In English we have the concept of finding one’s inner compass, meaning being true to oneself. The Hebrew language takes this one step further: Every time Israelis refer to pangs of conscience (“yisurei matzpun” or “nekifot matzpun”), they are, in a sense, talking about the difficulty in finding their true north.
That’s because “matzpun,” the Hebrew word for “conscience” -- like “matzpen,” the word for “compass” -- comes from the root Tz-P-N, which means both “hidden” (“tzafun”) and “north” (“tzafon”).
Though the two core meanings of the root word are said to have developed separately, with “matzpun” actually coming from “tzafun,” it’s difficult not to read both meanings of that root into the contemporary understanding of conscience, even if that was not the original derivation.
In that sense, the use of the same root letters seems to be telling us, in New Age fashion, that the next time we get lost, we ought to forget about both GPS and actual ink-on-paper maps (remember those?) and instead look toward our inner north stars and follow our consciences. Just don’t blame me if your boss doesn’t buy this as an excuse for why you came late to the meeting.
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