A Word in Edgewise

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Chaim Cohen

One of the recent collections added to the Lanier Theological Library came from Chaim Cohen.  It is an amazing collection of books, thousands, mostly in Hebrew. 61O4RLcWiTL._AC_US218_.

Chaim Cohen (1947-2017) was a world-renowned biblical linguist.  Through his career the American-born scholar showed the benefits of reading biblical Hebrew in the light of texts written in Akkadian and Ugaritic, two ancient Semitic languages that have not been spoken in 3000 years.  Instead of being written on parchment (animal skin), Akkadian and Ugaritic were inscribed upon clay tablets and predate written Hebrew.  Cohen’s comparative work helped to clarify the meanings and usages of many obscure Hebrew words and phrases. He taught in the departments of Hebrew Language and Bible at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. This gentle, humble man believed his research could help situate religious faith in a “respectable academic framework,” for both secular and religious Israelis.

Friends who knew him said he delighted in the study of the Bible more than anyone they had ever met.  He was a living, walking Book of the Torah.  Cohen loved being a cohen, that is, a priest, and would regularly recite the priestly prayer (Num 6:24-26) with passion and grace.  Cohen also loved music, and he trained generations of readers in how best to read and recite Scripture publicly for worship.

Returning the jewels

I was thumbing through a book that belonged to my late friend, Larry Hurtado.  It is a Daily Prayer book, revised with Hebrew text and interpretation.  He had placed a bit of paper on one page as a bookmark and underlined much of one of the paragraphs.  It is a well known story from the Talmud and, according to the author, supplies the key to understanding the Kaddish.

Rabbi Meir lost both of his sons in one day.  It was a Sabbath afternoon when he was at the House of Learning.  His wife Beruria did not tell him about it on his return home because she did not want to sadden his Sabbath-joy. So she waited until evening and then approached her husband with a question: “I have a question to ask of you.  Some time ago a friend gave me some jewels to keep for him.  Today he demands them back.  What should I do?”  Rabbi Meir responded, “I cannot understand why you are asking me such a question.  Of course, return the jewels.”  It was at this moment that she took his hand and led him to the room where their children lay dead.  “These are the jewels,” she said, “that I must return.” Rabbi Meir wept out the words of Job: “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken; blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

It has been almost a year since our son, Daniel, died of an aggressive and rare form of cancer, August 2, 2019. Less than four months later, my friend and mentor, Larry Hurtado died of leukemia. November 25, 2019. Less than three weeks later, my wife’s mother died. December 13, 2019.  In 2019 we had to return the jewels loaned to us.  I wonder how long it took for Rabbi Meir to bless the God who gives and who takes.  He was a better man than me.  I’m having a hard time with it.

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