I’ll never forget that time I taught the first line of this week’s Torah portion (B’midbar). One English translation begins, “God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1), from which Jewish tradition spins countless interpretations.
Reading this verse, the student asked me, “Why did God speak to Moses in China?”
Nonsense: The Sinai peninsula is adjacent to modern-day Israel, not in China. But curiosity got the best of me – and I’m glad it did. I asked the student, “China? Why do you think God spoke to Moses in China?”
The student grew impatient that I didn’t immediately understand what to him was intuitively obvious. He pointed to the Torah text and said, “Look! It says so right here: ‘God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of China!’”
It took me a moment to realize that the student was reading the Hebrew word “Sinai” (סיני / seen-ai) as “my China” (also סיני). Apparently my student knew that the Hebrew word for China is סין (seen), and that’s all he needed to connect the dots: God spoke to Moses in China.
Later that year, I taught on the mitzvah (commandment) to build a parapet (barrier) on the roof of every home: We’re responsible for looking ahead, planning well and protecting people that work with and for us, lest they fall. The student’s parent later approached me with a question that should have been about a parapet:
“Why does Torah tell us to put a parakeet on the roof?”
God spoke to Moses in China, and we put a parakeet on the roof. While we can laugh off these bloopers as routine childhood malapropisms, we’d do ourselves and Jewish tradition an injustice to dismiss them without going deeper. Understood correctly, these bloopers are the timeless art of midrash – holy interpretive leaps, wordplay and meaning-making amidst Jewish tradition’s endlessly creative messiness of language, identity and storytelling.
Putting Moses in China opened a wide window into the student’s mind and soul. That blooper opened a dialogue in which he got to ask: Is God everywhere? Is Sinai everywhere? Are there Jews in China? (Answer: yes.) We got to discuss: What if it’s unclear where Sinai was? Does that change how we feel about Torah? (This notion of the “wilderness” of Sinai – unclear, unkempt, wild and waste – is a key midrash: Torah arose in “wilderness” to show that holiness and revelation are beyond the illusion of human control. To receive Torah anew, we must open ourselves and transcend ourselves – as if we ourselves become the “wilderness.”) All of this and more came by taking the student’s China blooper seriously, and thus taking the student seriously.
Spirituality is serious business – but humor, pun and other wordplay are seriously powerful spiritual tools. When we diminish the vital role of humor in Jewish life, we diminish ourselves – so let’s not be afraid to lighten up in the name of authentic Jewish spirituality. After all, it was a holy blooper that helped teach the student about Torah, Jewish interpretive tradition, and himself.
As for the parakeet, um… I’ll get back to you on that.