On Root / The Choosing People

With elections off the table, Jeremy Benstein explores the right (and the root) 'to choose.'

Last week was a bewildering one for Israelis. It began with gearing up for snap elections, then suddenly the people found themselves facing the giant coalition that Benjamin Netanyahu cobbled together overnight, leaving the people scratching their heads – was the prime minister's move a devious ploy or a brilliant stratagem?

More than ever we find ourselves obsessing over political parties and platforms, policies and candidates, moderates and radical manifestos.

This weekly column is devoted to radicals of a different sort. In linguistics, "radical" means "from the root," and Hebrew-language roots are the crux as we explore Hebraic terms and families of words. This week we have chosen the all-too relevant word "choosing."

The word for "elections" in Hebrew is bechirot, from b-ch-r, "choose." We are able to choose our representatives because politically we have zechut bechira, "the right to vote," and some might argue that even more fundamental is the metaphysical belief in bechira chofshit, "free choice" (or "free will").

While a mivchar is simply a "range" or "selection," something nivchar is "chosen" or "select." For example, the nivcharim are "those chosen to represent," for instance in Knesset; and anivcheret is an "all-star team" in sports.

A different passive form is bachur/a, a "young man or woman" (Yiddish boch'r), outstanding by virtue of youth and strength.

But don't confuse bachur with bechor, the "first born" (spelled differently), which is another sort of selection. While this column is the bechora, the "inaugural one," we will return to this root around Shavuot, Chag Habicurim, the Festival of First Fruits and the Giving of the Law. And don't confuse the "giving of the law" with the "elected law givers," just as you shouldn't confuse the Knesset with a beit knesset (Jewish house of prayer), or "demagogues" with "synagogues."

Shavuot is one of the three regalim, "foot-holidays," from r-g-l, "foot." This root gives us 'oleh-regel, "pilgrim," but also meragel, "spy," like the Biblical meraglim (pl.). These are two very different sorts of tourists.

The Bible (Numbers 13) uses an interesting verb to describe espionage: latour et ha'aretz. While latour may look like "tour," it is what is called a false cognate - a word that looks and sounds like a word from a different language, but is actually completely different.

Another false cognate is ragil, meaning"regular", from the unrelated Latin regula, "rule" (which does make an appearance in Hebrew, as regulatzia, meaning "regulation").

Hergel is a "habit,"and targil, an "exercise" or a "maneuver."

And this is what Netanyahu and Mofaz were accused of doing: a maneuver, in the sense of a trick or ruse.

Was it a targil masriach, a "smelly gambit," harking back to Peres' attempt to bring down his own unity government back in 1990? Or was it a targil maztliach, a "successful tactic," outmaneuvering their political opponents? Or was it both?

All Greek to us

We may only learn when voters eventually exercise their rights at the kalpi or kalfi, the decidedly non-Hebraic "ballot box." But what could be more appropriate than an ancient Greek term to house our democratic rites.

Interestingly, kalpi originally meant an "urn for drawing lots," and appears in rabbinic literature as the container for the lots to decide the fate of the two goat sacrifices of Yom Kippur. One was to be sacrificed on the altar, the other driven out to Azazel, becoming the original "scapegoat." Whereas the ancient Jews removed slips of paper from the kalpi, we put ours in, but perhaps the result, the choosing of a scapegoat, isn't all that different.

In Israel, though, we vote for party lists, not individual candidates. This sounds more fun in English: it's about parties! Here we have miflagot,"political parties," from p-l-g, a root meaning "to divide, split." Modern uses of this root include: p'luga, a "division in the army"; peleg, a "brook, or tributary" splitting off from the main stream, and mafleg, which is the "distributor" in your car's engine.

The rabbis called the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis, chap. 11) "Dor Hapelaga", "the Generation of Division" (or divisiveness). In its own babbling way, with twenty-some-odd parties (and some are quite odd!) and the likes of Bibi and Barak, Shaul and Shelly, Yair and Yvet, Israeli politics is indeed plagued by palganut, "disputes" and "divisions," "fracas" and "fray." And then there are the overnight coalitions and ad hoc unifications.

As always, the bocher/et, the "voter," will need to decide. Good thing veteran politician, Haim Ramon, well versed in targilim, isn't leading one of the major lists this time around. Thus we are unlikely to be told that the premier Biblical injunction (Deut. 30:19), uvacharta bechayim, "therefore choose life!" is better read as, "vote for Haim."