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Changing the world with a pen stroke

Rival versions of a classic talmudic text depict either a world redolent with carob trees or one stripped of its bounty

When I was in rabbinical school, I was not a fan of lower textual criticism, the study of manuscript and textual variations in ancient texts that were made through scribal errors, multiple textual traditions and scribes’ editorial license. I failed to grasp what was so interesting about variant readings and the detective work employed to figure out how they got there. I understood abstractly that this academic pursuit was vital to clarifying the original meaning of our most sacred Jewish texts, but I found it terribly boring, often bordering on insufferable pettiness.

As I grew older and more experienced, particularly in the study of Talmud, I came to understand the spiritual enchantment and creative edginess underlying what we call in Hebrew Hilufei Girsaot, literally the exchange of textual versions. Like Judaism as a whole, textual variations represent a chorus of multiple teachers’ and communities’ voices that reveal the different dimensions of Torah’s deep wisdom. One example of this is two versions of a rabbinic story based upon the first verse of Psalm 126. The verse reads:

Shir Ha-Maalot/B’shuv Adonai/ Et shivat Tziyon/Hayyinu K’Holmim.

A Song of Ascent/When Adonai restored our exiles to Zion/We were like dreamers.

The Talmud tells the story of the legendary Honi, whose intimacy with God allowed him to force the divine hand during times of drought in Israel, thus insuring that rain would fall. When Honi read this first line of Psalm 126, he wondered to himself: the Jewish people spent seventy years exiled in Babylonia. This verse implies that we were sleeping and in a dream state for all those years, when God decided to bring us home to the land of Israel. Is it possible that someone could sleep for that long? Honi then began to wander around the countryside, until he came upon a man planting a carob fruit tree. “How long does it take for a carob tree to bear fruit?” he asked the man. “Seventy years,” he responded. Honi was non-plussed. “Why would you bother to plant that tree? You will never get to eat its fruit, for by the time it grows you will be dead,” Honi retorted.

According to standard printed versions of the Talmud, the man responded to Honi in the Aramaic language: Hai gavra alma b’haruva ashkahtei: “When I came into the world, I found it full of carob trees. As my ancestors planted for me, I will plant for my descendants.” Honi then sat down to rest under a tree, and he fell asleep for seventy years. When he awoke, he thought he saw that same man eating fruit from the tree. “Are you the man who I saw planting this carob tree?” Honi asked. “No,” the man famously replied, “I am his grandson.”

Here is where the variations in textual versions make our intriguing story that much more interesting. A different version of the story records the man’s response to Honi in the following way: Ana alma hariva ashkahit. “When I came into the world, I found it in a state of destruction. As my ancestors planted for me, I will plant for my descendants.” These two versions of the man’s response are radically different, yet in Hebrew they hinge merely on the letters Yod and Vav. These two letters look exactly the same, except for one tiny fraction of a line that changes Yod to Vav, or vice versa. The Aramaic word, haruva, means a carob tree. The nearly identically written word, hariva, means to be destroyed.

Not having listened well enough in rabbinical school, I am not sure I could tell you definitively how these two versions came to be. Yet, what matters here is that they are saying two very different things about the world, the way we find it and the sacred tasks we have in it for the time we are alive.

Each of us comes into a world which is haruva. Like those carob trees, it is full of blessings, none of which we did anything to create or deserve, yet which now belong to us. Many of them are the legacies of love handed to us by people who came before us. They planted for us out of gratitude and concern for future generations. We must do likewise.

Simultaneously, each of us comes into a world which is hariva. It is full of destruction and desolation, none of which we did anything to create or deserve, yet which now belongs to us. Much of this destruction is the legacy of past generations, but there are also those who came before us who responded to this legacy of misery by building and healing in small yet significant ways. They literally planted trees or planted the seeds of community, justice and peace, out of concern for future generations. We must do likewise.

Making the shift from hariva, life in a world full of destruction, to haruva, life in a world full of blessing and growth, can be so difficult, that we despair of ever succeeding. This tiniest of textual versions that we examined – a mere pen stroke – changes one letter and all meaning. It reminds us that instead of despairing of the huge things we cannot do, it is the seemingly tiny things we do, which can make all the difference.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in 2019.
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