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.