As we near the end of Deuteronomy/Devarim and prepare to begin the cycle again, I think it’s worth taking a few moments to notice the differences between translations/commentaries. Even when the English does not appear to vary much, each translation/commentary shifts the focus slightly. Take, e.g., Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:2:

May my discourse [likchi] come down as the rain [matar],
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers [se’irim] on young growth,
Like droplets [re’vivim] on the grass. — Plaut/JPS (also Plaut/Stein)

Let my teaching [likchi] drip like rain [matar],
let my words flow like dew [tal],
like droplets [se’irim] on new growth,
like showers [re’vivim] on grass. — Fox

May my teaching [likchi] drop like the rain [matar],
may my utterance flow like the dew [tal];
like storm winds [se’irim] upon vegetation
and like the raindrops [re’vivim] upon blades of grass. — Stone

Let my teaching [likchi] drop like rain [matar],
my saying flow like dew [tal],
like showers [se’irim] on the green,
and like cloudbursts [re’vivim] on the grass. — Alter

Commentary/Translation Paths

Alter notes that se’irim is a unique Hebrew noun and that “the only thing certain about” it is that “it has to be some form of precipitation. If it is cognate with se’arah, “storm,” then “cloudburst” would be a likely meaning.” (Oddly, it seems to me, it is in the fourth line that he employs “cloudburst,” while se’irim appears to be rendered “showers.”)

Stone makes homelitical remarks: Moses wanted his teaching to penetrate Israel like dew, which is even more life-giving than rain, “because it never inconveniences anyone, as rain sometimes does.” Vegetation is strengthened by storms, just as students grow from struggling to master Torah (Rashi). And, Torah reaches learned people “like pelting, penetrating rain, and like powerful storm winds; to others, who can only understand only bits and pieces of its vastness, the Torah is like dew and gentle raindrops, even small amounts of which do much good (Sforno).”

Fox’s footnote to this verse focuses on the word “likchi,” pointing out that it literally means “what is received.”

Plaut takes a hybrid approach, making a linguistic note and a homelitical one: “My discourse” is often read as “my doctrine,” as in Proverbs 4:2 — “For I have given you a good doctrine” — which is recited at the close of the Torah service; “like droplets on the grass. So will God’s teaching nourish the soul of Israel.”

Plaut/Stein (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary) says: “Four similes in v.2 compare Moses’ words to water. Just as water is essential for sustaining life, so Moses hopes that the recitation of this message will enable Israel to ‘long endure on the land’ that they prepare to enter (32:47).”

More Watery Paths

There is no mention in these commentaries (around this verse, at least) of the significance of linking Moses with water. But consider, e.g., Moses adrift on the Nile, Moses meeting his wife at a well, Moses at the Sea of Reeds, Moses bringing forth water from the rock…. And with God often called “the rock” in Ha-azinu, it’s worth considering the effect of water on rock.

TWC notes many “gender-neutral representations of God” (I’m not convinced that “rock,” “warrior” or “eagle” are actually “gender-neutral” in this portion; but that’s another path entirely). It does not, however, explore water’s association with Miriam and with women in general or consider how women have so thoroughly disappeared from the text at this point.

Yes, it is in the life of Moses that we see the women disappear. We see the flash of their backs as they dive, like dolphins, beneath the agitated surface of the text. Where are they now, bold midwives, mothers, sisters, disobedient princesses, bitter talking-back wives. — Alicia Ostriker in The Nakedness of the Fathers (p. 138-139; bold is mine — that is simply one of my all-time favorite sentences.)

There is much to be explored in the complex, fascinating relationship between Moses and Miriam and water and Torah….

Please see Source Materials for citations.

Posted by vspatz

Virginia blogs on Jewish topics at "A Song Every Day" and manages the Education Town Hall and #WeLuvBooks sites. More at Vspatz.wordpress.com

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