Image: Part of the story of Joseph in the Torah Scroll.
Whenever we reach Parashat Vayeshev, this week’s portion, I can taste tuna fish. That may seem like a weird association, but this portion is linked in my heart to the lunchtime study group in which I learned to read Biblical Hebrew.
Like most adult learners in the US, my Hebrew studies started with the Aleph-Bet and “Prayer Book Hebrew,” the prayers in the synagogue service. There’s a giant step from knowing what the prayers say to reading the Torah, and Rabbi Steven Chester chose the Joseph story to carry us across that chasm in 1997.
Each week we had a short passage to translate. We were supposed to translate the whole thing, but each of us was responsible for “our” verse, meaning that each of us knew ahead of time exactly what we, personally, would translate aloud. We were a group of middle-aged learners, bobbing our heads to find the sweet spot in our progressive lenses in order to see the text.
Rabbi Chester was patient and kind, never shaming anyone. That was good, because I had no natural gift for it, and my translations were awful. I would go to class thinking “this CAN’T be right,” and sure enough, it wasn’t. Rabbi used our mistakes to review grammar or to show us (again) how to break down a word to find it in the dictionary.
Our glacial pace through the text meant that we studied it deeply, noticing the choices about grammar and the repetition of certain words in the text. It was my first taste of learning a text on that level: word by word, even letter by letter. I was enchanted.
Sometimes Rabbi Chester enriched our study by showing us a midrash on a particular scrap of the text. This was also his sneaky way of introducing us to the glories of midrashic texts and rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, since he always gave us those texts in both the original and translation. We’d read the translation, but the original words would wink at me, promising more: more meaning, more depth, more nuance.
That class marked the beginning of my love for text study. It met Wednesday at lunchtime for years, and now as a teacher myself I marvel at his chutzpah and patience in leading us into that tangle of grammar and vocabulary. It was an unusual and bold way to teach Biblical Hebrew. It was also a brilliant choice, because the powerful current of the narrative kept us going. Who could quit, halfway through that story?
By the time we came to the end of Genesis 50, my translations were less ridiculous, and I felt confident enough to tackle other parts of Torah on my own. I learned the most important lesson for Hebrew study: stick with it long enough, and it will begin to sink in.
Foolish, feckless Joseph grew up to be a tzaddik, and I had begun to grow towards becoming a rabbi. And every year, when we read this narrative again, it stirs old memories of sitting around a table, munching our lunches and puzzling out the mysteries verse by verse.
Thank you, Rabbi Chester.