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BACKSTORY: Symbolic language key to opening the vault of meaning

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'A Rabbi Studying the Torah' by Alois Heinrich Priechenfried
'A Rabbi Studying the Torah' by Alois Heinrich Priechenfried

You cannot simply “read” Jewish source texts. In order to understand them, you need to know how to interpret their unique language.

Reading their English translation only gets through one layer of meaning. There are other layers. The authors of the Bible, prophets, megillot and Talmud wrote in imagery, poetic expressions and symbolism that need to be clarified in order for them to reveal their profound meaning.

In Why Read Talmud in the Twenty-First Century, a collection of essays I edited, Jeffrey Rubenstein analyzes a brief story from the Talmud:

A man is removing rocks from his field and putting them into the public domain when a Chassid asks angrily why he is removing rocks from a domain that does not belong to him and putting them into his own domain. Some time later, the man sells the field and stumbles on the same stones while walking. “That Chassid spoke well to me,” he says.

This is a peculiar tale. The man was removing stones from his own property and throwing them into the public domain, but the Chassid rebuked him for doing the opposite. We do not understand the significance of the event until the end of the story, when the man trips. What was his property no longer is, and the public property is filled with stones. In the final analysis, acting selfishly caused the man’s fall.

The story highlights the fact that people often feel a sense of entitlement and act in their own best interest, but concludes with the message that nothing is ever certain and circumstances change. We are all vulnerable. If we cling stubbornly to what is ours with no respect for what belongs to others  – the “public square” – then we lose perspective and cannot understand the concept of the greater good. The story illustrates how what belongs to all is what is most valuable and endures.

The famous scene in the Bible with the talking donkey is another example of how stories are illuminated through explication. In the story, the fearful king of Moab, Balak, hires a revered, pagan prophet, Balaam, to curse the Israelites and ensure their destruction. As the events unfold, Balaam fails to see an angel sent by God wielding a sword in front of him, but the donkey he is riding does, and refuses to move. Balaam strikes the donkey repeatedly before the donkey rebukes him and proclaims his innocence.

Why does the shrewd and cunning Balaam not see what the simple donkey sees?

Balaam is on a mission that he knows is wrong. Although he had been told by God not to curse the Israelites, he is seduced by greed and glory. He is frustrated at being unable to circumvent God’s command, in spite of repeated efforts. The story is not really about a donkey and an angel, but about moral blindness in the pursuit of evil deeds.

In each of these two cases, we witness a different kind of blindness. The man removing the stones does not foresee that neglecting the public good and focusing only on what he perceives to be his best interests will backfire and cause him harm. Balaam’s overwhelming desire for money and glory leads a renowned man to subvert God’s direct command. As in text, so in life. We are guilty of not seeing what is before our eyes, and even when we do, we often do not know how to interpret and understand it. These stories teach us to open our eyes.

For Jewish source texts to resonate with us today, we must understand that symbolic language is the key to opening the vault of meaning. It is easy for skeptics to dismiss texts they have not fully understood because they have read them only superficially. We are not used to struggling with a profound text and persevering until it yields its meaning. But the rewards for those who do are enormous. These stories help us gain perspective and a deeper insight into life, and assist in developing ethical and spiritual character. You don’t read any serious text, you study it.


Paul Socken is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, Ont.

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