Deuteronomy Butter, Wizards, and Hope
Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
A few weeks ago, I came across a song written in quarantine by my friend Adah Hetko:
My world is my block
my apartment’s my country
my state is my bedroom
my bed is my body
My country’s full of frying butter
of frying butter, my country’s full
Hearing Adah’s song was a revelation. I have struggled to connect with much of the art and writing created in the COVID era; so much of it either feels marred by saccharine positivity (COVID has taught me to slow down!) or despair (COVID has taught me that all is lost!). In listening to Adah’s song, I realized my need to find spaces of hope between these poles of baseless optimism and apocalyptic sorrow, a tiny country filled with that holy and delicious smell of frying butter.
This week, my search brought me to the Book of Deuteronomy, to the banks of the Jordan looking towards the hills of the promised land. In Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah reading, Israel receives instructions for erecting an altar and marker stones on one of these hills. In a final detail about the alter, Moses instructs (Deuteronomy 27:8):
וְכָתַבְתָּ֣ עַל־הָאֲבָנִ֗ים אֶֽת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֛י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּאֵ֥ר הֵיטֵֽב׃
You shall write upon stones all the words of the Torah, clearly expounded.
The final two words of this verse have sparked the interest of commentators. What does it mean to “בַּאֵר הֵיטֵב” — to “clearly expound” the words of the Torah? Rashi provides a strange answer: “באר היטב. בְּשִׁבְעִים לָשׁוֹן” — “clearly expound in seventy languages.”
These seventy languages seem to reflect a rabbinic understanding that there exists seventy distinct human nations with seventy different languages. Rashi is informed here by a midrash that takes us all the way to the beginning of the Bible. Midrash Tanchumah asks why the Torah references Adam giving “שמות/names” rather than a singular “שם/name” as he names the animals. The midrash’s answer: Adam did not give an animal a single name, but rather named the animal in the seventy languages of the world. (Midrash Tanchuma, Devarim 2)
Rashi and the midrash present a powerful theory of language. Israel’s sharing of Torah and Adam’s naming of the animals gain their power by casting a wide linguistic net, providing language that is accessible to the entire world. In a beautiful essay on the seventy languages, Rabbi David Kasher summarizes these sources: “There is no one holy tongue, but instead a primordial, cacophonous babble.” The power to explain, to teach, to transform, to name emerges from this multi-lingual cacophony.
When I first encountered these sources through Rabbi Kasher’s article, I wondered whether the seventy languages might help me to enter and navigate the country of hope which I seek. Indeed, it was easy to generate examples of hope being translated into scientific innovation, movements for racial and economic justice, new ways of spiritual and creative expression, environmental restoration . . . . Our times seem to be bursting with inspiration and heroics. However, these languages of hope felt somehow distant: the problems and proposed solutions too great to grasp; the injustices and the fights too weighty.
Daunted by the scope of these inspirations, I was reminded of another linguistic theory of power. In her marvelous novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin describes the “Language of the Making,” a primordial language with which the world was created and with which a wizard can transform that world. In Le Guin’s concept of language and magic, there is one word in the “Language of the Making” for sea, but that word has very little power to move the sea’s water. The word for a specific cove has a little more power, the word for specific inlet even more. Each inch of the ocean has its own name. Le Guin’s wizard protagonist learns from a teacher of magic, “a [magician] can control only what is near [them], what [they] can name exactly and wholly.”
As I reread Earthsea, I found myself bringing Le Guin’s magic into Israel’s Torah and Adam’s naming. Perhaps when Israel elucidates the Torah, it is not in seventy tongues, but in seventy successively smaller iterations, in each telling becoming more specific, more loving, more nuanced. Perhaps Adam did not name each animal in seventy tongues, but rather seventy times, naming from family to genus to species, to the individual creature before him. The power of these teachings and these namings come not in width, but in depth, not in accessibility but intimacy. We can name, hope, and hold only what we truly know.
I find myself longing for hope that is not an ocean of inspiration, but is a tiny inlet of delight. To this end, I am moved by the activism of my neighbor Andrew, organizing our block around local police accountability. I am moved by the slow growth of the succulent on my partner Adele’s desk, the first plant she has ever kept alive. I am moved by the thunderstorm ending a heat wave outside my window. These movements and moments bring me life not only and not primarily because they pertain better and bigger things to come. Rather, they embody small hopes in the present tense. In neighbors organizing, in sustaining life, in the air of a storm, in all these tiny countries, I smell the rightness of frying butter.
Joey Glick is a rabbinical student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.