I realized that I forgot to bring my toothpaste and was happy to have an opportunity to practice my newly acquired and limited German. I breezed through asking and actually understanding directions to the nearest pharmacy. I received some strange looks when I asked for toothpaste, but I attributed it to the strange sight of a Jew wearing a yarmulke in a Moslem neighborhood in Hanover, Germany.
As soon as I began to brush my teeth, I realized that it nothing to do with my head covering; I had asked for denture glue. My mouth was glued shut and my teeth were still as stale as when I got off the plane.
I rushed to my appointment at the hospital. Any hopes that no one would notice my mouth were dashed when the doctor asked if I was having issued with my jaw. My determination to practice speaking German remained strong. I had practiced reporting my medical history and conditions, so I was fully prepared for this meeting. The doctor shook his head as soon as I mentioned my cervical surgery: “It’s not possible!” he said in English. “A man can’t have a hysterectomy.”
“I said cervical surgery, not a hysterectomy.” “No, you said hysterectomy. Perhaps we should stick to English.”
He obviously was not as fluent in German as my dictionary!
Things get lost in translation, especially if you don’t know how to properly use a dictionary.
We had a dog trainer come to the house to help us with a dog we rescued. He was Korean and quite fluent in English, but I soon found myself translating for my Argentine wife and the trainer. They both spoke English but could not understand each other’s accents.
As I was leaving the house this morning my wife, unhappy with my color coordination asked me to change into “your peacock blazer.” I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought she hated birds. Peacock?
My doctor said, “I see what you mean,” when he clearly meant that he did not.
We don’t need to speak different languages to be confused. We do a fine job with only one language.
When God “confused the languages” of the people who built the Tower of Babel, He didn’t only mix up different languages; He confused their communication. People who spoke the same language spoke in layers and people stopped communicating.
The literary term is “sprachgefeul” (Hey, I needed to show off my German!). There are layers of meaning in our words, layers that reflect our past, emotions and experiences.
The Ramchal explains that until the Tower of Babel humanity had the ability to share a united agenda: to repair Adam’s sin. Once people began to focus on their more immediate and limited agendas they lost the most essential quality they shared. The confusion of their communication was a natural consequence of their limited focus. Everyone was focused on different things and they forfeited their sprachgefeul.
We do share one language that rises above the consequences of the Tower: the siddur – prayer book. The Anshei Knesset HaGadol -The Men of the Great Assembly – composed it and in order to be appointed one had to be fluent in all major languages. (Do you think my “cervical” error would disqualify me?”) Many members were prophets and they used all their skills to compose the Siddur in such a manner that someone praying in 21st century America could share sprachgefeul with a Jew singing the same words in 8th century Egypt.
The siddur is our opportunity to rise above the consequences of the Tower. Do you understand what I’m saying?
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