One of the appealing built-in features of Judaic thought is that the Divine, known colloquially as God, has no corporal form: God is an idea: abstract, meta-physical, impossible for accurate depiction. Funny thing is, if you read the Torah in its original Hebrew, God is very physical: has a hand, a nose, a behind – and very clearly in this week’s Episode ‘Bhalotcha’ – a mouth, presumably big. But you wouldn’t know this seemingly ‘pagan’ concept from any of the translations into other languages. Consistently, and for thousands of years, translators have worked hard to hide this notion of the literally oral transmission of revelation, opting for abstract terms that mask the original. More is concealed here than just a word.
The Book of ‘In the Wilderness’, chapter nine, verse twenty three, for instance, narrates the procedure by which the people Israel went about the ongoing business of wandering in the desert – this is the King James version: ‘At the commandment of the LORD they rested in the tents, and at the commandment of the LORD they journeyed…’
The word ‘commandment’ translates the original Hebrew word ‘pi’ – ‘mouth’ (pronounced like the letter ‘P’). This translation is too radical for modern translators, as, for instance the Artscroll Torah translates this as ‘According to the word’, or the Fox version is ‘By order’. The classic Aramaic translation Jonathan Ben Uzziel extends the image in a very tantalizing and complex way: ‘By the mouth of the Word of the Lord they encamped’.
How complex the business of transmitting (or translating) the sacred wisdom – so much that such a rich image is concealed to be covered up by veils and metaphors. This is a fascinating example of how evolution is so much part of theology, philosophy – and translations, each influencing the other.
The interesting thing about the word ‘pi’ is that it doesn’t only mean ‘mouth’ but also ‘edge’ as in ‘the edge of a sword’. ‘The mouth of the sword’ is not idiom that exists in English, but it does repeat, dripping with blood, throughout the Torah – and the double edge of this word’s multiple meaning was probably not lost on the original Tellers and listeners of Torah. God’s word = lethal weapon.
Oy. To soften this sharp image, the next passage in the Torah goes musical – linking the divine command not to war – but to the blast of trumpets. Chapter 10 describes how the people Israel knew when to pack and when to park – they heard the blast of two ceremonial sliver trumpets. This ancient and elaborate public-address system was conducted by the Levites who were (supposedly) signaled by Moses – who got the OK from the very mouth of God. And since you gotta use your mouth to blow a trumpet, we like to imagine that good folks of the ancient People Israel, no theologians, happily assumed that God sounds like a trumpet, delivering them their marching orders. It’s a stretch – but not really. Surely music, symbolized here by the trumpets, is an element that gets us going on or settling down – markers on our journeys. From shofar to Oboe and all in between – music is one of the more powerful paths we have to savor the sacred, to ‘hear’ the divine.
‘pi’ as ‘word’, ‘mouth’, or ‘sword’ is merely a portal, yet another opening into a vast wilderness of wandering and wondering, which still goes on, and is to be continued…