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.

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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