The editorial committee that created the JPS translation of the Tanakh was composed of very wise, scholarly folks. Despite my own humility and acknowledged limited level of knowledge I’ve sometimes taken them to task for their word choices. Sometimes, conveniently, I’ve decided to ignore any questions I might have about their choice of words in a translation precisely because their choice works for me in that moment and at that time. This may be such a case.
The new JPS translation for the last line of verse from the Book of Hosea, which is also the concluding verse for the haftarah for this weeks parasha (for Ashkenazim, not S’fardim,) Vayeitze, is as follows:
“For the paths of the L”rd are smooth: the righteous can walk on them, while sinners stumble on them.” (Hosea 14:10b, JPS)
The Hebrew word JPS translates as “smooth” is “y’sharim.” Using smooth requires a bit of poetic license for this word and root which generally means “straight,” “upright,” “pleasing,”and, in some contexts, “just.”
I might quibble that a smooth road and a straight road are not necessarily the same thing. A road can be one without being the other.
Now, whether you see the metaphoric road as “straight” or “smooth” the basic idea of Hosea’s words remain essentially clear and simultaneously confusing.
Life is hardly a smooth or straight road. That would be difficult for the righteous as well as the less so. Yet a smooth and straight road should be easy for anyone to navigate. Being a sinner should hardly be an impairment. So why doesn’t Hosea say that G”d’s paths can be difficult, yet the righteous can walk them whereas the wicked stumble?
The idea that a sinner might have a difficult time walking a straight road is beautifully poetic. Used to crooked twists and turns due to their inherently evil inclination, the sinner finds the straight road unfamiliar and this more difficult to navigate. Imagine being prepared for a path that meanders to and fro, to always be in that mode, and encounter a straight path.
However, what about the smooth road? Smooth can mean many things. Smooth paths can actually be very difficult to walk, if their smoothness is the result of an icy or otherwise slick surface that offers no friction. That Teflon coating may make the razor pass smoothly over the face, or the food separate easily from the pan, but have you ever tried walking on a Teflon surface?
The righteous and less than righteous alike could have difficulty coping with a truly smooth road. Perhaps a person’s righteous nature gives them the traction they need to climb the smooth roads of G”d? People who understand dvekut, clinging to G”d, may have the necessary clinginess to traverse the smooth surface. The sinner, who often has little commitment, may not have the stick-to-it-tiveness to walk down the smooth path.
I think the example of the difficulty the wicked might have walking a straight path might have, to forgive the pun, more and easier traction as an understanding of these words. So in this case, though I think “smooth” is a stretch of a translation, I find I like it better, simply because it may be the harder reading! (Sadly, a musing I wrote for last week that expounded on Occam’s razor and questioned the idea that the easier reading of a text is generally the best never made it online – I’m saving it for next year. Nevertheless, this might help explain why I am in a mood that is happy to embrace the more difficult reading of a text.)
So kudos to the JPS editorial committee for their choice of smooth instead of straight. It’s not the simpler, easier translation. Kudos to them as well for perhaps recognizing that Hosea was perhaps being similarly feisty when he chose this particular text to end his book.
May your Shabbat have smooth and straight paths, and may you have the wisdom to understand that both can be easy and treacherous.
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayeitzei 5771 - Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 - Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 - Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem?
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
Vayetze 5762-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking Gd's Place