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Parshas Vayechi (5771)

Lost in Translation

One of the four main non-Biblical fast days on the Jewish calendar is this Friday, December 17th. It is known as Asarah B’Teves (the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Teves). On this fateful day over 2400 years ago, King Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem that resulted in the destruction of the First Temple eighteen months later.

Two other national tragedies occurred in the month of Teves that are not so well known – yet in order to avoid serious hardship for the people, the prophets decreed only one fast day, on the Tenth of Teves, the anniversary of the most tragic of the occurrences.

On the 8th day of Teves, Egyptian King Ptolemy II (285-246 B.C.E.) ordered seventy Jewish sages to enter into seventy separate rooms and translate the Torah into Greek. Though miracles guided their work on this book, called the Septuagint, (see Talmud Megillah 9a) our Sages teach us that on the day that the translation commenced, "A three-day long period of darkness descended upon the world."

And on the 9th day of Teves (in the 4th century B.C.E.), both Ezra the Scribe and his colleague Nechemiah died. They led the Jewish people in the rebuilding of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and their loss left a tragic void.

It needs to be explained why the Sages considered the translation of the Torah into Greek such a bad thing. What was the great tragedy of translating the Torah into another language, and why should it cause the world to become dark?

Rabbi Dovid Cohen shlit”a explains that darkness descended to the world after the Torah was first translated because – as it says in Maseches Sofrim 1:7-8 – “the Torah could not be translated adequately”. Although the written text of the Torah can be translated with reasonable accuracy into another language, all the nuances of meaning -- the double-entendres and the various implicit insinuations in the words of the Torah -- are lost in the process. Gematrias (numerology), acrostics and other word-based analyses are impossible to carry over from one language to another.

The entire body of the Oral Torah which lies beneath the surface of the written text - and which gives light and meaning to the text - was thus severed and deleted from the Torah. Thus the world was plunged into ‘darkness’ as a result of the translation.

I would like to suggest a slightly different approach to understanding the danger of translating the Torah into other languages – an approach which can best be illustrated with the help of modern technology.

You see, today we have this most wondrous tool on our computers called Spell Check. The way Spell Check works is that when you type in a word that it doesn’t recognize - either because it’s misspelled (sp?) or because it’s in a different language – the computer will suggest an alternative word or spelling (and some computers will automatically correct it for you).

Sometimes, the alternative word(s) suggested by Spell Check can produce highly amusing results … as in the following letter sent via computer from ‘Chaim’ to ‘Shmuel’ around the Jewish holidays (I’ve included translations of most of the Yiddish phrases in parentheses following each phrase):

Dear Shmuel,

Just a line to thank you for a lovely Shabbos. Your wife Fruma is a real balabusteh (great homemaker)! What a cook! Her gefilte fish, cholent, kugel, kishka, tzimmes and shtrudel were out of this world. But are you sure the pareve (containing no milk or meat) cream on the lokshen (noodle) pudding was really pareve? It was so delicious that I forgive her even if it wasn't.

You've got a lovely mishpoche (family). Your Soraleh was a mechayeh (delight) to look at, while your Moishele has the makings of a real mensch. They should only give you nachas (joy). Even your shvigger (mother-in-law) was not the alta kocker (old and complaining person) everyone says she is, but I'll bet your shver (father-in-law), olov hasholem (may he rest in peace), feels he's happier where he is. May she live to be a hundert und tzvanzig (120 years old).

As for your shul (synagogue), quite frankly it wasn't worth the schlep. They didn't stop schmoozing for a minute. It was as noisy as our shteeble (little shul), but not half as heimish (cozy).

Your chazzan (cantor) was toneless, and the drashah (sermon) your Rav (rabbi) gave was so long, I thought I would plotz (collapse)! Even your shammas (sexton in the synagogue) was a schmo (idiot). The tallis (prayer shawl) he gave me was an alta shmatta (old rag), with all the tzitzis (fringes) gone, and I doubt if he knows a chumash (Bible) from a siddur (prayer book). And you'd think, as a visitor from out of town, they would at least have given me an aliyah (the honor of being called up to make blessings on the Torah), but what did they offer? Hagboh (lifting the Torah) - while I was still convalescing from a double hernia! What a chutzpah (nerve)!

As you know I'm not one to harbor faribbles (grudges), but a meessa meshunah (horrible death) would be too good for them.

Wishing you a Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday), Chaim

With Spell Check automatically correcting any unrecognizable words in the letter, this is what Shmuel read:

Dear Shovel,

Just a line to thank you for a lovely shabby. Your wife Fruity is a real ballet buster! What a cook! Her guilty fish, coolant, kudos, kibble, times and shrivel were out of this world. But are you sure the partridge cream on the lockjaw pudding really was partridge? It was so delicious that I forgive her even if it wasn't.

You've got a lovely mishmash. Your Sore was a mechanic to look at, while your Muesli has the makings of a real menace. They should only give you nachos. Even your trigger was not the late kicker everyone says she is, but I'll bet your shower, olive hashish, feels he's happier where he is. May she live to be hunchbacked and tantalizing.

As for your spool, quite frankly it wasn't worth the scrap. They didn't stop oozing for a minute. It was as noisy as our stable, but not half as hellish.

Your chaser was toneless, and the drastic your Rave gave was so long, I thought I would pilates! Even your shame was a shoe. The tallies he gave me was an ale shatter, with all the tizzies gone, and I doubt if he knows a chum ash from a spider. And you'd think, as a visitor from out of town, they would at least have given me an alias, but what did they offer? Hatbox - while I was still convalescing from a double hernia! What a hotspot!

As you know I'm not one to harbor fairies, but a messy miasma would be too good for them.

Wishing you a Hog Smooch, Chain

So do you see what I mean? Spell Check sees a word in a foreign language - it doesn’t make any sense to Spell Check – so it simply changes the word to something else that it does understand, not caring one bit if this will change the originally intended meaning of the text.

And therein lies the spiritual danger of translating our Holy Torah into Greek. For before it was translated, in order to understand the true meaning of any of the Torah’s deep and often complex stories and laws, one would need to study with a Rabbi who would transmit the proper understanding of the text based on the Mesorah (tradition) that he received from his rabbi – all the way back to Moses and G-d at Mount Sinai.

Once the Torah was translated, however, anyone can access it on his own, without needing to ask a Rabbi to interpret it. And, just like Spell Check, if there is a word or a story or a law that the reader doesn’t like or understand - due to his own lack of depth or due to his lack of appreciation for the sanctity of the Torah and of the Tzaddikim (righteous people) whose lives are recorded in it - he will simply suggest an alternative understanding that he can appreciate, disregarding the original intent of the text. And that takes the light and the beauty of our Holy Torah and plunges it into darkness.

A case in point: We are all familiar with the biblical story of David and Bathsheba, where King David desired Bathsheba as his wife and sent her husband Uriah the Hittite to the front lines to be killed (see Samuel II 11:1-12:24). To the unsophisticated reader, David seems to have committed adultery as king, much like Bill Clinton in the Oval Office (G-d forbid).

Of course, to anyone who has a deeper appreciation for who King David really was, it becomes impossible to take this story at face value. In Jewish Mysticism, King David is considered the “fourth leg of G-d’s Merkavah (chariot)”, having attained a level of closeness to G-d almost without parallel in human history. He is referred to as the “Sweet Singer of Israel”, and his beautiful and holy Psalms have been recited in prayer by the Jewish people for the last 3000 years.

Indeed, the Talmud in Shabbos 56a states: Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rav Yonasan: Whoever says that [King] David sinned [with Bathsheba, and who claims that David lived with Bathsheba before she was divorced from her husband Uriah] is nothing but mistaken, as it says "And David behaved wisely in all his ways, and the Lord was with him ...." (Samuel I 18:14). Is it possible that a sin came to his hands and the Divine Presence was with him? If so, how do I explain "Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil ..." (Shmuel II 12:9)? He wished to do [sin] but did not.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 2:15 teaches us regarding the words of our Sages: “…. all their words are like fiery coals”. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, in his classic work Nefesh HaChaim 3:1, explains this to mean that just like a piece of coal, even if it appears to be unlit, if someone turns it around and blows on it, it will flare up into a fiery coal, so, too, are the words of our great Sages. Even if, on the surface, their words might sometimes seem simple or even ‘unenlightened’, the Mishnah is teaching us that when ‘turned around’ and explored in depth (with the proper Rebbi and Mesorah), they will yield great light and tremendous wisdom.

If this is taught about the words of our Sages, masters of the Oral Tradition, how much more so do we have to approach the word of G-d and His Prophets in the Written Torah with great respect and with a realization that it is a whole lot deeper and more sophisticated than we think.

On these days of national tragedy in the month of Teves, let’s reflect on the lessons that we learn from King Ptolemy and the Septuagint, and remember just how much Torah is truly lost in translation.

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