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Parashat Devarim 5777 — 07/29/2017

Devarim 1:1 – 3:22

As I mentioned at the end of the previous parashah, Ramchal on the Torah to Sefer Devarim has not yet been published (as of 6/4/2017) and the bookseller informed me that there is no ETA for it at the moment.  Therefore, with the acquiescence of our intrepid editor, I am striking out on my own.  So don’t blame Ramchal for anything you read here!

          Moses began to clarify the Torah saying… (1:5)

          He explained it to them in 70 languages (Rashi ad loc)

Rashi is quoting Midrash Tanchuma to our verse, but what is the question Rashi is trying to answer?  (This kind of question is usually formulated as, “What’s bothering Rashi?”)

Artscroll publishes a 5-volume set of Rashi on Chumash, which is a wonderful way to learn to read Torah the way our Sages read it.  (It’s also a good way to learn to read Rashi script, which you’ll need to do at some point to read virtually any Jewish text with commentaries.)  They comment:

 Clarifying is not taken in its simplest sense, for it is inconceivable that Moses would have allowed the Torah to remain unclear to the Israelites for nearly forty years [RAR: Sefer Devarim occurs in the last month before Moses’ death at the end of the 40 years of wandering, just before Yehoshua leads the nation across the Jordan into the Land of Israel.], not even beginning to clarify it until this point, days before his death.  Furthermore, Rashi to Leviticus 25:1 has already stated that all of the rules and fine points of the law of the Torah were given on Mount Sinai.  “Moses began clarifying this Torah” thus cannot mean that he began to explain it in the simple sense.

The seventy languages are those which resulted from Gd’s confusing the languages of those who built the Tower of Babel; see Gen 11:1-9.

Translating the Torah into seventy languages instilled some of the light of the Torah into those languages and those who speak them.  This allows the Jewish people to maintain their bond with the Torah even when they are in exile, under the domination of other nations (Sfat Emet in the name of Chiddushei haRim [RAR: Chiddushei haRim is R. Yitzchak Meir Alter, first Gerrer Rebbe, 1799-1866.  Sfat Emet is Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905, 3rd Gerrer Rebbe and grandson of the Chiddushei haRim.])

The answer to our first question then appears to be that it doesn’t make any sense to read the Torah literally here, as it goes against what we understand to be Moses’ teaching method.  Therefore we cannot read the verse as meaning that Moses began explaining the Torah to the Jewish people.  Rather, following Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi explains the verse as referring to Moses’ explaining the Torah to the rest of the world’s peoples by translating Torah into their languages.

Artscroll, following the Gerrer Rebbes, explains that translating the Torah into another language actually appears to transform that language by infusing some of the Torah’s holiness into it.  I think that to understand this we must first examine what our tradition tells us about the nature of the Hebrew language.

According to modern physics, all the particles that constitute matter are the vibrational modes of underlying fields.  We hope and expect that we will be able to demonstrate that all these different fields are in fact different aspects of one, underlying unified field.  Thus, everything we see has a vibratory value, the total of the vibrations of this unified field that appear to us as all the zillions of particles that make up any object.

Our tradition tells us that the Hebrew language – its phonology, grammar and semantics – is a perfect reflector of the vibrational values of its referents.  Thus the word kisei captures the “essence” of chair better than the English word “chair.”  Torah, in particular, captures the essence of the whole creation.  It can, to be sure, be understood on a simple level as a book of laws and lore, and these levels hint at the deeper levels underneath.  But the essence of Torah, in this view, is that it is actually a living model of creation, from the finest, subtlest vibrations to the largest galactic structures.

What happens to this “blueprint of creation” when we translate it into another language?  Obviously, we can only translate the “meaning” of the words – that is, the most superficial value of the language.  If one reads Biblical commentaries based on translations one quickly sees how many nuances of grammar and syntax, and therefore meaning, are lost.  In the Talmud and Midrash the Rabbis are constantly deriving points of law and homiletical teachings from an extra letter here or an odd locution there.  All this is “lost in translation.”  How much more so is the sound, or vibratory value lost, when we move to a different language – different words, different phonetic system, different grammar and syntax!

Nevertheless, the Sfas Emes tells us that some of the light of Torah does get passed into those other languages.  I can think of two explanations (neither of them may be right of course).  The more obvious explanation is that even on the surface level, Torah contains information about the structure of creation, and when that is translated it enlivens the target language.

The more compelling answer to me is the following.  The “70 languages” come from Gd’s confounding of humankind’s speech at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9).  Originally however, everyone spoke Hebrew.  When Gd “mixed up” the languages (the word “Babel” comes from the Hebrew root meaning to mix up), each language maintained some quality of the original Hebrew.  When Torah is translated from Hebrew to another language, this remnant quality gets enlivened in the language, at least for those who are reading the translation.  Alternatively, it may be that at their root, at the level that transcends expression, all languages are equivalent in that only the structure of creation exists – that is, all languages converge to Hebrew at their root.  By translating Torah into those languages, we enliven each language from its root in the transcendent, allowing it to express the light of Gd more perfectly.

You can take this speculation for what you think it’s worth.  Language is a wonderful way of communicating between people, but it is an expression of reality, not the reality itself.  In the words of Lao Tzu, “The Tao that can be told is not the perfect Tao.”