In Hebrew, ‘impeachment’ has the power to clean and restore us
Every article on impeachment insists that “impeach” does not mean to “remove” — but rather, in a quasi-Talmudic tone, the word means to “officially state the charges against a public official.” As law bloggers scrambled to parse the parameters of an “impeachable” offense, sounding a lot like the rabbis of two thousand years ago, the translator in me couldn’t resist turning to other languages for understanding.
I did not have to look far. The Hebrew term tahalichei hadacha is plastered across the front page of Haaretz, Israel’s leading newspaper. While tahalichei means proceedings, hadacha offers far more to think about; it is the noun form of the verb that means “to make you stray.” That verb appears in a famous verse from Deuteronomy 13:6 featuring the word l’hadichacha, or “to make you stray,” that, conveniently enough is about a false prophet, the fake news of long ago.
Here is the 1985 Jewish Publication Society translation, complete with dire consequences:
“As for that prophet or dream-diviner, he shall be put to death; for he urged disloyalty to the Lord your God — who freed you from the land of Egypt and who redeemed you from the house of bondage — to make you stray from the path that the Lord your God commanded you to follow. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.”
It’s hard to focus on tiny dots in this verse, but for our purposes, it’s important to note that the verb l’hadichacha in this verse, as well as the noun hadacha as used in the Haaretz articles on impeachment, are written with a dagesh, or a dot, inside the daled; what the dagesh here indicates is that a letter is missing. Here, the missing letter is nun, and so, the three-letter root of this hadacha is nun, daled, chet.
If this sounds like the parsing of the Mueller report or the language of Article 25, bear with me. It matters because there is an intriguing lookalike word — written with the exact same letters — that has nothing to do with the word that appears in Deuteronomy or in Haaretz.
And now, more than ever, accuracy matters.
For the reader exhausted from the news cycle, and using the dictionary as a calming device, it’s hard not to gaze in hope, at that lookalike word just above hadacha with a dagesh in the iconic Even Shoshan Hebrew dictionary. But if you look closely, this other hadacha has no dagesh in the letter daled, and it has an entirely different root. Yet it’s still fascinating to ponder because this hadacha means “rinsing-out thoroughly.”
The three-letter root of the second hadacha — the one with no dagesh — is daled, vav, chet. Hadacha as grand rinse can be found in tractate Berachot 51, which describes a cleaning inside and out. (I knew I was getting a Talmudic feeling for a reason.)
And though the hadacha that is mentioned in Deuteronomy, or making a person stray from the path, is the real meaning of the hadacha currently mentioned in the pages of Haaretz, the rinsing-out definition of hadacha (without the dagesh) is delightful to contemplate in these troubled times.
In contemporary Hebrew, a mediach kaylim is a dishwasher. And boy, are there many exasperated Americans—including some Republican members of Congress— who just want to press “rinse” on this President. And after all, with a U.S. president who has made lies, hatred and misinformation commonplace, is it OK to take solace in a word that has the same letters, just the wrong dagesh?
I thought about this question as I looked at one of those “If You See Something, Say Something” signs. Some of us are seeing something every day, saying something every day, putting politicians on speed-dial, running to protests, and through it all just thinking — isn’t there someone to report this to? I then considered the ubiquitous Hebrew “word” doch, or report, which is made up of an abbreviation for din v’cheshbon, or justice and accounting. It’s in the same pages of the dictionary which parse hadacha.
What we want, more than to say something, is to see some justice and accounting.
These days, as the country — and the world — reels from a deadly riot at the Capitol, both justice and accounting are on everyone’s mind: the inner kind as well as the public kind, and it can seem that those questions are everywhere, just like the word doch. Permutations of that word can be found in news stories, and in contemporary Israeli fiction. Of course, the Trump presidency may feel like fiction, but it is real — it was real— just as the presence of other deeply problematic world leaders is real, and the hatred we have seen is real. That was a real person wearing a Camp Auschwitz t-shirt. And we all know this much is real, too: there will certainly be some necessary cleansing ahead.
In the meantime, for those who are exhausted by the news cycle, or perhaps, energized by yet another discussion of “impeachable,” I recommend focusing on the Hebrew word hadacha, with a dagesh and without. Consider how much this period in time — this little dot in the grand span of human history — has made us stray from our path. Consider the false prophet, or perhaps, false prophets, that have come into our midst. And then take out the dagesh, and take solace in an ancient word of cleansing. Think rinse. Think suds. Then let your mind wander to din v’cheshbon, justice and accounting, abbreviated or not, labeled “impeachable” or not. Think a national — and perhaps, global—cleanse of all of this.
Let this be the year we return to a just path, cleansed.
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of “The Grammar of God” (Spiegel & Grau). Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner