Posts Tagged ‘ambiguity’

Which is better? A or B?

Monday, November 16th, 2009

This week’s portion, Toldot, contains the following verse:

"And G!d said to [Rebekah], ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be dispersed from your insides. And one people will be mightier than the other people, v’rav va-avod tza-ir.’"(Gen. 25:23)

Most people read the Hebrew to mean "the elder will serve the younger," but in fact the structure of the Hebrew may also be taken to mean "the elder, the younger will serve." R’ Richard Friedman teaches in the name of R’ David Freedman:

Like the Delphic oracles in Greece, this prediction contains two opposite meanings, and thus the person who receives it – Rebekah – can hear whatever she wants (consciously or unconsciously) to hear.

Commentary on the Torah, pg. 88

The heart of the matter arises from the fact that Biblical Hebrew has a structure that contains a high degree of lexical ambiguity: things may have more than one meaning at the same time. This arises not just out of the lack of vowels and punctuation in Torah (although these omissions enhance the ambiguity), but out of the fundamental structure of the language itself. For example, the subject and the object can each precede or follow the verb!

In the case of our verse, most people get stuck trying to figure out which meaning God intended. Which one is correct? Is Esau to serve Jacob, or is Jacob to serve Esau?

The answer comes only when we allow ourselves to move beyond the question of which option is right.

What we must do is take the phrase literally, at its deepest level of meaning: namely, G!d spoke ambiguously to Rebekah. G!d’s message to her was:

"v’rav va-avod tza-ir – One of your sons will serve the other, and I’m not going to tell you which."

This ambiguity runs rampant throughout Biblical Hebrew, and therefore throughout our theology. It forces us to view the world from an entirely different perspective, albeit a difficult one. It forces us to realize that we live in a world in which opposites can be true at the same time.

It turns out that this same ambiguity lives at the heart of our physical universe, with the interesting corollary that it is only when we observe something that the ambiguity dissolves.

Or, theologically speaking, it is only when we exercise our free will that the murkiness lifts.

Just as Rebekah is given a choice by G!d to influence the outcome of her sons’ lives, so are we given choices: not to ultimately decide, but to influence. To work toward the creation of a reality that has the shape and substance that we desire.

Indeed, rather than spending our time trying to figure out exactly what was said, we should be spending our time in action (not inaction), as G!d’s partners in the eternal moment of Creation.

What a tremendous gift!