Friday, August 21, 2015

9 Words for 9 Innings

A Word on the Word, “Word”… and other Words:
9 words to take with us to the game, 1 per inning.
August 18, 2015/5775

This past Tuesday Temple Israel went to the Holy Land of Fenway Park, 40 strong, for Jewish Heritage Night. As we gathered before walking together, I offered this quasi-irreverent D’var Torah, to  complement our peanuts & cracker jacks:

A D’var Torah is Hebrew for “a word” of Torah.  Davar means “word.”  So let’s take with us to the game a word on the word, “word” along with a few other words….

Our portion this week is called Shoftim.  It’s one the parashiyot in Deuteronomy that does not begin with the word VAY’DABER.  As in, “(God) spoke to Moses saying….”  Vay’daber comes from the same root as “davar,” which as you know now means “word.”  So the first word we’ll toss in our pocket and take with us to the game is just that – Davar.  Word.

1.  Davar. DAVAR is among the most fascinating and multivalent words in the entire language.  It means not only “word” but also thing, speech, sentence, message, report, advice, request, promise, command, decision, theme, story, reason, teaching, event, and, my personal favorite, a commandment. All of these meanings packed into the word for word.  The message is clear—in Hebrew, in Judaism, and indeed in life, the power of language measures up to concept of mitzvah, of commanded action, of doing the right thing OR ELSE…. And speaking of the “or else,” word #2:

2.  Shoftim.  Our first word in this week’s portion, shoftim, refers to judges.  God in our portion commands Moses to appoint judges.  A singular judge is a shofeit, but more often to we see another form of this word—with the same root—mishpat, meaning justice or law.  In our portion, we see this word paired with another word—a word that perhaps matters more than any other word, at least according to my own bias.  The judges, the shoftim, are commanded to judge fairly, to follow what the text calls mishpat-tzedek, a form of justice that is just plain…just.

3.  Tzedek.  Our portion commands, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.”  It’s the only time we see a doubling of a word in this kind of way.  It means, “justice, justice you must pursue (or chase after).”  Tzedek was the obsession of our prophets, the vision of the world as it should be, a world in which every human being is treated with dignity and has a fair shot and making it.  I remember growing up when tickets to a baseball game were $3.  Now the cheapest ones you’ll find – group rates – around $25 or so.  That prices out a huge segment of the population, the under-resourced who perhaps would benefit most from the recreation and sheer joy of baseball.  The very notion of tonight’s game being Jewish Heritage Night is recognition that we’ve made strides.  2-3 generations ago Jewish identity wasn’t something worth celebrating in the public eye, it was a burden that the community had to overcome.  Tzedek, justice, equality, fairness, is something that we have chased and continue chasing after. 

Enough on this week’s portion, now transitioning to the holy words of baseball. 

4.  Kana (kuf nun alef).  This is the closest word in the Bible for being fanatical or zealous.  It’s as close as we come to being a fan.  Now, I’m not saying that if you’re fan you’re insanely zealous.  But there’s some very real connection between being a “fan” and being “kana,” insanely fanatical.   I’m going to break the rules here and make the next word English.

5.  Fan. The word “fan” in English has two meanings.  The first we know quite well, deriving from the Latin word “vannus” or “ventus” meaning “wind”—to vent, to fan.  But what I’d really like to vent about is the second definition, for it’s this meaning that pertains to our game tonight. In 16th century Latin, the word “fanaticus” meant an insane person, inspired by a god.  It made its way into modern English meaning an insane extremist, or, more moderately, a devotee. And thanks to American baseball in the 19th century the word evolved further into the abbreviated form “fan.” Definition two: an enthusiast of the sport of baseball.  And, a only later, an enthusiast for sports in general.  Thank you, Oxford English Dictionary and Muhlenberg College English Department.

(Hang in there—4 more words to go, and the first pitch awaits.)

6.  B’reishit.  The very first word in the whole Torah.  It means: “In the big inning.”  ….I had to.  It’s the worst Jewish baseball joke known to mankind; if I didn’t throw it in I’d hear about it from my dad.  You can bust my chops for that one on our walk to Fenway.  Speaking of…

7.   Halicha, which means “walk.”  We’ll be walking from here to Fenway, about a 15 minute brisk halicha.  You may recognize a variant of that word “halacha,” which means Jewish Law.  That’s not accidental.  “Halacha” actually literally means “way,” a Jewish way.  Holech means walking, lalechet means to walk.  God says to Abraham, lech l’cha—Go!  (In baseball language: Play ball!)

8.  Chalat.  This is the verb for “brewing,” whether beer or tea.  A “brew” is a chalita.  The letters are chet lamed tet, which in the rabbinic period meant engaging in some process of cooking that involved boiling water.  Those same letters, incidentally, make up the verb for “to decide,” l’hachlit – a hachlata is a decision.  Now you know this word – use it carefully.  Don’t confuse chalita, a brew, with “chalcholet” – a word meaning rectum.  That’s different.

9.  This one’s devoted to all who have not listened to single word I’ve said, and to validate your boredom by giving you the opportunity to walk away saying that you learned at least 1 word: the Hebrew word for baseball.  Ready for it?  Baseball in Hebrew is…. Beis-ball.

That’s it.  9 words for 9 innings.  Batter up!  Word?



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