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Thought for the Day: Lashon HaKodesh and Targum -- Reality, Appearance, Explanation

While still living in Dallas, so early in my career as an Orthodox Jew, I had the merit to attend a lecture by R' Berol Wein.  The rosh kollel, who had arranged the lecture, come over the me very excitedly and said, "R' Wein is here already and you are early, so take the opportunity to speak with him personally!"  "Great!", I thought... then I realized that I had nothing to say.  Since then, I've tried to always have a mental list of questions I have that still need resolution.  Some are big, some are small.  It is not unusual for one of those "small" questions to turn into big principles.

I have wondered for decades what the difference is between "adon", as in "adon olam", and "ribon", as in "ribono shel olam".  The siddur translates both as adon and ribon as "lord"; so what's the difference?  The simple answer is quite a let down: ribon is the aramaic translation of adon.  See, for example, parashas va'yeira (b'reishis 18:2), where Avraham had been sitting and at the entrance to his tent on the third day after his bris mila, when he sees passers-by and runs to ask them to stay, greeting them as "adonai", which onkelos translates as "ribonai", and ArtScroll translates as "my lords"; all following Rashi's first p'shat.

That would be a pretty boring answer... except that Chazal have established at least one bracha -- elokai neshama -- that uses both terms: ribon kol ma'asim (Lord of all the doings), adon kol ha'neshamos (Lord of all souls).  Certainly one could ask why use an aramaic term when there is a perfectly word in lashon ha'kodesh; even more, though, why mix things like that?  Obviously there is more going on than the simple translation answer belies.

Consider the end of the shir al ha'yam quoted at the end of p'sukei d'zimra.  We conclude with "HaShem yimloch l'olam va'ed" in lashon hakodesh and then add in targum, "HaShem malchusei ka'eim l'alam u'l'almei al'maya".  The phrase in lashon ha'kodesh could be translated as, "HaShem will rule forever" (future tense), or "HaShem's rule is always and forever" (imperfect; ie, never ending tense).  The targum reveals two things about the lashon hakodesh original: (1) it is to be understood as an imperfect/never-ending tense and not future tense.  (2) "forever" means in all stages of creation: atzilus (l'alam), b'ri'ah and y'tzirah (u'l'almei; note: plural), asiyah (al'maya).

Pretty cool, eh?  How about this: when Yaakov has been told to dress as his brother to get the brachos from Yitzchak, Yaakov is nervous that maybe he'll be cursed instead.  His mother answers that he shouldn't worry, she'll take the curse.  The targum explains that she knows by n'vu'ah (prophecy) that the bracha will not become a curse.

Lashon hakodesh always tells us what appears to us, targum always explains how to understand what is behind that appearance.  That's why Torah Sh'Bichtav is in lashon hakodesh and Torah Sh'B'Al Peh is in aramaic.  We can now understand the wording of elokai neshama: adon kol ha'neshamos -- of course HaShem is the Lord to all the neshamos.  More than that, though, ribon kol ma'asim -- all the doings in this world are an expression of and in service of all those neshamos.

It was worth the wait.

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