Learning to Relearn an Ancient Language

Torah Portion
Nasoh, Numbers 4:21-7:89
Picture the scene. It's a cool evening in spring, people assembled around a table, and conversation is percolating. If you listen well, you can decipher voices speaking Farsi, Kurdish Aramaic, Moroccan Arabic, Polish, Yiddish, Judeo Yemeni, Hebrew and, just to be different, English. No, this isn't a conference at the United Nations – this is a typical Passover seder at my in-laws' home in Jerusalem.

Israel is a modern-day miracle, having, among many other things, successfully absorbed Jews from 103 countries who speak 82 different and discrete languages. Why do they all have to be in my family? Ikh veis nit. But at the end of the day, one language unites and merges us. It is what I affectionately call "Sinai language." And yes, though it's often spoken with the hands – we are Jews, after all – we speak it with our hearts and souls.

Sinai language is the language of our shared values and texts, it is the language of a people's common dreams and aspirations.

This week, we read of the pinnacle of blessings; the blessings uttered by the Kohanim to the people. "May Hashem bless you and keep you," it begins. But it's introduced by the command: Ko T'varachu ("Thus you shall bless"), on which the talmudic rabbis expound, "in the holy language you shall bless." In the words of a great Chasidic master, the Jewish people will be blessed through the holy language – by speaking and teaching its values – in a phrase, Sinai language.

We left Egypt as a people of Jews. At Sinai, we became a Jewish people – i.e., a people with a purpose.

We are meant to be a living Rorshach of what a world with God is to be. We are summoned to be ambassadors of purposeful and conscious living. Our language is the language of Sinai. Our vocabulary consists of sacred deeds called mitzvot, informed by Divine wisdom called Torah. Our sustained meditation on Torah, our striving to become fluent in her language is the mission and method of the Jewish people.

Reconnecting With the Sources

Listen to this bold claim of the great talmudic sage Rabbi Simlai. Every soul before it is born learns all of Torah. Upon entrance into the world an angel comes, touches the mouth of the newborn, and immediately that Torah is forgotten. It begs the question: Why learn something that will be peremptorily removed? Why absorb this new language if it will be summarily erased?

The answer, I believe, is simple. For the Jew, the Torah is not a foreign language; it is mamaloshen. The values of Torah are not alien; they are native. "Doing Jewish," as it were, is a process of reconnecting with the sources of that which makes us who we are. We are always, to use Shai Agnon's felicitous phrase, "Present at Sinai."

Sinai language is that which enables and ennobles us as Jews. As we march toward Shavuot, let us resolve to become fluent in this language once again. u

Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, and director of Jewish enrichment of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.


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