Last Shabbat evening took place during the festival of Pesach. I enjoy including special holiday songs and melodies as additions to our customary Shabbat prayers. Our prayer book, MishkanT’filah, contains a number of Pesach songs, so before the service I chose two of them for our Shabbat service.
The first was a favorite of mine that I learned as a youth: “Let My People Go.” There’s something deeply evocative about the melody and words:
When Israel was in Egypt land,
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go!
As many know, this song was originally sung by African American slaves who longed to be free from bondage. The universal longing for freedom is movingly encapsulated in this spiritual.
The second special song last Friday night was not so fervently embraced by the congregation.“God of Might” is based upon the Passover song, Adir Hu. I saw eyebrows raised on many faces as we sung together:
God of might, God of right,
Thee we give all glory;
Thine all praise in these days,
As in ages hoary;
When we hear, year by year,
Freedom’s wondrous story.”
The archaic sounding Thee’s and Thine’s did not flow smoothly from our lips. Nor did the phrase “As in ages hoary” rouse within our worshippers a sense of inspiration. “What the heck does the word ‘hoary’ mean?” one congregant complained to me during the Oneg. Well, lest ye think that I am prostituting the English language, I can assure you that the word “hoary” was commonly used in Bible translations not that long ago.
For example, take this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim. Leviticus 19.32 speaks of the honor that should be shown those who are elderly: “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old. When I first began studying Torah, I utilized the Soncino edition edited by Rabbi J.H. Hertz. This verse from Leviticus is translated: “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man.” The word, “hoary,” means greyish white; having grey hair; aged. It may be less common to use in modern parlance than “aged,” however it is perfectly acceptable. In the Book of Proverbs, 16.31 I rather like the translation of the Hebrew as: “The hoary head is a crown of glory,” as opposed to the more bland “Gray hair is a crown of glory.”
In any case, translating Hebrew is rarely an easy task and indeed, we should glory in the richness of possibilities that exist within the English language to convey the meaning of a word or verse. The word “hoary” may sound dated, even creaky with age. But remember, there are times we should show deference to ancient phrases, for language is the Jewish people’s crown of glory.