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Torah is Poetry

10/31/2019 01:20:11 PM

Oct31

“Autumnal” feels almost onomatopoetic. I can see the leaves tumbling through the air as I say the word.

The opening words of Genesis are alliterative — b’reshit barah — and the description of the world before God began ordering it is an ancient onomatopoeia — tohu vavohu. To say the words, you need to mimic the divine wind howling through the chaos of pre-creation. Before it rained for forty days, NoaH had found grace (HeN) in God’s eyes. (Remember, the Torah has no vowels.) The anagram presages the newly ordered world reverting to tohu vavohu.

The Greeks mocked anyone who couldn’t speak their language as a “barbarian.” If it wasn’t Greek, to them it sounded like “bar, bar, bar.”  We were less ethnocentric. After God confused (balal) the language of all the people who tried to build the Tower of Babel, every person considered the language of the other “babble.”

It’s impossible to fully appreciate the Torah without knowing Hebrew. It’s equally impossible to fully appreciate the Torah if we read it as prose or as science or as history. The Torah is poetry. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) was the head of the storied Volozhin Yeshiva for nearly 40 years. He taught his students that the Torah, even in its narrative and legal sections, is poetry; and like poetry, the Torah resists any single interpretation.  

A key metaphor for our sages was: “Why is Torah compared to a breast? Just as a nursling who returns to the breast continues to find milk, so does the person who meditates on Torah continue to find new meaning therein.”

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781