When I began to teach my 11th grade Honors Tanakh students the practical difference between the Hebrew vowels kָamָatz and pַatַach, I never thought I would be laying the groundwork for something far more profound than the lofty goal of higher-level Hebrew literacy.
The vowels are, despite the best arguments of your favorite Israeli relative or Hebrew teacher, not random. The Masoretes, the 9th century transcribers of the Jewish reading tradition, crafted this intricate system of sounds and signs to convey nuances of meaning often lost on the average reader. Paying attention to the details can help us understand the often subtle messaging and lessons the Torah wishes to convey.
Let’s take, for example, the story found in Genesis 18-19; Avraham excitedly welcomes three strangers with his legendary hospitality.
He lifted up his eyes and looked, and saw that three men stood opposite him. When he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the earth (Genesis 18:2)
The casual reader might ask “why would Avraham hurry to greet these individuals with such fervor?” The next verse answers this obvious question with so much subtlety you might have even missed it — the vocalization of the Hebrew word Adonai.
Adonai, often translated as “the Lord,” literally means “my Lords.” Like many references to God in the Bible, it invokes the “royal plural” like the “im” in Elohim (a name for the singular God which is also used as the plural for “gods”). Adonai, therefore, also has the meaning of something like “my gentleman,” (or more perhaps more colloquially, “my dudes’’). But how are we to know when the Torah is saying “my Lords” (as if it were the script of a Victorian–period mini-series on Netflix), or “The Lord” (as in the Creator of the universe)?
It all comes down to the vowels; the difference between perceiving divinity as opposed to mundane corporeality is left to the very distinction I taught my 11th graders— patach versus kamatz. Adonָai, when spelled with a kָamָatz, refers to God; Adonַai when spelled with a pַatַach refers to people.
When Avraham sees these three gentlemen approach, he calls out;
Adonָai (with a kָamָatz), if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not go away from your servant. (Genesis, 18:3)
Compare this with what Avraham’s nephew Lot says in the next chapter when the same group approaches him.
See now, Adonַai, (with a pַatַach) please turn aside into your servant’s house (Genesis, 19:2)…
At face value, without knowing the vowel distinction, the casual reader might believe the Lot has learned well from his uncle Avraham. He seems to greet and interact with these strangers in nearly the identical way! But since we know that he says Adonַai [with a pַatַach] and not Adonָai [with a kָamָatz], he and his uncle are clearly having radically different experiences of perception.
Where Lot sees strangers, Avraham sees God. Where Lot perceives mere corporality, Avraham perceives the essence of Divinity. It is only after these men physically save Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom, that Lot says;
Oh, not so, Adonָai (with a kָamָatz). See now, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have magnified your loving kindness, which you have shown to me in saving my life (Genesis, 19:18-19).
Only after he directly benefits from their Godliness does he begin to refer to them as Adonָai (with a kָamָatz), the Lord.
Here is the thing — divinity exists in every stranger, regardless of whether it is apparent at first sight. Avraham’s message is precisely what we need in these times of increasing societal polarization. Unlike Lot, we must not fall prey to the natural inclination to only see Godliness in those with whom we identify — those who benefit either us or our narratives about the world. Like Avraham, we must see God in everyone. When we behold a stranger or an adversary, we must recognize they have the same amount of God in them as those whom we love or care for.
Whether we disagree, wish to convince, or stand in moral opposition, we must do so in the way of Avraham. Like our revered Patriarch of hospitality, we must welcome the idea that Godliness exists in every person. It is there if you look hard enough, even if it seems as subtle as the difference between a kָamָatz and pַatַach.