Thursday, May 27, 2010
Psalm for Thursday: Psalm 81, verse 6 (vs. 5 in Christian translations)
עדות ביהוסף שמו בצאתו על־ארץ מצרים ;שפת לא־ידעתי אשמע
I believe this is the most difficult verse to translate of all that I've come across so far. I looked at any number of translations, and all of them differed in significant ways. After thinking about the verse for quite some time I would like to propose the following translation:
It is a testimony that he (God) placed in Yehoseph (Joseph) when he went out over the land of Mitzrayim (Egypt); a language that I did not know I shall hear.
I still am not sure what I believe these words mean. So I am going to simply present what I have arrived at right now and hope that some of my readers in cyberspace will perhaps offer some additional interpretations:
At first, the verse seemed to refer to the previous verse, which commanded the sounding of the shofar on the new moon and full moon. This verse referred to the shofar as both a חק hok, a law not easily understood, as well as a משפט mishpat, a law that is easily understood (see my blog commentary from Thursday May 13).
Somehow this law of the shofar seems to be viewed as a testimony that God placed within Joseph. But why is this particular law seemingly implanted in him by God? One possibility is that the shofar is an instrument the sound of which symbolizes joy, freedom, battle and teshuvah (repentance/return). These were qualities that were essential to Joseph's existence and survival.
Joseph was the joy of his father's old age. He later brought joy to his father, and brothers, by being the catalyst for repentance/teshuvah when he forgives his brothers and reunites his family, including his beloved father.
As we know, Joseph was also sold into slavery and later set free when he interpreted Pharaoh's dreams. It was through this freedom that he was able to save Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. It was also his freedom that allowed him to grow personally and to gain fame. This fame, and the power that came with it, eventually enabled him to take action when his brothers came to Egypt.
Finally, the shofar is a sound of battle or war. Joseph may never have fought in a war or lifted a bow or a spear, but his life did depend on his ability to struggle and defend himself. Even though he was the pampered favorite child, he somehow survived being sold into slavery and being enslaved again in Egypt. It is possible to view this particular phase of his life was a battle which he fought and won. This enabled him to eventually become the equivalent of a general over the land of Egypt and also to use his courage and his power when he eventually faced his brothers.
In these ways the shofar was indeed a testimony of some of the qualities which Joseph possessed. But what is interesting in this psalm is that Joseph's name is written as ye-ho-seph יהוסף and not yo-seph יוסף, as it is written throughout the Torah. There are other instances in the Torah and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible where a person's name is spelled two different ways. In those instances, including Elijah and Joshua, the extra י or י–ה is interpreted as adding the first letters of the ineffable four-letter name of God) to the person's name. More simply stated, adding the letters adds God to the person's name.
Therefore, one could say that implanting within Joseph the spirit of the shofar also imbued him in an intimate way with the knowledge that his name - his being - was inextricably linked with the Divine. God was within him.
It was this knowledge of being part of God and connected to all creation through God that enabled him to go out "over" Egypt not only as a lord or vizier, but as an emissary of the Divine. He went out over Mitzrayim (Egypt), which can be translated as "the narrow or constricted places" and through his actions brought the Divine spirit to the people. In this way he released them from the narrowness and suffering brought about by the famine.
But what about the last verse: "a language that I didn't know, I shall hear"? What could this mean? Who is speaking it?
It seems to me that not the psalmist, but Joseph, is uttering these words. I imagined that perhaps these were words that Joseph heard within himself as began to recognize the Divine Presence that was within him. At the moment when he recognized his oneness with the Divine and with all of humanity, whether Israelite, Egyptian, or other, he knew on a deep level that he was one day to hear a language that was foreign to him. This language, however, was not Egyptian or any other "foreign tongue".
I believe the language, the words, that he did not know and which he was perhaps to hear in the future was the language of forgiveness and the language of compassion.
At the moment in time referred to in the first part of the verse, one could imagine that Joseph was not yet ready to utter words of forgiveness to his brothers. Nor could he ever imagine that the brothers that had nearly killed him and instead sold him into slavery could ever show compassion to anyone in their family. All they cared about themselves. And the same could really be said about Joseph up until that point.
These were words of compassion that he had never before heard from his brothers. And so he responded with words of forgiveness, which he never imagined he would speak to them.
It is the union of compassion and forgiveness that brings about the reuniting of the brothers. All this is made possible by Joseph - and, I believe, his brothers as well - letting go of their ego and instead recognizing the Divine Presence within. They then acknowledged that it was this connection with Divinity that connected them not only as brothers but as part of the human family.
Coming full circle, I believe that this experience of compassion and forgiveness, the language he did not know, is also a testimony to God's presence, as referred to at the beginning of the verse.
We all must do our best to negate the ego so that we can experience the testimony of the Divine within us as well. This can then lead us to the expression of compassion and forgiveness. It can also allow us to recognize the divinity within all humanity, whether we have thus far labeled them friend, enemy or neutral. And this, God willing, is what will ultimately unite us all in Peace שלום.
Posted by Rabbi Steven Nathan at 1:02 AM
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