Why do wars happen?
What makes a marriage last?
What does inner peace -- real inner peace -- look like?
For the answers to these age-old questions, you could turn to the Bible, ancient philosophy, or schedule a few dozen sessions with a licensed therapist.
Or, you could simply examine Hebrew words.
Last week, as part of my research for the book I'm writing about Israel, I sat down with Dr. Gabi Shetrit, professor of Bible as Literature at Haifa University, to talk about Hebrew.
We discussed the origin story of the Hebrew Israelis speak today, and how modern Hebrew wouldn't exist at all were it not for an obsessive Russian lexicographer named Eliezer Ben Yehuda who singlehandedly revived ancient Hebrew from the dead.
Shetrit explained the role of the "Akademia" -- the committee at Hebrew University that meets once a year to decide which words to officially add to the Hebrew dictionary and which don't make the cut.
Finally, we discussed what I consider the most fascinating topic of all: the magic of Hebrew words.
"In Hebrew, words are more than just a collection of syllables and sounds, Shetrit told me. "They are lessons. Words, and even individual letters, contain messages about ethics, human nature, and how we're supposed to live."
In a moment I'll share three examples.
But first, an important concept about how Hebrew works:
In Hebrew, all words are based on what's known as a shoresh -- a root word. This shoresh points us toward the deeper essence within a particular word; likewise, when multiple words are derived from the same shoresh it's a hint that the words are related.
Some of my favorites:
War. The Hebrew word for war -- mil'chama -- is derived from a word that many of you are probably familiar with: lechem, which means "bread." The message is clear: at the end of the day, all human struggle is ultimately about the most basic of human needs -- bread.
Marriage. Hollywood would have us believe that marriage is about fireworks and long, moonlit walks on the beach. But Hebrew tells a more honest story: the shoresh of the word nisu'in (marriage) is naso, which means "to carry something heavy." It might not sound romantic, but if you've been married a long time like I have (almost 25 years!), you know it's true: marriage is a journey in which two people join together to carry something precious, and each other, forward -- a task that requires effort and which neither could do alone.
Peace. It's one of the first Hebrew words we ever learn: shalom, which means "peace." But where does the word come from? As Shetrit explains, shalom is derived from the root shalem, which means "wholeness" or "a sense of being complete." It's a profound idea: we tend to think of peace as the absence of conflict, but Hebrew would say that true peace comes from being complete with our current circumstances, whatever they may be. On a personal level, inner peace doesn't mean getting rid of our anxieties or forgetting past traumas, but, instead, accepting them as part of the wholeness of who we are.
Personally, I'm fascinated by the whole "magical Hebrew" idea. If you know other examples, please send them my way through the Contact page.
Perhaps I'll even include them in the book!