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Daily manna from the Torah by Dr Ketriel Blad

VaYechi 12-4

And (he ) lived

Genesis 49:1-18 

Yisachar is a donkey… Dan shall be a serpent…

Gen. 49:14a, 17a private translation

Who understands words well?

Yaakov blessed each one of his sons with a particular blessing. When he got to Yisachar and Dan he called them a donkey and a serpent. How would you react if your father told you: "Donkey, may you be a serpent." Would you be offended? Why would you be offended? Because your father called you a donkey and a serpent? In Yaakov's blessing's case these were prophetic words from heaven, so how would you feel if heaven called you a donkey and a serpent? What kind of blessing would that be?

If one felt offended it is because we would be giving these words, "a donkey and a serpent", a negative and offensive sense. Many people use names of animals to offend others. Words like "pig", "donkey", "monkey", "wolf", "dog", etc. are used to offend. In these cases, a comparison between the person's behaviour and the animal is done, and then, the comparison focuses on the negative aspects, applying them to the other person to hurt him or her. If the person who is offended is sensitive or if he has a complex of inferiority or rejection, he will be very damaged by those words. It is like rubbing salt in an open emotional wound.

However, the comparison could be positive instead of negative. It all depends on the sense given to the words. I remember that I once told a very strong, hard-working woman, "Indian", because I consider that Indian women are worthy of praise because of their strength and industriousness. My comparison was with the purpose of praising her. I then found out that in her culture it is very offensive to call someone that. When I apologized for having offended her, she told me that she understood my intention, thankfully.  

The donkey was the animal used in the time of the patriarchs for transportation and for carrying goods. It was a very useful animal for all kinds of chores. The donkey is one of the best servants men have had in a long history.

Regarding the serpent, its abilities for defensive purposes were actually very positive. So our father Yaakov's words to his sons were only positive and they are great blessings.

This teaches us that words can have different meanings depending on the person, culture, time and context. Therefore, when we read the Scriptures, it is very important that we don't try to understand the Hebrew terms and expressions according to a modern context that in many cases are unconnected with the ancient Hebrew culture.

Most of the false doctrines and misinterpretations of the Scriptures are due to lack of knowledge of the words in their context.

Even though translators of the Scriptures have tried, with good intentions, to transfer to other languages and cultures, concepts that were written and understood in totally different cultures and languages, their translations always present mistakes and misunderstandings. This is inevitable.

Another aspect that must be taken into account is the theological platform from which the divine words are read, interpreted and translated. A non-Jewish translator will never be able to understand the Hebrew Scriptures correctly because his mind is conformed to theological concepts that differ with Biblical-Hebrew idiosyncrasy. If it is difficult for a person whose mother tongue is Hebrew to understand the Scriptures, how much more would it be for a foreigner!

Therefore, we have to be very careful when pulling out doctrines from a translation of the Scriptures. When reading a translation, we don't only read the translation of what was written originally, but also what the translator thinks the original writer meant, and that does not always match the truth. This is simply because the translator gives a different meaning to terms than what they had when they were originally written - not because he didn't want to understand them correctly, but because his mind has been formed in a different way and his understanding of such terms is different from the original.

The same applies when reading the Scriptures directly in their original languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and possibly Greek. We have to be careful not to introduce modern or Greco-Roman meanings to the words because we will understand them wrongly, and then draw conclusions that many times affect our faith and conduct in a negative way.

May the Eternal give us humility to pay attention to what the Jews who know the Eternal and the Scriptures teach and, most of all, may He give us a spirit of revelation and wisdom from above when searching the Scriptures so that we can understand them correctly for our own instruction.

Kol tuv, All the best,  


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