Friday, March 09, 2007

Literary Devices in Ki Tisa

To paraphrase one of my teachers, the Torah is much more than excellent literature, but it is at least that. By examining the words of the Torah through a literary scope, one can gain a much deeper appreciation for the beauty and inspiring technical design that went into it. For example, in Gen. 2:25-3:1, we find the word ערום twice, one after the other. The first means 'naked', and refers to the naive pair of humans, while the second means 'wily', and refers to the scheming snake. The juxtaposition of the innocent, guileless man and wife and the crafty snake, is powerful. It is enhanced by the use of precisely the same word to describe each, with each usage highlighting a different variant meaning for that word. It is as if the text itself becomes wily and crafty, foreshadowing the snake's malicious and devious strategy. This kind of verbal irony mingled with alliteration is very successful at immediately changing a light, care-free mood into a grim and portentous tone.

In this week's portion, we again find this literary device. In 32:17, Yehoshua meets Moshe as he descends the mountain, and says, 'the sounds of war are in the camp.' In the next verse, Moshe responds: "אֵין קוֹל עֲנוֹת גְּבוּרָה, וְאֵין קוֹל, עֲנוֹת חֲלוּשָׁה; קוֹל עַנּוֹת, אָנֹכִי שֹׁמֵעַ." 'Those are no sounds of victorious battle cries, nor sounds of defeated cries for retreat; I hear the cries of strife.' The word ענות in the context of this verse is used three times, but means two different things. In the first two instances, it is a nominalized verb whose root is the qal form of .ע.נ.ה, meaning 'answer'. This is translated hear as meaning 'battle cry'. Units of armies would sometimes find out the status of their fellow units by listening to hear if the battle cries were victorious ones, or ones of retreat. In this case, the infinitive would be of the form לִלְמׂד, or לְמׂד. However, since the פ of the root is an ע, the shwa becomes a chataf-patach. There is no dagesh in the נ because the word is essentially in qal.

However, the third instance of the word is not the same. There is a dagesh in the נ, which is a marker for piel. The ע is pointed with a patach which further shows that this is a nominalization of a piel verb. The meaning is thus the piel of .ע.נ.ה, which is 'torture or cause pain or strife.'

The use of this literary strategy hearkens to the usage mentioned in Gen 2:25, and provides an undercurrent of movement beneath the surface of the text of the story. The tone and mood of the story-line is changed by literary usages while the story plays iteself out. The result is a text which is subtle and nuanced. Much of the beauty and artistic creativity of the Torah is best recognized when taking a moment to re-connect to the Torah as a Divine literary creation.

J.G. Herder (quoted in Phillip Birnbaum's translation HaSiddur HaShalem) once commented, "It is worth studying the Hebrew language for ten years in order to read Psalm 104 in the original." He was referring to the poetry and native lyric that can only be appreciated in Hebrew. Translations of the Bible, even when they comprise dramatic literary accomplishments in their own rights, are only dim shadows of the drama and breathless beauty that the native Hebrew Bible contains. The original uncovers some of the immortal perfection that is usually hidden in our natural world.