Whenever a situation warranted it, my Bubby a”h would quote an old Yiddish saying. When I then asked her what it meant, she would always say that you can’t properly translate such witticisms, because something gets lost in the translation.
The most frequent quote we heard from her was the well-known, “Hak mir nisht keyn tchaynik – Don’t knock on my tea kettle.” It was a protest against our making too much noise or carrying on about something (my siblings, not me). I always wondered why she couldn’t just tell us to be quiet. The truth is that the Jews have been banging on tea kettles for thousands of years, and despite our enemies best/worst efforts, they can’t seem to stop us.
Judaism has many things that are not easily translated or explained. In fact, it’s often more prudent to just stick with the Hebrew. The best example of that is t’filin. If a non-Jew asks you what’s with the boxes, the worst answer is to say that they are phylacteries. Does any non-Jew know what phylacteries are? It sounds like a stomach ailment. You have a better chance of using the word t’filin.
It reminds me of when I was at a chasidishe tish on the last night of Chanukah and one of the well-meaning chasidim explained to me that the Grand Rabbi was giving out patties in honor of Chanukah. I never felt so Jewish!
The same holds true for explaining what the Mishkan was (although why would any non-Jew ask what the Mishkan is?). No one has any clue what a tabernacle is.
I remember as a child looking at my grandparents’ old Hebrew Publishing Company machzorim. On the side of the Shavuos machzor it said Pentecost. What in the world does that mean? (It’s actually based on a Christian concept.)
When I was in graduate school, a fellow student named Shiffy used the name Stephanie, because it was more familiar to the students and professors. One professor, however, while taking attendance, couldn’t seem to pronounce Stephanie properly. She would have been better off leaving her name as Shiffy.
Of all the holidays of the year, the most difficult one to translate is Purim.
Sometimes people naively explain it as the Jewish Halloween. That’s like saying that astronauts are “space football players” because, like football players, astronauts wear helmets.
Just about the only connection between Halloween and Purim is that people wear costumes and visit other people’s homes. That Purim is all about giving and Halloween is about taking is only a small part of it. Purim celebrates life, connection to G-d, connection to fellow Jews, and reigniting our inner passion in being proud Jews. I have no idea what Halloween celebrates, and I frankly don’t care. But I do find it highly inappropriate to even compare the two exclusively incongruous days.
The literal translation of Purim is “lots,” so named after the lottery that Haman cast when determining what day to commit genocide against the Jews. Would anyone think to name the Super Bowl “Coin Toss” because the game begins with one? While Haman indeed cast lots, that was seemingly only a trivial event in determining a date for his heinous plans. Why title the holiday after that? Furthermore, why would the holiday be named after such a painful part of the story? Shouldn’t we focus on the salvation?
So much of life seems random. In fact, random is a popular word in today’s society. Why do good people suffer? Why is there a pandemic? Why can’t people find their shidduch? Why does this person deserve so much money when that person can’t pay his mortgage? Why can’t that person get a better job? Why does this person have such challenges with his children?
It almost seems like life happens based on luck of the draw.
However, part of being a believer entails believing that Hashem orchestrates everything that occurs. We don’t choose the cards we are dealt with, but we do choose what we do with them. In the words of Kenny Rogers, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”
Haman cast lots and was convinced that he had determined the perfect day to carry out his plans. The reality was that it was the perfect time for his plans to be reversed and bring about his utter destruction.
Perhaps the holiday is called Purim, not only to reflect on Haman’s lots, but also to reflect the many “purims” in our daily lives. The things that occur, which seem like a lucky throw of the dice, are really part of a master plan, though it’s not too apparent.
In the Megillah, Vashti was sure her position as queen was secure. She never dreamed that her husband, who wasn’t born into royalty, would assassinate her. Haman was sure his plan was foolproof and that as soon as he got rid of Mordechai everything would be perfect for him. Haman’s daughter was absolutely convinced that the shamefaced man leading the parade was Mordechai, and so she decided to shame him even more by emptying the family chamber pot on his head.
The holiday of Purim poignantly reminds us that the purim of our own lives, which we may think we have a grasp of and understand their trajectory, are really beyond us. Our role is to play the cards we are dealt with to the best of our ability and know that the cards are being dealt with a perfect plan and direction.
There’s no holiday when we hock louder than on Purim. We bang when hearing Haman’s name to obliterate the memory of a dangerous enemy. But beyond that, we bang to arouse the Haman within ourselves, those feelings of randomness that lead to anxiety and sadness, to obliterate those, as well.
On Purim we don’t seek to get lost in the translation, but we do seek to immerse ourselves in its commentary.
L’chayim, l’chayim, aleh Yidden!