Unintentional Soul-Fail: Pursuing Connections

Leviticus/Vayikra chapter 4 opens with a “soul” involved in an “unintentional” “failure.” Vayikra: Language and Translation offers five translations, with their associated notes and commentaries. For anyone seeking a drash [investigation] point, this could be a good spot to begin: What might it mean for a soul to fail unintentionally? And what, if anything, can be done about it now that we have no sacrificial system?

In his “Seven Approaches,” Richard Israel warns beginners:

Unless you are basing yourself on a traditional commentator, stay away from forms like Microscope or Puzzle [language- and detail-oriented dvar Torah models] until you know enough Hebrew to be able to distinguish between a real nuance in the text and a mere idiosyncrasy of translation.

This is useful advise. But I’ll pass along one short-cut that I’ve found in discovering spots where commentators have for centuries discussed alternative meanings.

Variation Hunting

Step 1) Read Robert Alter’s translation/commentary, The Five Books of Moses.*

Step 2) Find a note in which Alter declares with certitude that something does not apply. See, for example, his note on Leviticus/Vayikra 4:2:

The inadvertent “offense” does not at all imply an ethical transgression but rather the unwitting violation of a prohibition (“any of the LORD’s commands that should not be done”), which, in ancient Near Eastern terms, has the consequence of generating physical pollution that must be cleansed.

As a college friend, and frightening driver, used to say about traffic signs bearing prohibitions: “They wouldn’t tell you not to do it, unless it was possible….Hold on!”

Similarly, and perhaps painfully obviously: Alter wouldn’t be declaring that something doesn’t apply unless others had been declaring that it did.

He doesn’t waste ink and effort on odd little academic points — the kind that matter only to those involved in the squabble. Instead, if Alter is specifically arguing against some interpretation of a word or phrase is warranted, it’s a good bet that there’s a strong tradition referencing whatever he says does not apply. And this brings us to…

With Whom Is Alter Arguing?

Step 3) Read another translation/commentary, preferably one associated with a particular form of Jewish practice. Could be one of the Reform* publications. Could be one from a publisher like Artscroll, intended for an Orthodox audience.

For those of us who don’t know enough Hebrew to argue with a translation one way or the other, it’s instructive to follow the many arguments that have been on-going for centuries which pop up in differing translations.

I am sure this method works with other scholars, but I’ve found that Alter’s focus on viewing the bible from a literary and historical perspective is often at odds with those published with an eye to Jewish practice and/or philosophy. And within that tension is an opening to explore….

Find out what some commentators through the ages have said about that verse and its nuances. And/or consider yourself what it might mean for a soul to unintentionally fail. One might, for example, compare the individual’s failure with that attributed to “all the community,” or — in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary* — “the community leadership”… another point of potentially interesting difference (Leviticus/Vayikra 4:13).

* Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information.

(c) V. Spatz, 2010
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This post is offered in conjunction with the Jewish Study Center’s course on “Giving a Dvar Torah” and in gratitude to Fabrangen Havurah, which encourages every participant to share and develop their Torah thoughts.

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