Shabbat Shalom, everyone!
Before I begin, a brief word of apology. I had very little notice to prepare for this morning’s drasha, so I ask for your understanding and forgiveness if the topic I chose fails to catch your interest. I hope though that the message will be relevant and meaningful, as I am planning to encourage everyone to make a very powerful New Year resolution…
A subject I really hated when I was in school was history. For the life of me, I could not understand how details about past events — most of which happened hundreds or even thousands of years before I was born — could ever have an impact on my life. Battles, rulers, plots, arranged marriages, political moves, war strategies — they were always kind of a blur in my mind, a mishmash without meaning, sense or purpose.
It was only much later that I discovered and understood what history can do, how it can shape both present and future, how it can change our emotional state, our decisions, our direction in life, our destiny.
Today, I want to talk to you about a historical moment, or more precisely about the precursor of a historical moment. Hidden between the mitzvah of bikkurim and the blessings and curses for fulfilling or transgressing G-d’s commandments, there is a verse in our parsha that carries within it a very deep message.
In the second chapter of our parsha, chapter 27 of Deuteronomy, verses 5-8 record a charge by Moses to the Jews: when you enter the Land of Israel, build an altar of whole stones, offer sacrifices upon it, and rejoice there before G-d. And then, a very strange verse follows:
וְכָֽתַבְתָּ֣ עַל־הָֽאֲבָנִ֗ים אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֛י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּאֵ֥ר הֵיטֵֽב: — You shall inscribe on the stones all the words of this Torah, בַּאֵ֥ר הֵיטֵֽב. — Deuteronomy 27:8
What exactly is בַּאֵ֥ר הֵיטֵֽב? Both Jewish and non-Jewish translations of the Bible struggle to understand the term. The famous King James, as well as the Hertz and JPS versions render it as “very plainly”. The Modern English translation prefers “very clearly”. A 1599 Geneva Bible edition explains it as “so that everyone may read it and understand it”. The Young’s Literal Translation thinks it must mean “well engraved [on the stones]”. Artscroll translates it as “well clarified”. And Sefaria goes for “most distinctly”.
Now — you might be asking yourselves already now — where is the history in all this?
According to Rashi, what Moshe charged the Jewish people in doing here was to record on those stones the Torah, translated in the seventy languages of mankind. An interesting enterprise, though clearly a daunting task, but certainly not a historical event. After all, Rashi’s interpretation, taken from the Talmud (Mesechet Sotah 32a), is just that: an interpretation, a commentary, and not a historically proven event, isn’t it?
Well, yes, that is true… But there is another translation, this time a historically documented one and quite famous, which “mirrors” the verse in our parsha. That translation, not into seventy languages, but rather by seventy-two people, is known as the Septuagint.
In the writings of Josephus Flavius, a famed first-century Jewish historian, there is a mention of an obscure “Letter of Aristeas”, in which the enterprise of translating the Torah into Greek is recorded. The story (or history) of the event is present in the Talmud as well:
King Ptolemy once gathered 72 elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: “Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher”. G-d put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did. — Talmud, Megillah 9a
This is how the Septuagint, the most prominent documented translation of the Torah, came to be. It was a translation that basically made the Torah universal, understood not just by Jews, but by gentiles alike. It was a work that spawned a whole series of other translations, first the Vulgata, the Latin translation of the Bible, and then others, in various languages.
According to tradition, the Septuagint was nothing short of a miracle. The seventy-two elders worked independently, yet they arrived in the end at precisely the same translation. Moreover, tradition records that in some places, the 72 scholars purposefully changed the meaning of the text in the exact same way, in order to avoid translation pitfalls. For example, in the very first pasuk of the Torah, the scholars translated the text as if the Hebrew read אלקים ברא בראשית (“G-d created in the beginning”) and not בראשית ברא אלקים, which literally means “In the beginning, G-d created”, but which could have been misconstrued by idolaters as meaning “Bereshit created G-d”, thus alluding — G-d forbid — at another, older and more powerful divine being called Bereishit, who created Hashem.
As you can imagine just by analysing this tiny example, the Septuagint was a monumental task. But despite its usefulness and awesomeness, Jewish tradition is quite critical of it. A source from the Talmudic period, a work called Mesechta Sofrim, writes the following:
The day in which the Torah was translated for King Ptolemy was as terrible for the Jewish people as the day in which they worshipped the Golden Calf. Why? Because the translation did not catch every nuance and subtlety in the original. — Mesechta Sofrim
Another source from roughly the same period, called Meggilah Ta’anit, writes that:
On the eighth of Tevet, during the rule of King Ptolemy, the Torah was written in Greek, and darkness fell on the world for three days. — Meggilah Ta’anit
First a comparison to the Golden Calf. Then an allusion to the plague of choshech, the three-day darkness that befell the Egyptians during our slavery. Quite jarring, isn’t it?
So, is translating the Torah a good idea in the end, as our parsha seems to suggest? Or is it a bad idea, as the reactions to the Septuagint imply? Is the Artscroll phenomenon a good thing? Are we supposed to use translations in general when we study, or are they merely a compromise, a concession to the fact that in our times many people are not familiar enough with Hebrew to study the texts in the original?
Well, the key to understanding the difference between Moses’ charge in our parsha and the Septuagint project is that strange phrase the Torah uses in verse 8: בַּאֵ֥ר הֵיטֵֽב. We can certainly translate the Torah. We can explain it, interpret it, make it our own. But we have to do this properly. The motivation must be right, and the process an honest one.
In our parsha, the Torah itself records the commandment to translate. It is as if G-d Himself were to say: I gave it to you in Hebrew, but you can render it in other languages too, and make it accessible to all. Just don’t forget the original, and make sure the renderings are בַּאֵ֥ר הֵיטֵֽ, well elucidated.
By contrast, the Septuagint was the initiative of King Ptolemy, and his motivation was far less pure. Through the course of history, countless challenges have been raised by anti-semites against the Torah and the Jewish people. They were not based on the original text or on the Jewish traditions of reading it, but rather — more often than not — on the translations and interpretations which came about from the Septuagint project.
To make translations work, we have to stay 100% true to the original. We have to employ the principles of interpretation laid out in our tradition, to respect the opinion of previous commentators, and to remember what the Torah is and Who gave it to us.
The Torah is not a legal text. It’s not history, nor is it storytelling, philosophy or motivational writing. It’s not a children’s book, nor is it just for adults. It’s not just for men or just for women, and certainly it is not just for the intellectual elites. The Torah is ALL of that and much more! It is G-d’s message to the Jewish people and to the whole of humanity. It is a text that is alive and that gives life to those who study it. Etz chayim hi la’machazikin ba!
The Torah was given to Israel at Sinai in Hebrew, the holy tongue, and only in the original its many layers and levels of meaning can truly be maintained. When the Torah becomes just a translation, a blob of text taken from one language and forced unceremoniously into another, it loses its potency, its roots. Nuances are lost, the voices of Beit Shammai and Beit Hilel, of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir, get muffled and even muted. If we are to retain all its original color, all its depth and richness, we have to always come back to the original.
In our parsha, the Torah teaches us an important lesson: we have a mission to embrace the Torah, to learn it, live it, breathe it, and make it an integral part of our being. We are told to write it down onto the stones of our altars, which is to say onto the very building blocks of our relationship with G-d. But it should not be there just as a translation. It has to be בַּאֵ֥ר הֵיטֵֽב — strongly engraved not so much on the stones but on the people who read it. It has to be well elucidated and in plain language, so that everyone can read it and understand it.
When the Septuagint was put together, darkness descended upon the world because as human beings, with finite and limited intellect and abilities, we can never dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s in a translation. By definition, a translation is a commentary. And when that commentary is mistaken for the original, bad things happen.
* * *
Some of you may know that in recent years, I have embarked, together with good friend Mick Guttman and with my wife, on a project that’s never been done before. With G-d’s help, we are attempting to translate the Torah into Romanian, following the Hebrew text and a Jewish perspective and interpretation. We are now in the late stages of correction for the books of Bereshit and Shemot. To date, all the existing Romanian translations are basically Christian, and they do not follow the Torah, but rather the Septuagint, the Greek translation done by the seventy-two Jewish elders for King Ptolemy.
As we work on this translation, basically at every verse when we try to find the best Romanian rendering, we come across Hebrew nuances we never thought of before. We look at Artscroll too, both in English and French, we look at commentators, and Hertz, and a French edition of the Chief Rabbinate of France. We look at all the previous Romanian translations, and at Sefaria and other sources. We compare and contrast, we try to get to the bottom of why an interpretation was chosen over another, a particular nuance or meaning over an equally worthy one. But we always come back to the original! A cantillation mark, an accent, a word spelled in a peculiar way, a dispute between Rashi and Ibn Ezra, can make a huge difference in properly understanding the meaning of the text.
We know the enterprise isn’t simple. But what makes it doable is exactly what the Torah teaches in this week’s parsha and what the Rabbis are saying in the Talmud: the Torah can be translated, provided we stay as close as possible to בַּאֵ֥ר הֵיטֵֽב.
And this is what everyone of us must do, whether you have a project such as mine or not.
When you learn Torah next time, even for a few minutes, take a closer look at the Hebrew text. At the very least, glance at it. Don’t rely just on the translation, be it the Artscroll, or Hertz, or any other reliable source. Learn Hebrew (or get better at it) if you don’t know it well enough yet. There is always room to grow. Learn Torah with a friend, a chavruta, and not just by yourself; you will have someone to challenge you, and to bring you back to the true meaning when you stray. Make time to study, despite time being a rare commodity these days. As Rabban Gamliel says in Pirkei Avot: “Don’t say: when I have time, I will learn. Perhaps you will never have time.” And most importantly: always remember what the Torah is: the word of the Living G-d, His message and guide to each and every one of us.
I hope the verse in our parsha and its interpretation today will motivate you to grow. After all — as I said at the beginning — we are before Rosh Hashana, and New Year resolutions are in order. So make yours today, to learn more and discover more, from the endless wealth of knowledge that our Torah holds!
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova to everyone!
Delivered at Beth Zion Congregation, Montreal
September 21, 2019 – Shabbat Ki Tavo
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