I am blessed with six sons (and a pair of honorees), but #2 was the toughest nut. As a toddler he earned the reputation of the nastiest kid in the playgroup. Getting him to just stop biting other children was a challenge. He fought with me at every juncture; he would not even go to sleep unless and until I pinned him down and forced him to actually Lose. The. Fight. Every single bedtime. You can imagine how stewardesses handled the spectacle of a father smearing his hollering kid against the seat and bulkhead because the kid was exhausted and needed to sleep. #2 didn’t care if the odds were against him: for him, the fight was its own reward. My own brother threatened to call CPS on me.
Around third or fourth grade, #2 came around, at least in principle. But he still had a deep and instinctive need to smash things. When he was upset or just energetic, his self-designed therapy was to take a sledgehammer or an axe and to absolutely thrash some poor unfortunate stump.
Some people advised therapy. Most advised drugs. We rejected them all. We knew #2 just needed to find out how best to use his energy and his anger for positive ends. The smasher adopted the hobby of blacksmithing, and other ways of changing the physical world around him to suit himself. He learned how to become himself through his destructive energies. My violent son has grown into a fine young man, husband, and father – and friend. He still likes to smash things.
I was reminded of this when learning with #2 earlier today. We were trying to find the best way to explain what I consider to be a monumental breakthrough in understanding the text of the Torah, and #2 suggested that I use his own life as the example. It may be a good way to help illustrate the point we want to share: that two key verses in Genesis are mistranslated and thus almost entirely misunderstood. And they deal with the way the Torah wants each person to become their best self.
Let’s start with the verses as they are commonly understood:
If you do not do right, sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master. [G-d to Cain, before Cain kills Abel]
Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. [G-d’s words to Eve after she eats the fruit]
These are both rock-ribbed verses. They are widely quoted and viewed as foundational for both Judaism and Christianity. And they are not right.
Let’s start with the fact that the verses mirror each other. It works this way: The Hebrew phrase for “[sin] desires you, yet you can be its master” is almost identical to “your desire is for your man, and he shall rule over you.” Which means that they are related and connected to each other.
In both verses, the core words are the same. And yet neither is correctly understood. Neither of:
We are supposed to master sin.
Men are supposed to rule over their wives.
Is found in the words of the Torah! Both translations are, in fact, incorrect!
Isn’t my statement a chutzpah? How can I possibly argue that these verses have been misunderstood for millennia? Here is a core principle: when we read the Torah, we must never use it as a drunk uses a lamppost: for support and not illumination. The text is not there to agree with what we already think. The purpose of the Torah, by its own statement, is to illuminate G-d’s recipe for how we grow ourselves and build holy relationships.
Here is why I can say that these verses are mistranslated: if we look at how these words are used elsewhere in the Torah, the mistranslation – and a new and much more interesting and beautiful meaning – is revealed.
As we break this down, I will take it one word at a time. Here are the mirrored phrases (even those who do not read Hebrew should be able to see the strong resemblances between these two verses):
תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בּֽוֹ
תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשׇׁל־בָּֽךְ
We’ll start with the last word. The letter “b” is a preposition, and it means “within it.” The word is first found in the creation story:
And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.”
So it can mean “in it.” “b” can also be “by it,” as in:
I will bless those who bless you, and curse the one who curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”
So in looking at these phrases… with Cain, sin will do something within or by him. And man will do something within or by his wife!
So what is the “something” we are talking about? The word is “M-Sh-L” and in the text it means a few things – but (unlike in Modern Hebrew) none of them means to “rule” as it is commonly understood. Here are the ways this word is used:
1: To illuminate or enlighten, an energetic infusion into the physical world. As in:
G-d made the two great lights, the greater light to “M-Sh-L” the day and the lesser light to “M-Sh-L” the night, and the stars. … And G-d set them in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth, to “M-Sh-L” the day and the night.
Things can only happen with light!
1b: A related similar meaning is to be influential, an example to others (for good or bad):
You shall be a consternation, a “M-Sh-L”, and a byword among all the peoples to which G-d will drive you.
2: To manage or steward:
And Abraham said to the senior servant of his household, the “M-Sh-L” of all that was his…
This word also used with Joseph, who is steward over the land of Egypt – but is never the actual ruler. The steward’s job is to coordinate and manage and keep everything operating nicely. But he is not the actual guy in charge.
3: To prophecy, describing Bilaam numerous times:
Taking up his “M-Sh-L”, he said: “Word of Balaam son of Beor; Word of the man whose eye is true.”
Your spiritual soul can take sin over from the inside. Prophecy is a way of putting spiritual energy into the physical world.
So we can put this all together: “M-Sh-L” means to illuminate, to channel G-d’s word, to nurture or steward… it is a word that tells us of development and spiritual growth, of shining over the world.
Now apply it to the desire sin has for Cain: Cain is told that sin’s desire can be turned to spiritual growth and development.
And if we look at the other verse: Eve is told that her desire for her husband leads to him spiritually growing through her.
This is not only a more accurate translation; it is much deeper, more interesting, and far more beautiful and insightful than merely telling us that husbands are to rule their wives. This more detailed understanding creates ties between man and woman, making his spiritual growth dependent on their relationship!
With regards to Cain and sin, this translation is much more detailed than the injunction that we are to master our baser impulses or desires. Instead, we see that the text is telling us to do with sin what #2 son did with his challenges: use his sinful urges for productive ends.
In both cases, it is desire that leads to a comparison to the illumination of the sun and moon, and prophecy from G-d. The desire of sin for Cain, and of Eve for Adam is not something to be avoided. Desire instead becomes the engine that can drive mankind toward higher and holier ends!
Which leads us to the last key word in the phrase, shared by both. This word is תְּשׁ֣וקְ “desire.” But the odd thing is that this word is only found in the Torah in these two verses. Which makes it different from other words translated as “desire” in the Torah.
The core word, the root, of תְּשׁ֣וקְ is שׁ֣וק, which we do find in the Torah. It only means one thing, though: it means the thigh of an animal – for which it is used no fewer than twelve times. This object, the thigh, is only used for the ordination of priests, or given to priests by ordinary people.
The meaning of the mention of the “thigh” given to the priests now becomes clear: if the desire sin has for each of us, and the desire of a woman for her man are actually meant to lead to higher and holier ends, then it makes sense that the symbol of those desires are contributed to the priests, the very people whose job it is to interact with G-d on our behalf, to facilitate our divine connections.
By giving the thighs, we symbolically contribute our desires to the Cohen, seeing our spiritual development and growth through the connection to G-d. It is a way of flipping our instinctive connection with animals toward holiness instead, and thus donating the thighs to the priests can be seen as a way of fulfilling G-d’s will – we take the thighs and aim toward holiness instead of the base alternatives of rage (Cain’s sin, unloosed) and animalistic lust. The priests are a means of making desire into a positive attribute.
This also ties in with our understanding that a man has a lesser connection with G-d if he is not married. This injunction applies to priests at least as much as to ordinary people: in order to perform the tasks of his office, the high priest has to be married. Because, as we see from G-d’s words to Eve, it is through the love of a woman that a man is able to spiritually grow, connect with G-d, and illuminate the world around him.
[an @iWe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, and @eliyahumasinter work]