I went to a fascinating class Wednesday evening. Rabbi David Seidenberg is teaching a class in Amherst, MA at the Jewish community center about Chassidut, Jewish Mystical Thought, and the Baal Shem Tov (literally: the Master of the Good Name), the name given to the founder of Chassidism. For those of you feeling lost already, stay with me, this is important.
I learned some fascinating lessons, but the most important was almost a throw away. When you study Torah or Talmud, or anything originally written in a language other than your own, there is a tendency to rely on a translation. But when you rely on a translator to help you understand the meaning of a text, you leave your understanding at the mercy of the translator.
So instead of studying the text in English translation, we studied the texts in the original Hebrew and for those of us without a working knowledge of Hebrew good enough to translate ourselves, we were given the literal meaning of each word. As anyone who has tried to translate anything knows, the literal meaning of the words are often not the meaning of the sentence or thought. And so it was with the text we studied and in studying in this way we each came to our understanding of the meaning of the sacred texts.
But the most important lesson was in a digression when Rabbi Seidenberg was talking about some peculiarities of Hebrew language. For instance, when you want to say “above”, the literal translation of the Hebrew words into English is “to above.” Each language has its own peculiarities and idioms which are often based on or reflective of the culture in which the language was developed. Thus the Inuit have dozens of words for “snow”, and I recently learned there is at least one language in which there is no number higher than 100.
What I learned that evening was that in Hebrew the words for “should’ and “will” are the same. No wonder Jews are so good at business! In philosophy I had learned that there is the assumption that “ought” implies “can.” But imagine how much you would accomplish in your life and your business if everything you should do, you actually did do.
This, I suspect, is one explanation of why Jewish ethics are concerned much less with your intention than with your actions. A few years back, when he was President, Jimmy Carter gave an interview in which he stated that he had “committed adultery in his heart.” Most Christians understood what he was saying. Christianity is very focused on what you think. Thus if you have faith, you will be saved. Many Jews on the other hand, were confused. Many of us thought you could only commit adultery by using an organ a bit further down than the heart.
Of course this begs the question of whether the language is a reflection of the value or the value comes out of the language. An interesting question, but irrelevant. All that matters is that you take action and anything that you should do, you actually will do.
The three major causes of failure are:
1. Not taking action.
2. Not focusing on one thing at a time and finishing it before moving on to something else.
3. Not following a proven path.
Well, I think we found the answer to number one. You can either start speaking Hebrew, or just act like you do. If you should do something, then you will. Period. End of story. No excuses. Go do it. Now.