“What” is the Word

When Isaiah informed King Hezekiah that he would live despite the king’s fatal illness and the earlier pronouncement by G-d that he would surely die, Isaiah then commands that Hezekiah’s boils be healed by rubbing them with pressed figs, a miraculous form of healing (Ch. 38, see Rashi).

King Hezekiah responds by proclaiming his excitement regarding his continued ability to come before G-d in the Holy Temple: “What a sign that I shall ascend to the House of God!” (v. 22)

The Hebrew for “What a sign” is ״מה אות״ — “mah oth” — which can also be translated, “What is the sign,” i.e. an inquisitive statement asking the prophet for a sign that he would merit to come to the Temple again. However, there is a strong consensus among the classic commentators that the correct translation is as the first translation, “What a sign,” expressing then king’s excitement over the sign already given, that is the miraculous healing that signaled the king would continue to live and serve G-d as before. “What,” here is therefore an expression of praise. If you will, it is as though Hezekiah said, “What a great sign…”

Following this understanding of the term “מה — what,” a novel understanding of a classic passage in Pirkey Avoth (“Ethics of the Fathers”) emerges.

[הלל] היה אומר: אם אין אני לי מי לי, וכשאני לעצמי מה אני, ואם לא עכשיו אימתי.

Classically, the translation of this passage runs as follows:

[Hillel] would say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am [only] for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

The Shelah ha-Kadosh (Rabbi Yeshayah ha-Levi Horowitz), however, offers an incredible interpretation of the same passage translating מה אני (“mah ani”) not as the inquisitive “what am I?” but rather as an exclamation as in the passage from Isaiah such that the phrase translates roughly as, “how great am I!” carrying quite the opposite connotation.

According to the Shelah, Hillel refers in his statement to the concept of transmigration of souls, that a soul will return to the earth in a new form in order to rectify some wrongdoing in a previous incarnation. While this can occur, a soul only reaches an inferior level of elevation through this process rather than if the soul had fulfilled its existence during its first incarnation. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” If I do not take it upon myself to fulfill my existence during my initial incarnation, whom should I expect to bring about the rectification of my soul? “And if I am for myself, how great am I!” What a tremendous accomplishment to achieve the fulfillment of my soul without recourse to reincarnation! “And if not now, when?” If I do not accomplish the fulfillment of my soul now, in this life, when will I again have an equal opportunity to do so?

Based on this principle of the Shelah, we would do best to immediately contemplate “what” our choices will yield.

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