Translating the Torah, for good
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TorahParshat Devarim

Translating the Torah, for good

Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22

(File photo)
(File photo)

One of the first verses in this week’s parsha states: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moav, Moshe began explaining this Torah.” The term “explained” here is somewhat ambiguous. Our sages, though, clarify the meaning of “explaining the Torah” to mean that Moshe translated it into all 70 languages of the world.

This implies that translating the Torah from Hebrew into foreign tongues is a positive thing. Great. Yet in the writings of the same sages we find an anecdote that implies otherwise: King Ptolemy once made five Jewish elders write the Torah for him in Greek. That day was “as difficult for the Jewish people as the day the golden calf was made.”

So, the first question is: If translating the Torah is a good thing, why does translating the Torah seem to be viewed in the opposite way in the story of Ptolemy? Second: Was translating the Torah into Greek really so terrible that it should be equated with making the golden calf, an idolatrous act!?

The answer lies in the nuanced precision of our sages’ words. They didn’t say that translating the Torah was as bad as the sin of the golden calf, but rather as bad as the day the calf was made. What’s the difference? The difference is that the day the calf was made and the day it was served as an idol were two different days. First, the golden calf was crafted and only on the next day did people serve it as a deity. In other words, the problem with Day Two was the sin, yet the nature of the problem of Day One was that something happened that made it possible for the sin to occur.

This was exactly the issue with translating the Torah for King Ptolemy.

When Hashem commanded Moshe to translate the Torah, that was a holy undertaking with holy intentions. But King Ptolemy wanted a Greek version of the Torah, a literal word-for-word translation. This would allow for the possibility of someone coming along down the line and very severely misunderstanding the Torah, which could be the opposite of the true intent of its words.

Factually, though, after the sages translated the Torah for Ptolemy in an inexact fashion, while keeping the content accurate, nothing bad resulted — unlike the incident of the golden calf. This was a doorway which later allowed many of the deeper teachings of the Torah, those of Kabbalah and Chassidut (Hasidic philosophy), to become accessible to the modern world.

Today there is a plethora of these life-changing teachings available in English, or in pretty much any language you or a friend may speak. Check them out. PJC

Rabbi Dovie Kivman is executive director of Chabad of Erie County. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.

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