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Redeeming Grammar Lessons

Nadia Siritsky
Spring 2007

(The following sermon was delivered at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, on February 18, 2007.)  
The title for my sermon today is: Redeeming Grammar Lessons. It is a title that I know would make my 6th grade teacher laugh heartily, because for most of my years at school I hated grammar. In fact I despised it ... which of course is another way of saying, I didn’t get it. I went to a school that prized grammar highly; so highly in fact, that it used corporal punishment to instill in us a healthy dose of fear, as an antidote to illiteracy. If we made a grammatical mistake, we would be forced to hold out our hands and our teacher would hit our knuckles with rulers until we saw the light. Needless to say, this was not how I saw the light. I saw the light many years later, when I began to study biblical Hebrew with a teacher whose love for Hebrew knew no bounds. As I started to learn its grammar, suddenly I saw, for the first time, the infinite beauty and light that was contained within its interweaving rules and patterns.  
My encounter with Biblical Hebrew, thanks to my teacher, redeemed my relationship with grammar. And so, on Transfiguration Sunday, I wanted to share this — admittedly minor — story of redemption with you. Not simply because it was through a conversation, most likely in Biblical Hebrew, with Moses and Elijah, that Jesus was transfigured, but because it seems to me that every story of redemption, no matter how minor, testifies to the potential for miracles in our own lives. Through my teacher, my fear and hatred of grammar was transformed into a love so deep that the grammatical paradigms of the Hebrew language have etched themselves into my theology.  
Hebrew Letter Vav  
Take for instance the Hebrew letter Vav, a seemingly simple letter that looks like a straight line and that means simply, “And.” Every verse in the Hebrew Bible contains it, often repeatedly. Jewish mystics have suggested that this connecting letter Vav, that links ideas together, serves a special mystical function, namely to link together Heaven and Earth in a straight line. The letter Vav is also the central letter in God’s ineffable name that is made up of the letters Yud, Hay, Vav and Hay.  
But the reason why I want to share with you the lessons of the letter Vav, today, on Transfiguration Sunday, is that Vav has a special role in Biblical grammar. When it is placed next to a verb, it transforms the verb from past tense to future tense, or from future to past. It is called “Vav-conversive” because of its capacity to transcend time and to transform one tense into another. And I submit to you that this letter, which dwells at the heart of God’s name, is the essence of transfiguration. Certainly, for me, it was its discovery which redeemed grammar. And it is because Hebrew grammar is a biblical means for alchemy, that I have chosen to share with you some of my reflections on the Hebrew language that seem particularly appropriate for this day.  
It is a unique honor and blessing for me to have been invited to come and speak with you this morning. It seems to me that it is a powerful statement of openness, of faith and trust, that I, a rabbi, can stand here in this church and preach to you the word of God as I understand it. I want to begin with a moment of gratitude, witness to the act of hope whereby, even in a world where one faith stands up all too readily to defend itself against another, fearfully erecting walls and casting stones, there are others who are actively engaged in the sacred task of building bridges across gaping spaces in order to forge connection.  
Teaching or Truth  
There is a Hebrew blessing that Jews recite before they study Torah. Torah means teaching or truth, and refers not only to the Pentateuch, but to all forms of learning that are based upon it. The blessing for learning is:  
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu la’asok bedivrei Torah.  
Blessed are You, Lord God, whose Powerful Presence fills this universe, who makes us holy with commandments and commands us to engage with words of Torah.  
I understand from this, that I have been commanded to engage with words of Torah, to seek them out and to wrestle with them, to be in relationship with these words and to let them reveal pathways to the Holy One of Blessing. Put another way, the careful attention to words, and the forging of a shared language, is central to any relationship of value. And, as I stand here today, I am grateful for the opportunity to fulfill this commandment in a new and unique way. Thank you.  
Another word for the gratitude that I feel is awe. Awe is something like the imprint that is left upon us when we have been in contact with the Sacred. God told Moses: You cannot see My face, but you can see after Me: namely the visible imprint of your encounter with Me will radiate upon your face. And indeed the book of Exodus recounts that after receiving revelation, Moses returned from the mountain, his face radiant with Light. The Hebrew word for radiant used is “Karnei” which has been mistranslated for years as horns, because the word in Hebrew for ray, as in ray of light, is the same as that used for horns. From this mistranslation came the idea that Moses, and indeed Jews in general, had horns. Clearly, how we translate a word can make a world of difference. Thus, there is a sense of deep awe that is interwoven in the sacred and challenging task of reading the sacred words of a text and transforming them into a sermon, which in its essence is really the beginning of a conversation between us that was in fact begun long before any of us were ever born.  
Awe Has Layers of Meaning  
The word awe has many layers of meaning, in that it contains both a sense of amazement (as in the word awe-some) and a sense of fear (as in awe-full). The Bible preserves this dual meaning in its phrase Yirat Adonai: often translated as the fear of God, but referring also to awe. One medieval Jewish commentator noted that this is not the kind of fear one might have before a scary teacher, rather it is the kind of fear a lover might have when standing before his beloved, lest anything come to mar their joyful union. And it seems to me that awe is an appropriate context for the building of relationships, in that it is the foundation of trust. The sense of wonder and joy, discovery and transcendence that can blossom from our connections with one another, must be balanced by a respect and concern not to overstep our boundaries. For me, this dual sense of awe, which is both trepidation and wonder, is intimately tied to my preaching about a sacred text that is not my own, namely the Gospel of Luke. As a bridge between trepidation and wonder, I have chosen to reflect on its insights through the lens of the Hebrew language.  
As I thought about this sense of awe, my mind reflected on the Hebrew root of the word for awe, Yirah, which is related to the word Roeh meaning “to see.” This Hebrew connection imparts a powerful teaching: namely that vision, true vision, where we see one another and allow ourselves to be seen by the other, is central to this feeling of awe. How often do we see those we are in relationship with for who they really are, as opposed to who we need them to be or who we were told they were, or — more compelling still — who we wish they could become... And how often do we dare show our true selves to others, or even to ourselves?  
Yet, when we see the person standing before us as someone other than ourselves, we recognize that we must encounter that person without any assumptions, projections nor trans-ferential feelings. This is a difficult task, but it is a sacred task, because when we become conscious of our differences, we open ourselves up to learning, about ourselves, about one another and about facets of God that we did not yet know. For each of us was created in the image of God, and in each person’s uniqueness rests a spark of Divinity that is unlike any other. Thus, in the space where one person ends and another begins, rests revelation. When we recognize our human limits, we are given the gift of encountering the One without limits.  
When Two or Three Are Gathered  
Both Jewish and Christian sacred scripture teach that when two or three are gathered together and fill the space between them with words of learning and revelation, then God comes to dwell between them. French Jewish philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas spoke about the necessity of an awareness of “otherness” as a precursor for relationship. And building upon the philosopher Martin Buber’s teachings, we learn that it is indeed through relationships that the Sacred is made manifest.  
There are two Hebrew words for sacred relationship: Chevruta and Dveikut. The word Chevruta means partnership and it refers to the relationship between two human beings. It comes from the Hebrew word Chibur and means both joining together and pushing against. It traditionally refers to a relationship between two individuals who come together to study scripture. The sacred relationship formed by Chevruta learning is the bridge between both individuals. Two rabbis in the Talmud embodied this type of relationship, Hillel and Shammai. They would sit side by side in the study house, and disagree forcefully on almost everything. Yet, at the end of the day, they would return home together to their families, that were in fact one family, united in their longing for God. It was in the space between them however, that much of Jewish sacred text, the Talmud, was born. They are a model for relationship, because through their conversations and debates with one another, they sharpened their own unique understanding of God’s word, and neither’s truth was diminished in the process. Their communion emerged from the juxtaposition of their individual truths, their unique fragments of revelation forming a bridge of sacred text between them. For when two can argue and see beyond their own ego needs to be right, but rather argue, leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, then the words of Torah are infused with the Breath of Life.  
Fusing Ourselves with God  
In contrast to the Chevruta model of relationship as a bridge to revelation, Dveikut is defined as a union, where two merge together to become one. Dveikut is the word that mystics use to speak about our relationship with God. We seek to fuse ourselves with the Eternal One. This is the essence of our purpose, and it is for this that Love was given to us, as it says in Deuteronomy: You shall Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and might. Every aspect of our life, and every relationship, has the potential to bring us closer to God and to deepen our love for God.  
However, sometimes our human relationships take on the characteristic of Dveikut or fusion. If we put another person in the place that belongs to God, then the relationship becomes more like what modern psychologists have termed co-dependence. There can be no lasting harmony between two people who are each bent on wanting to make the other person more like themselves. In fact, there is no faster path to disappointment, anger and defensiveness than to see another person as a reflection of ourselves. Even the most idyllic human union will eventually reveal moments of difference which, in turn, will uncover their essential divide. But rather than be saddened by moments of discord, let us rejoice in our differences, because if greeted with reverence, Torah or learning can come to reside in these spaces. Reflecting this insight, the early rabbis used to call God: HaMakom, which means, The Space.  
At the heart of the space between Jews and Christians are the sacred scriptures of the Hebrew Bible. This shared revelation of God’s Word incarnate is a bridge that has been given to us. And it seems to me that the idea of shared revelation is embodied in this morning’s reading from the book of Luke chapter 9, where Jesus, Moses and Elijah gather together atop a mountain and from their union, God’s voice resonated out into the world. What I learn from this is that God’s revelation cannot be heard in isolation, rather its echo is to be gleaned from the conversations, connections and encounters that we build together with one another. And as Jesus was transfigured, his face radiant with Light, so are we transfigured when we are willing to open ourselves to true and potentially radically transformative relationships with one another.  
Relationships Have Ripple Effects  
This is true on an individual level, in our relationships with our loved ones, as well as on a communal and global level. Every relationship and every action and word has ripple effects that we cannot see. The early rabbis taught that when we make peace in our households, we bring harmony to the heavenly realm. The qualities that are needed to enter into sacred relationship be they with those close to us, or with other communities or countries are the same: we need trust and respect. We need a sense of awe born out of truly encountering and seeing the other as different and somehow reflecting the image of an Other with a capital O. It is this awe that Biblical scholars termed Yirat Adonai, the fear of God, the radical amazement of being in the presence of an Otherness so precious it is sacred. Jesus, Moses and Elijah modeled such a redemptive communion in their chevruta conversation with one another.  
The sense of awe that is needed for true dialogue must be balanced with a sense of trepidation and a desire to ensure that we honor HaMakom, the space between us, and not overstep our bounds, for it is in the space between us that God dwells. When we look at someone and see in them the sacred Spark of Light and Breath with which they were infused at their creation, then we encounter God. ln this awareness and intentional connection, we have the power to make God’s Presence and God’s Light manifest in this world. When we look at the person in front of us and we see God’s Light radiantly shining through them and act accordingly, then God’s Light becomes a little more present in this world.  
But too often, we look at other people, and we do not see God in them. Too often we present ourselves to others and we are not mindful of the truth that we carry within us God’s Light. Too often our conversations with other people bring darkness and pain, fear and sadness. We eclipse God’s presence with our own ego. And is this not a form of idolatry, to eclipse God with human wants and desires?  
What does this mean in practical terms? When we speak to other people and see them only as objects or as means to an end, and fail to see that they, created in the image of God, have something to teach us, then we engage in a type of idolatry. When we look at someone and see only our own desire or fear or anger, then we miss out on seeing God’s Light in them. When we fail to give voice to the Light of God that is within us, and act or speak only out of our own desires or needs or fears, then we eclipse God’s Presence as well.  
Definition of Idolatry  
This definition of idolatry is a challenging one, because it means that each of us must work very hard to reach a state of mindfulness whereby we can see Love and Light in every encounter. It is one thing to see Light and Love and the possibility of sacred reconciliation, recapitulation and transcendence in conversations with Moses, Elijah or Jesus, while standing on a mountain. It is quite another task to learn to see Light and Love in those who do not see it in themselves, in those who choose to dwell in the shadows and seek to pull us down, filling us with anger or fear, pain or jealousy.  
I am reminded of a teaching I heard from the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, who was asked how he saw the Chinese, who had occupied, brutalized and exiled his people. He answered that he took in the anger and hatred that they poured into the earth, and he meditated upon it until he was able to transform it into love, and then he sent out Loving Energy back into the world. The book of Exodus exhorts us to do the same, stating that if we encounter a donkey that has fallen down, we must lift up the donkey even if it belongs to our greatest enemy. In fact, the Bible tells us, it is not enough to simply lift it, we must work together with our enemy to lift him up. In so doing, we enter into a relationship with the one who we hated and we are offered the opportunity for reconciliation. Through our encounter, and our attempts to function in a more loving way, we can redeem even the most toxic of emotions, hatred.  
It is actually scary to think about this spiritual practice. To truly think about it. To think about someone in our lives or in history, whose inner light is so hidden that we can only see our own pain and anger. Yet, we are enjoined to focus upon this person, finding in our resistance an opportunity to transcend our limits and to encounter God’s Love and Grace. To truly engage ourselves in this practice is to open ourselves up to transformation.  
Message of Jesus’ Transfiguration  
It seems to me that this is part of the message that Jesus’ transfiguration comes to teach. The original word used in the Gospel, in Koine Greek is Metamorphothe, or metamorphosis, namely the powerful alchemy whereby Love, faith and awareness can make God’s Light and Presence manifest in this world. When we engage with one another through Chevruta, approaching our differences with wonder, and the space between us with reverence, remembering that every disagreement comes from this sacred space between us, then we become strengthened in our Dveikut, in our longing to become one with the Eternal One.  
The story in the Gospel that we read this morning tells of three people who came together in one redemptive conversation, the light of which continues to shine in this church. And we, together, are learning how to continue their conversation so that its radiance can illumine our community and indeed our world, so desperately in need of healing, so desperately in need of redemption and wholeness.  
And I submit to you that the Hebrew Bible can teach us a grammar of redemption: Its echo resonates in the letter at the heart of God’s name, the letter Vav, which you may recall, means “And.” Vav is the grammar of Chevruta learning: it joins two distinct words together, each important and neither superseding the other. The word “And” is a sacred tool in any mediation between two parties. In fact, many a therapist will teach couples to replace the words: “Yes, but ...” which is the language of war, with, “Yes, and ...” which is the language of inclusion and acceptance. Thus Vav, is not only able to transform the past into the future, it is the secret at the heart of reconciliation.  
Connecting Heaven to Earth  
Thus, the letter Vav, which legend has it, connects heaven to earth, is something like the grammar of transfiguration. Because it was when Moses, Elijah and Jesus stood together, each person’s truth voiced side by side, that God’s redemptive power was able to be seen and heard by all present, as flesh was transfigured into Light.  
And it seems to me that this idea of multiple truths coexisting together, and emerging from the spaces between us, is central to the promise of transcendence. There is a legend about the famous Chevruta of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, who were debating with one another over whether or not a certain stove was kosher. Rabbi Hillel said yes, and brought biblical proof texts to prove his point, while Rabbi Shammai said no, and brought his own biblical citations to prove his case. Finally one of their followers cried out: I give up! Who is right? It was then that a great Voice from the sky boomed out saying: These and these both are words of the living God, because both emerged from My revelation, and each have something sacred to teach.  
Or, to paraphrase the blessing for study with which I began my words:  
Blessed is the One who makes us holy when we engage one another through words of Scripture, building bridges and forging sacred connections.  
I thank you for the opportunity to be here with you today, to share some of my reflections upon your sacred scriptures, and to have been given a renewed appreciation for the infinite radiant Light of God’s eternal and ever-living revelation. May this Light that we celebrate today shine forth into our communities and into our world, that soon and speedily, all differences will unearth the seeds of peace and redemption.

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