There are a lot of Hebrew speakers in the room today, so I am going to focus on a particular feature of biblical Hebrew which is not found in English. For that matter, it is not found in modern Hebrew either: doubled verbs.
Here is an example from this morning’s Torah portion: u-makeh aviv v’imo mot yumat. One who strikes his father or his mother…” and now here comes the doubled verb: mot yumat. (Exodus 21:15)
This presents a conundrum for the translator. What is meant by the duplication of the verb, which means “die,” and how do I convey it in English?”
Our own Etz Hayim Chumash translates mot yumat as “shall be put to death,” while the Stone Chumash kicks it up a notch with “shall surely be put to death.” Robert Alter embraces melodrama with, “is doomed to die.” A hyper-literal translation would be something like that by Everett Fox, “is to be put-to-death, yes, death.”
Generally speaking, doubling a verb like this is one technique that Biblical Hebrew uses to create emphasis. Each of the translations we just heard are trying, in their respective ways, to convey the seriousness of the command, even though just one of them actually translates the word “die” twice.
The bottom line is, for those kids who are listening right now, you better not hit your parents.
Over the course of the many laws listed in Parashat Mishpatim, there are numerous doubled verbs. Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, from the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, points out a particular verse which contains no less than three of them. It follows the instruction “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan” (Exodus 22:21) And then it continues
אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַעֲקָתוֹ:
Im aneh t’aneh oto ki im tza-ok yitz’ak elai shamo-a eshma tza’akato.
Here is Everett Fox’s hyper-literal translation:
Oh, if you afflict, afflict them . . . !
For (then) they will cry, cry out to me,
and I will hearken, hearken to their cry (Exodus 22:22)
This seems a little excessive, does it not?
Rabbi Goldfarb points out that the purpose of the doubled verbs is not necessarily to enhance. In fact, there is a rabbinic disagreement about the meaning of אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה, “Oh, if you afflict, afflict them.” The Rabbis generally assume that the Torah does not waste any words. So if a verb appears twice, each must have its own distinct meaning.
One opinion states that the first mention of afflict refers to serious afflictions and the second refers to minor afflictions. Thus, God is going to hold us accountable for even minor mistreatments of the widow and the orphan. The doubled verb intensifies the message.
The second opinion states that a person is not liable until the second time that he or she mistreats an orphan or widow. In other words, the doubled verb diminishes the message. (Mekhilta, Mishpatim 18)
This is a pretty significant difference. Should we have a zero-tolerance policy for repression of the unfortunate or should we give ourselves second chances after messing up the first time?
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk was a Chassidic Rebbe in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was known as the Kotzker Rebbe. He also notices this unusual sentence, with its threefold doubled verbs, and offers a creative explanation.
The Torah is trying to emphasize something specific. The suffering of the orphan and the widow is not like typical human suffering. When a widow or orphan experiences mistreatment, physical harm, or financial loss, it weighs especially heavily on that person’s heart. That is why the Torah doubles the verbs.
“If you afflict, afflict him” – he experiences double suffering. This leads him to “cry, cry out” to God. And God, in turn will “hearken, hearken to their cry.” In other words, God will bring twice as much compassion, as well as inflict twice the punishment on the perpetrators of injustice.
In the Torah’s day, the widow and the orphan, along with the stranger, occupied the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. They had the least power and were the most vulnerable.
The Kotzker Rebbe is pointing out a timeless truth. Those with the fewest resources tend to be the ones who are most vulnerable to misfortune. We see this in the world today, as the poorest people are the one’s who suffer the greatest consequences from natural disasters. Those with fewer resources do worse when the economy takes a downturn.
One of the Torah’s central messages to us is that we have a moral obligation to care for those with the least resources. The Torah’s law codes introduce principles of social and economic equity which were unprecedented in the world at the time.
This theme underscores so many of the commandments that appear in this morning’s portion, such as: giving tzedakah, enforcing justice equally, not showing deference to the rich, making sure that punishments are proportional to the crime.
Yet the Torah also recognizes that, as much as we may try to legislate proper behavior, we are human after all. We will mistreat each other. And some of us will be more vulnerable than others.
The very language of the Hebrew that the Torah uses emphasizes the importance of compassion, and reminds us that even when we fail to live by the Torah’s standard, God still keeps an ear open for the cries of the least fortunate – and listens twice as closely for it.