Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Torah Study would be easier if I knew Hebrew

I'm leading Torah Study in a couple weeks for Parsha Bo (the portion that covers the last three plagues and the exodus from Egypt), so I was reading it online at work today during my lunch break. I get an hour for lunch and I spent the whole time doing this:

This was my attempt at figuring out the Hebrew word for "harden," as in "God hardened Pharaoh's heart." Since I don't actually know Hebrew (I'm working on that), I try to read the portion with multiple translations. I have three different translations at home (JPS, WRJ Women's Commentary, and Robert Alter), plus the Chabad.org translation that I linked to above. I don't always read them all every week or I don't think I would do anything else, but in preparing to lead the discussion for Bo, I am trying to read them all. I have seen "hardened Pharaoh's heart" translated a number of ways in the different translations of the Torah, including "made heavy," "strengthened," "stiffened," and "toughened." Usually when I want to figure out what a word is in Hebrew, I find the word in English in two different verses and then compare the Hebrew to look for words that look the same.

Above, I wrote out Exodus 10:1 ("Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst") and Exodus 10:20 ("But the Lord strengthened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go out"). I know some words in Hebrew, like: God, Pharaoh, I, and, to, for, and so that.  Sometimes I use the internet to translate a word for me and sometimes I guess based on context clues. When all that fails, I ask my rabbi-in-training friend, Noah, to translate.

This convoluted attempt at Hebrew text study usually works in the limited way that it can, but today it didn't. As it turns out, the two verses I chose don't even use the same Hebrew word to express the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. The word with a question mark above it in my translation of verse 10:1 is hichbad'ti, which Noah (after I gave up and asked him - thanks Noah!) says comes from the root meaning "heavy" or "to burden." The first word in 10:20 is vaychazak which is basically "to strengthen." This translation is also from Noah, though I should have recognized it from the chant when we finish a book of the Torah "Chazak chazak v'nitchazek" which means "Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened." Ah, the fun of Hebrew. I guess my next step is to see where chazak is used and where hichbad'ti is used and try to see if there is any pattern behind using two different words for the same general sentiment. More to come on that idea if the theory pans out. Either way, I can use the different language to add to the discussion I am sure we will have about why God hardens Pharaoh's heart.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

World Trade Center

The World Trade Center site is the quietest place in New York.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Letting Go

This is mostly going to be a post about my sorority, but it fits in so nicely with the end of Genesis that it seems appropriate for my blog.

*Note: In comparing my experiences with my sorority to those of Jacob, his sons, and the House of Israel for generations after that, I am attempting to relate the Torah to my life. I don't mean to put the story of the Israelites entering and leaving Egypt on the same plane as collegiate sorority drama. This should be obvious, but just in case.

Summary of Vayechi, this week's Torah portion and the end of the book of Genesis:Jacob has spent the majority of Genesis building a large family clan, thus kick-starting God's repeated promise of uncountable descendants. Through Jacob's efforts - and the efforts of Isaac and Abraham before him - his family clan will come to be known as the House of Israel. In the preceding portions of Genesis, Joseph saved Egypt and the world from starvation, making the Israelites pretty awesome and important. Skipping ahead a bit: generations later, when these people are all gone, the Israelites will still exist, but in a radically different position. After a long period of slavery, after the Exodus, and after witnessing the power of God countless times (in the ten plagues, the pillars of fire and smoke that led them through the desert, and the revelation of the Torah at Sinai to name a few), these Israelites will not say with the degree of certainty that Jacob and Joseph did, "God exists and is watching over me" (not a direct Biblical quote). They will be a different people and yet, the same.

Jacob, in this portion, is about to die and leave his hard-earned, angel-given name (Israel) to his sons, who don't always do the right thing and may not always represent his name in a way that would make him proud. But you can't live forever and creating something that will exist beyond you has to come with the understanding that you will one day pass the torch and it will be out of your hands.

It's similar in a sorority. I am an Alpha Sig, specifically a founding member of the Theta Nu chapter. The talented group of women I called "sisters" in my time there are vastly different from those women who make up the chapter today, but we are all Alpha Sigs.

Some background information:In 2008, I joined a new organization of bright, quirky women dedicated to strength, scholarship, and service. The goal was to build this organization, ATP, into a force on campus, a home for women with shared interests in things like superheroes, tea parties, and Harry Potter. Ultimately, we strove to join a national sorority and give the women of Knox College a fourth option for Greek life.

After getting caught in the middle of a war on Greek life for two years, we succeeded in reaching official sorority status and became the Theta Nu chapter of Alpha Sigma Alpha (ASA). ASA values strength, scholarship, and service with the added bonus of encouraging spiritual, physical, and purely enjoyable pursuits. Of course, when transitioning from one organizational structure to another, some things will be lost and some added, but overall, the ideals seemed to fit and I really felt this was an organization that could carry on in place of ATP. One month after our installation as an official chapter of ASA, I graduated from Knox with the sense of accomplishment that comes from graduating and leaving something tangible behind. That organization and fantastic group of ladies enriched my experience at Knox, gave me lifelong friends, and pushed my personal growth in ways I couldn't have imagined. All I wanted was for that feeling of happiness, pride and accomplishment to touch the lives of future Alpha Sigs.
My Alpha Sigma Alpha badges
As it turns out, however, letting go is easier said than done. I want to want nothing more than happiness for my future sorority sisters, but I have this nagging feeling of ownership over something that is now rightfully theirs. After all, you can't pour two years of your life into something in the face of constant adversity and then just let it go at the drop of your graduation cap. Rationalizing to myself that organizations grow and change all the time doesn't make the news of certain changes sting any less. For example, in ATP we placed a great deal of importance on academic achievements and professional conduct. We wanted to come across as the brainy (nerdy was ok too) and organized girls. One of the great things we gained by joining ASA was the official motto of "Poise and Purpose" which we reflected in ATP, but never officially adopted. So it hurts to hear that the new body of women who make up ASA have lowered their academic standards (only one member made the dean's list last term) and that they tend to come across as loud and a bit obnoxious (not all the time, but enough that it's noticeable to me over the internet).

To by fair, this happens with sorority sisters; we get on each others' nerves. My time in ATP and ASA, while highly valuable to me overall, was also filled with times when we didn't all like each other and when being part of it stressed me out more than anything else. We had our share of obnoxious moments and times when we didn't live up to the high standards we set for ourselves. We had our share of fights, both at chapter meetings and in the privacy of our own dorm rooms. But as an active collegiate member, I had a say in the organization. If I didn't like something, I could confront it and combat it. As an alum, I can't do that. It's not my organization to run anymore. I spent the majority of my college career creating this organization, just as Jacob spent the majority of his life creating a people/family/religion.
Here's what I've learned from all this:
I helped to create an awesome organization. I did my job and reaped some of the benefits of it before graduating. Now I need to let go. In order to grow and thrive, they will have to adapt the organization to a constantly-changing campus community (after all there's a complete turn over of the student body every four years) and who am I to judge how best to adapt when I live 900 miles away and can only keep up with campus activities through the student paper?

On the other hand, in joining ASA and becoming my new Alpha Sig sisters, these women took on the responsibility of representing not only themselves and the organization in their time, but of representing the organization overall and the memory of their alumnae. In the three-year span while ATP was struggling to become a national organization, a lot of women graduated, so when it came to choosing a national sorority to join, it was our job to consider what our alumnae would want. We didn't necessarily consult them about our choices, because we understood the situation on the ground better than they would, but we did take a good hard look at the goals they set out to achieve and tried to find an organization that would reflect what ATP was when they founded it and what ATP had become under our leadership.

To any Knox Alpha Sigs who may have found this, please don't get too personally offended. I don't mean this rant as an attack on any of you. I just needed to talk it out for myself in a public setting so I wouldn't stew about it to myself.

Alpha love and mine,