Image: Numbers 27:1- 5 in one of the sifrei Torah at Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA. Photo by Rabbi Adar.
I read Torah at Temple Sinai this morning. While I was preparing the portion, I was reminded again just how happy I am that I learned how to read Hebrew. I learned late in life, and I still struggle with it, but it is absolutely worth the trouble. Here’s why:
Last week’s Torah portion was Pinchas. (The sun has set, it’s a new week. This morning was last week in Jewish terms.) Pinchas contains the first part of the story of the Daughters of Tzelophehad, a story I’ve written about in O Daughters, My Mothers!
I’ve studied these verses many times, but with Torah there is always more to learn. This time, preparing to read from the Torah scroll (see the photo above) the study carried me deep into the grammar of the text. (I know, sounds boring, but trust me here.)
The scroll is a close copy of the scroll from which Ezra read in Nehemiah 8. The scroll does not have nekudot – the little marks invented by the Masoretes centuries later to tell us about vowels, pronunciation, and punctuation. For those marks, I have to go to a tikkun or to a copy of the verses in Torah as in Sefaria.org.
If I’m going to read the text correctly, I have to learn which vowels to put in which places – that means I have to understand every single word of that text. (Granted, it is possible simply to memorize the sound of the words, which is what I did as a beginner, but as I age I find that it is better just to do it the hard way and actually learn each word because memory can fail me.)
These particular verses (beginning at Numbers 27:1) are tricky because the Torah is telling us a story about women. That’s fairly unusual, and the verb forms for women are less familiar because we don’t use them as much in Biblical Hebrew. It’s a nice grammatical workout.
Sure enough, the first word is וַתִּקְרַ֜בְנָה – vah-tee-KRAV-nah. It means “And they (f) drew close.” Then it hit me: this is a special word! The root of the word is kuf-resh-bet, which is the root having to do with sacrifices.The translations say something like “they came forward” but it there is much more meaning in that word. Yes, it means “come close” but it is a special sort of drawing close. The text could have had other verbs, but the fact that it uses this particular verb signals us that something special and holy is coming, something that will bring the Israelites closer to God. I have circled the word in red at the top of the image below – on the image, not on the sefer Torah!
Another example of something really special in this portion is in the other word I have circled, a tiny little word of two letters. Here is the text and translation from Sefaria.org:
כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ אֲחֻזַּ֣ת נַחֲלָ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֣י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וְהַֽעֲבַרְתָּ֛ אֶת־נַחֲלַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ן לָהֶֽן׃
“The plea of Tzelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.” – Numbers 27:7
It’s the standard JPS translation, but it waters down the meaning of the text. The little circled word, pronounced “Ken” means “Yes.” Here’s my alternate translation of the line:
“Yes! The daughters of Tzelophehad said it!* You must give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen. Transfer their father’s share to them.”
*In this case, “dov-roht” is a feminine participle from the root dalet-bet-resh. There’s no good way to get it into English without turning it back into a verb.
The whole point of the story is that God says “Yes!” when five women who are suffering from an injustice approach with a well-reasoned case. Had I been working merely from a translation the readings would be much more dignified but the passion in that “Yes!” would be missing. God rewards the women for standing up for themselves, and approves of their competence in doing so.
Feminist commentators have had much to say about this story, justly so, but in that “Yes!” I read broader meaning. When disenfranchised people bring a well-reasoned case before the legal authority, this story sets the precedent for hearing them out and finding a way to make things more fair.
In this story, God doesn’t quibble, or get defensive, or suggest that if they all got husbands it would be OK. God just says “Yes.” God then corrects the injustice by changing the rules of inheritance.
I finished my preparation of this story feeling inspired.
And yes, this is why I love studying Torah in Hebrew.
If you are older, if you are “bad at languages,” if you have perceptual quirks (aka learning disabilities) don’t let it stop you. I’m all those things, and I’m so glad I learned.