Friday, February 28, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pekudei 5774–Pronouns Revisited

Fourteen years ago I mused about the significance of the pronouns found in parashat Pekudei. I thought it was a good time to revisit and expand upon those thoughts. Parashat Pekudei provides an interesting illustration of the impact and use of pronouns in the text.

Do you sit through the credits at the end of a movie or a TV show? At a show, do you read your program to identify the authors, composers,lyricists,actors, designers, and crew? Are you bothered like I am when TV networks squeeze the "crawl" at the end of a movie or show into a small area, and speed it up, so they can run self-promotional advertisements at the same time, always louder, bigger and more distracting? Do you ever find yourself referring to the ubiquitous "they" ? Do you ever find yourself asking that familiar phrase "just who are the they being referenced" ?

Have you ever remarked to someone "gee, [such and such a person] sure uses 'I' a lot in [his/her] speech" ? Society and culture have conditioned us to automatically jump to some conclusions about people who are often self-referential in their speech. We assume they are self-centered, egotistical, or selfish. Sometimes we leap to the conclusion that their self-reverential bravado and boastfulness is actually masking deep-seated insecurities. On the other hand, have you ever heard a self-proclaimed analyst suggest that using "I" statements is the best way to express how one feels? The self-help revolution has spawned generations of people who speak in allegedly assertive terms like “I feel x when you y.” How typically Jewish in viewpoint, that using the self-referential pronouns “I” or “me” is simultaneously viewed as a positive and a negative!

Do you find yourself referring to “us” and”them?”  Do you hate the fact that “you” is both the singular and plural forms of the same pronoun?

Pronouns are not always as simple as they might appear. They can carry baggage. Last weekend I participated in a group exercise at a Shabbaton. I was judging and awarding points to teams of parents and 6th-graders for answers to questions or tasks related to particular elements of Jewish worship. On two occasions, I deducted points for answers that referenced G”d using the male pronoun (and all these groups were mixed gender.) Admittedly, it was a little bit picky, but it also made people stop and think.

Consider Yaakov’s exclamation after his dream, in which a close reading of the Hebrew has him saying that “G”d was in this place and I, I did not know it” rather than simply “and I did not know it.” Pronouns matter.

I did this. You did thus. He did that. She did something else. It did something different. They did another thing. Y'all (the only true 2nd person plural in American English I could think of that was distinguishable from the 2nd person singular you) did that again. (You'll notice I left a pronoun out. You'll see why.)

Pronouns are used regularly, continually, in our speech and writing, often without much awareness of them on our part. Yet they have a significant impact on us, on how we think. Pronouns matter. I have a thesis about all this. There's a pronoun we don't use as often as we should.  It’s absence could help explain some of societies problems. The lack of use of this pronoun is why some people don't watch or read the credits. After all, the people who made this movie are "them." As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been conditioned to say "I feel x when you say or do y." Rarely, I believe do we think of a “them” as really being a bunch of “singular yous.” They might as well be an “it.” (I wonder how we perceive “us?” Do we think of it only collectively, or do we realize that “us” is really a whole bunch of “yous?” I wish I had Buber’s gift for illustrating the nature of these different kinds of relationships.)

What has all this to do with parashat Pekudei? Take a look at the text. It dawned on me as I read it that paying attention to the pronouns (or implied pronouns, which, in the Hebrew are primarily indicated by the verb forms and suffixes.) The first part of the parasha seems to use the pronoun “he” predominantly, though there aren't that many pronouns used. Sometimes it's not entirely clear who the "he" is - Moshe, Betzalel, or even Oholiab. It might be safe to assume the "he" is Moshe, but the parasha says "he made hooks for the posts..." which might lead one to believe it was the artisan Betzalel (or his assistant Oholiab) that is the “he” being referenced for, after all, they were the artisans, and not Moshe.

Then there is a sudden switch in Chapter 39, and the pronouns become "they." They who? Betzalel and Oholiab? The people? All the artisans? 31 verses of "they" did this and "they" did that. Verse 32 may provide a clue: it says "b'nei Yisrael", they did these things for the preparation and erection of the tabernacle. The makeup of “they” can often be uncertain. This makes it even harder for “us” to  view “them” as distinct individuals, worthy of being treated as a “you.” Yet there can be no “they” without many yous.

Another switch in pronouns comes with Chapter 40, as G”d addresses Moshe. The dominant pronoun becomes "you" (singular,) a private conversation that wraps up at verse 16, where we get another pronoun switch. The balance of the parasha speaks of what Moshe did. What "he" did to prepare the tabernacle for use. Through to verse 33.

Finally, the last few verses are a mix of pronouns, rather sparingly, a few "its" referring to the cloud (of course, the "it" concept is a little vague in the Hebrew) and one "they" clearly referring to the people of Israel, and the last verse contains verbal "theys."

What does this juxtaposition of pronouns tell us? Why are there large sections here (and elsewhere in the Torah) where there is little variety on pronouns? Is it simply an affect of normal writing, of narrative? Is it reflective primarily of the point of view of the narrator? That I leave to each of us to exegete for him or herself. But I do wish to call attention to the missing pronoun. The same one that explains why people don't watch the credits, why greed and selfishness persist in our world, in our "me" society.

Where is the WE? It wasn't just Moshe, or G”d, or Betzalel or Oholiab that accomplished these things. WE, the people of Israel, WE accomplished these things. Together. G”d, the people, the leadership, the artisans all working together. WE. There is WE in watching a movie or a TV show or a play or concert. The audience is as much a part of the experience (though some might argue it is more so in a live presentation-I'm not convinced this is so except in how the response dynamic may affect the performance-but audience involvement to a fixed form-painting, film, etc. is still part of the artwork.) So the people listed in the crawl, the credits, are not just "they" but a part of WE. We who experienced this thing.

No matter how one-way prayer might feel at times, surely prayer always involves a “we?” If there is no relationship, why pray at all? The mere act of praying, even if conditional, suggests at the very least openness to the idea that there is someone/thing at the other end of the conversation, that there is a “we involved.”

Now all of this may just be an artifact of the forms and styles of writing used in the Torah. Yet, if I think through other text examples, I can find long narrative stretches of text that do include communal “we” pronouns. If the Torah is intended to be OUR narrative, one might expect to see communal pronouns more often.

The “we” pronoun appears about 32 times in Exodus, and the last time it appears is around chapter 32. It appears but once in Leviticus! “Us” appears a few more times, but, at least in my mind, “us” is a more selfish communal pronoun than “we.” Things are done or happen to us. We do things.

We can end the book of Sh'mot (Exodus) with a "they" thought. Because it’s the end of a book, the missing pronoun gets added when we chant:

חזק חזק ונתחזק

Chazak, Chazak, v’nitchazeik. Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened. Though because this is a reflexive form of the verb, we could translate it as “let us strengthen ourselves.”

This Shabbat, may WE all be strengthened, and may WE all try to remember the importance of the WE.

Shabbat Shalom,


© 2014 by Adrian A. Durlester
Portions ©2000, 2005  by Adrian A. Durlester)

Other musings on this parasha

Pekude/Shabbat Sh'kalim 5771 - Ideas Worth Re-Examining

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