MORE THAN WORDS
Perhaps one of the greatest crimes committed against the Torah is its translation into Greek and English.
In the third century BCE, the Bible, within seventy two days, was translated by seventy two scholars into Greek. This effort produced what is known as the Greek Septuagint. Through this translation we inherit ancient sounding names for the five books of Moses such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Through the Middle Ages, the Reformation and the Modern Era, many scholars have attempted to translate the Torah into English and other popular languages.
But here is the problem.
Languages such as English and Greek are specific in nature. A multitude of words exists in most European based languages which provide a crystal clear image of an event or concept.
But Hebrew is by nature an interpretive language. It contains only a fraction of root words in comparison for example to English. So, the key to truly understanding Hebrew and the Bible is “context.”
For example, if I were to say shalom to you, am I saying “hello,” “goodbye” or “peace.” The root of the word shalom leads us to Hebrew words which denote “fullness,” “completion” and even “payment.”
Often through through history, words written in Hebrew have been unambiguously translated by those with a theological, moral or historical agenda to mean for example “virgin” or “the messiah,” or “abomination.”
But Judaism teaches us to inhale the subtlety of language. We are encouraged to turn each word like a fine gem. The Talmud teaches that “there are seventy faces to the Torah,” meaning we can never truly claim to understand the Bible until we hold every word or phrase up to the light of context.
This week we begin in synagogue to read the final book of the Torah. In Greek, the book is titled Deuteronomy (second law) but in Hebrew it is known as Devarim (words), based on the opening sentence which states “these are the words which Moses addressed to all Israel.”
It’s a fascinating difference.
On one hand, non Jewish tradition, through translation, inclines us towards hearing, understanding and following the law.
But in Hebrew, we are left with one word to ponder, and that is “words.”
We are told in Genesis 1:3 that God created the world through words. “God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.”
It’s an important passage which reminds us that words have power. Indeed when we speak, or text message or email, are the words which we produce passive, or do they take on life? For another translation of the word Devarim is “things.”
Devarim is also closely related to the word Devorim, which means “bees.” How often have we been the perpetrators, or the recipients of words which sting?
When we aim a verbal arrow at someone through gossip, or during times of anger, does the arrowhead pass through us, or does it remain in our bellies for days, if not longer.
Tradition tells us that words have life. Once they leave our lips they concretize.
So before we begin reviewing the inner text of Deuteronomy with its laws and customs, we are invited by our Sages to pay attention to the subtlety of the law by being attentive to the subjective nature of words.
When we gather in two months to mark the ten day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will be encouraged above all to review how well we’ve used the power of speech.
For we possess as human beings the remarkable ability not only to speak, but to assess and contribute to this world through Devarim.
Most importantly, as we study the book of Deuteronomy in the weeks to come, will we be inclined to seek stiffness and regimen, or will be moved to identify through language countless opportunities to express and practice kindness.
It is also an opportunity to prepare ourselves for the High Holidays.
Is there someone in our lives, who could use a kind word? Do we need to begin healing with someone who we’ve had difficult words with?
It begins this week with reflection on how we interpret, use and misuse words.
Indeed, let us use the gift of speech to guide us towards inner peace and a truly blessed life.
For within each of us, there is exists the capacity, as God did, to utilize the power of words to build a better world.
Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv (with all goodness),
Rabbi Irwin Huberman