(Speaking your language)
The story is told of the pious Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, who observed one of his congregants at prayer, mumbling incoherently.
After the prayers were over, the Rabbi approached the congregant.
“Bla blablablab mum mum blah blah blah” said the Rabbi, quietly.
“I beg your pardon, Rabbi?”
“Bla blablablab mum blab mumumumum” said the Rabbi, again.
“Rabbi, are you okay?”
“Mum hum mum mum mumumumumum”
“Rabbi, I can’t make out a word you are saying!”
“Well that’s how you prayed just now. How do you expect G-d to understand you?”
The man turned to the Rabbi and answered, not missing a beat, “Rabbi, with all due respect, when a baby cries, seemingly nobody understands what the baby could possibly want, yet the mother and father are able to somehow understand the incoherent sounds. G-d is the same, He is our Father, He can understand me.”
The Rabbi of Berditchev was truly overjoyed by this answer which showed how G-d hears our prayers, even the seemingly incoherent ones.
This coming weekend, Shabbat (Saturday) marks Rosh Chodesh Shevat, the first day of the Hebrew month of Shevat.
In Devorim (Deuteronomy 1:3-5), we are told that “in the eleventh month, on the first of the month… Moses began clarifying this Torah…”. The day in question happens to be the first day of Shevat. The commentators explain that the Torah was explained in 70 languages.
The Sfas Emes explains that this, in turn, infused other languages with a degree of the holiness of the Hebrew language, making it possible to connect with holiness even through languages other than Hebrew.
Many of us are not so familiar with the Hebrew language of our forefathers. Some of us may not have any knowledge of it at all. This should not serve to exclude us from participation in traditional Jewish learning and traditions. The Torah was translated into seventy languages, after all. Today, there is an unprecedented selection of books in English and other languages (French, Spanish, Russian, to name but a few) about Judaism and Torah. We can buy prayer books with English, translations of many classical works in English as well as a host of explanatory books covering virtually any Jewish subject under the sun (and beyond!) Unlike olden times, when Jewish scholarship and learning meant poring over classical Hebrew texts, nowadays this material is available in more familiar languages for those of us who need. (Not to mention the vast Jewish learning resources available over the internet.)
In Jewish Law, if a person is not familiar with the Hebrew vernacular, it is better for them to pray and study in a language that they understand. Hebrew is a special language – a holy language, no less – but if we do not understand what we are reading or saying, or are unable to even read it, we should feel comfortable using English (or other language) versions. The Torah is accessible to everybody, not just Hebrew readers.
The Jewish people are the ‘people of the book’. Let’s connect with our heritage, using the many wonderful opportunities available to us, in a familiar language. G-d hears us, even if we mumble incoherently – certainly He understands other languages!