bringing a child into the world? The beautiful thing is that Torah is talking about “you.” Which means me. Which means us.