Thursday, March 25, 2021

On Tsuris: A Rock Or a Hard Place?

This summer, interested in Judaism but not quite sure where to go for information, I read Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish (1968), a paperback I'd long admired in my parents' glass-fronted bookcase. There I encountered the word 'tsuris,' which means "troubles, woes, worries, suffering," according to Rosten. 'Having tsuris' is something to be avoided or bemoaned. The word 'tsuris' comes from the Hebrew 'tsarah,' (feminine), which means trouble, Rosten wrote. Perhaps the old paperback predicted the etymological predicaments I would later throw myself into, where sense and relatedness appealed but irony was what fascinated. Or not.

In any case, fast forward a few months and I was sounding out Psalm 95 on  

לְ֭כוּ נְרַנְּנָ֣ה לַיהוָ֑ה נָ֝רִ֗יעָה לְצ֣וּר יִשְׁעֵֽנוּ

"L'chu n'ran'na, Adonai, nariah l'tzur yisheinu," went the transliteration [boldface my own]. "Raise a shout . . . Adonai . . . trouble . . ." I thought. "Wait, trouble?" But no, according to the translation, it's "raise a shout for our rock and deliverer." It's just that the 'rock and deliverer' part,' 'l'tzur yisheinu' (לְצ֣וּר יִשְׁעֵֽנוּ), sounded (or looked, since I was reading) like 'tsuris.' It turns out that 'tsur' or 'tzur' (צ֣וּר) is a masculine Hebrew noun meaning 'rock or cliff,' according to Strong's Concordance. Rock means support, here. Nothing to do with trouble; nothing to see.

Some days later, though, I learned that the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim (מִצְרַ֖יִם), can mean 'straits,' or 'narrow place' and also, figuratively, troubles. Which makes sense, given that according to the story of Exodus, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. I can't let go of my feeling that there has to be a connection between 'tsur' as rock on one hand and 'tsuris,' straits, and 'Mitzrayim' on the other and that this line of thinking is going to cause, well—  

It makes a kind of sense. When I imagine a strait, I see a person in a boat between two rock faces, trying or hoping not to bash into either one. I think of being 'between a rock and a hard place.' Maybe God is the rock and straits are the hard place. Or is one rock support while two are 'tsuris'?

There's an easy way to explain that God is not trouble, etymologically speaking. 'Tsarah,' the Hebrew root of 'tsuris,' is a feminine noun derived from the adjective 'tsar.' The Hebrew word for rock or cliff, on the other hand, is masculine. So they aren't the same. As for whether they could still be somehow related, that's beyond me. (Let's not even get started on the idea that trouble is female.) But what interests me are the implications of the idea that the words for 'rock,' referring to God, and 'troubles' are alike in some way, even if it only seems like that.

I thought the psalm was calling God trouble when in fact it praises God for supporting people and delivering them from their troubles (chief among them enslavement in Egypt). The mistake asks, "Could God be both trouble and the one who gets you out of it?" The question points to theodicy, or efforts to reconcile the terrible things that happen in the world with the idea that God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good. 

I like that there's a word for it, theodicy, a word that manages to encompass the problem of evil and efforts to solve it. It's much easier to dismiss religion when you think religious people just don't notice contradictions like the idea of an all-powerful God presiding over a world where horrible things happen. The fact that there's a term for the problem suggests that it has not been ignored as indeed it hasn't. As part of the process of converting to Judaism, I recently read a book (Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme, Finding God: Selected Responses, 2002 edition) that presents diverse Jewish perspectives on God from thinkers like Maimonides, Spinoza, and Mordecai Kaplan, and every single one addresses the problem of evil. These Jewish thinkers have obviously given the issue more consideration than I did, growing up in an atheist family where not believing, and not thinking about it, was the de facto solution.

I think 'tsuris' could be just another 'word for it.' It's a term that embodies a contradiction, a rock and a hard place, support and trouble, a narrows and also a way out.

From Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish

Monday, March 15, 2021

Etymological Adventures: On Talent

"Free art talent test" ad
"Art Talent Test" by Howdy, I'm H. Michael Karshis is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Talent is, arguably, a valuable thing. I say arguably because I feel that talent often stands in opposition to skill. People tend to be called 'talented' when they show promise but are not yet accomplished. I remember as a beginning violin student talent being measured in terms of Suzuki books per year, age versus skill, or how long you'd been taking private lessons relative to how well you played. Things that in hindsight are not important. "Do you like playing?" is more important. Talent is valuable, but it's not everything. It can also go to waste; it can go undeveloped. It doesn't necessarily do a person or the world any good, but it represents the potential for future skill and creativity. That potential certainly is valuable. 

So I was delighted but not surprised to learn in last week's Torah portion that talent actually is a measure of value: It's a particular weight of gold (or silver or copper). The Israelites, who have left Egypt and received the commandments, are constructing a sanctuary. For this purpose, a man named Bezalel makes a lamp stand "out of a talent of pure gold" (Exodus 37:24). Talent, here, seems to be a unit of measure. Highlight the Hebrew word on Sefaria and it will tell you that it means "a round weight, talent (of gold, silver, bronze, iron)." Yet it could be a double entendre. God has, according to Moses, "endowed [Bezalel] with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft" (Exodus 35:31). The man had talent, and it went into the menorah along with the gold. 

According to Chambers Etymological Dictionary, the literal meaning of talent as money came first. Talent as "special natural ability, aptitude" arose in the 15th century, a figurative use of the original term "taken from the parable of the talents in the Bible (Matthew 25:14-30)," according to Chambers. No mention of Bezalel, alas. 

In the story, a 'lord' gives out several bags of gold to three of his servants. Two of the servants take their literal talents, invest them, and wind up twice as rich as they began. But the servant who receives only one bag of gold digs a hole and buries it, earning nothing but disapproval from the lord, who had hoped to profit from his servants' investments. I suppose the story shows that you should develop your talent. On the other hand, the lord disbursing gold in this story doesn't seem like such a great guy. He's described as someone who harvests where he hasn't sown. Maybe I, too, would want to bury his money.  

The lord gave the third servant a talent of gold. I'm not sure how much that's worth, but a talent of silver is equivalent to three thousand shekels, according to the website Learn Religions. In biblical times, a shekel was a day's wage. The same website says that a talent was something like 20 years' earnings for a laborer. This doesn't quite compute (3,000 shekels per talent/365 shekels per year=about 8 years per talent), but suffice it to say that talent is precious and not easily earned.

I don't actually think it's possible to earn talent. A musician of moderate ability who works all her life may never play as well as an eight-year-old prodigy, for example. And even if, technically, a person reaches a certain level, will they have 'it,' the je ne sais quois? I'm skeptical.  

I do, however, believe that talent demands work and that work picks up where talent leaves off. If you truly bury your talent, that is, don't even pursue the area in which you are gifted, you can't possibly succeed in that area. Not only that but you may miss out on experiences that would be valuable to you, regardless of how others might judge them. On the other hand, someone with less talent and a lot of dedication may fare quite well. 

What does it mean to "fare well" or "succeed"? These matters are subjective, and what matters most is probably personal satisfaction. Hopefully the person who buries their talent doesn't simultaneously use it to measure their self-worth (though I think if it can be done, people do it). 

I had some talent as a violinist, but I put it down in college and focused on something else. I still play the fiddle sometimes, less on my own and more when it's a way to get together with a group of people. My ability to learn tunes by ear serves me well. I also go for long periods without playing. 

A biblical talent weighed something like 75 pounds. I can understand someone wanting to put it down. The feeling that you have all this potential (and I think it's easy to overestimate your own talent) and that turning out to be anything less than extraordinary will be a disappointment is emotionally heavy. Yet when I pick up the violin now, I'm not re-shouldering a burden, or I try not to make it about that. It's about enjoying music.

Skill comes from both talent and experience, yet I don't want to seek an exchange rate between the two. It certainly does take time and work, maybe even a Gladwellian 10,000 hours, maybe even 8 or 20 years, to really develop a skill, no matter how talented you are. A more talented person might achieve a given level slightly faster, or not. But at a certain point, when the answer to "how long have you played the violin?" is 30 years and it no longer relates to how well you play but to the length of your life, it no longer matters exactly how fast you progressed through the Suzuki books in elementary school. As for Bezalel's menorah, what matters is not how quickly he made it, how many years he'd studied as a goldsmith before making it, how old he was when God chose him to make it, whether or not other more experienced goldsmiths were passed over for the job, none of which the Torah tells us, but the fact that he made it and that it served a purpose. As they say, talent's overrated.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Etymological Adventures: On Lots and Happenstance

2 Purim baskets
Yoninah, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

"Happy Purim!" Jews and non-Jew celebrants, like myself, greeted each other last week. We might as well have been saying "happy lots," "happy fate," or "lucky fate." A religious holiday run through with the language of chance, Purim, the Festival of Lots, made me consider how we think about luck in our lives. Is chance unfeeling math at work? Or a manifestation of the divine? What is the source of a 'happy lot'? Wherever it comes from, chance, as a concept, is ubiquitous.

In biblical times, people engaged with chance and probability by 'casting lots.' The practice may have involved drawing stones—like straws—to decide who would do something or throwing down stones and interpreting how they fell to reach a conclusion. Casting lots is similar to gambling, hence the related word, lottery. In the Purim story, the evil Haman cast lots, called purim in Hebrew, to decide on which day to kill all the Jews in Shushan. On that very date, as it turned out in the story, the Jews prevailed, making Purim a happy holiday.  

Happy comes from the English 'hap,' which means "chance, fortune, luck." The verb happen has the same root.

Purim, the Hebrew word for lots, can also mean 'portions.' It so happens that 'sending portions,' or 'mishloach manot,' is a Purim tradition; people give each other baskets of hamantaschen and other delectables. 'Manot' (singular: mana) means portions. Unlike purim, though, manot does not also means lots.

Casting lots is a matter of probability and statistics, random chance. How distant that feels from the idea, which I think of as being at the heart of religion, that things happen for a reason. 

I do think of chance as controlling what happens, to an extent. Yet things do not happen quite as statistics predict. Random number generators produce strings of repeats; flipped coins repeatedly land on their heads. In the long run, the textbooks say, reality operates closer to statistical prediction, but no run is infinite. In what happens—and whom it happens to—there's always an element of luck. 

Statistics tell you what the distribution is: that there is a bell curve and that average values occur more often than extremes. But what controls an individual's position on the curve? Who is the distributor? In this human drama, who is in charge of casting?

Some people believe the answer is God. In the Bible, people cast lots not as a way of letting chance decide but in order to determine God's will. (That said, God is not mentioned in the Purim story; it's said that God is masked within it.) 

For me, the idea that statistics could be God-given raises the question of whether God is actually up there flipping coins. In Judaism, there's much talk of God 'dealing fairly' with people. One interpretation of that phrase is that God is giving every individual attention and consideration. But another take on it is that God is the dealer in the sky, distributing fates with a certain cold objectivity. The latter doesn’t strike me as a metaphor of fairness. Or is it the ultimate fairness, as long as God shuffles the cards?

'Bonne chance' means good luck in French. The phrase appeals to me because it expresses the idea that luck and chance are the same thing and not unqualifiedly good. Yes, lucky refers to good luck and Fortune smiles—but sometimes she frowns. 'By chance' in French is 'par hasard.' Chance, with a hint of peril.

When I write, I sometimes feel as if I'm throwing words at the page in hopes that they will land in meaningful arrangements. I think about words and their origins and hope to make sense of them. Often I can, but not always. I originally thought mana, the singular word for portion in the phrase mishloach manot, might also refer to the food that God provided the Israelites during their desert wanderings. God apportioned food, made allotments. Yet although a Purim basket might feel like a kind of manna, "a usually sudden or unexpected source of pleasure, gratification, or gain" or "food miraculously supplied," as Merriam-Webster defines it, the manna of the desert and the mana of Purim and mishloach manot are not etymologically related, as far as I can tell. The Hebrew words are different genders. Nice try, I think to myself. Better luck next time.

What is luckier, though, really—for words with common origins to sound alike and have similar meanings? Or for etymological strangers to connect? The former is about as "lucky" as learning that you resemble your great-grandmother. The latter, though—for words without a common root to not only sound alike but also relate meaningfully to each other—that's really something. I wouldn't go so far as to call it "divinely supplied spiritual nourishment." Or maybe I would.