Dvarim: Multilingual Torah
Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
With the people of Israel camped on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from the Promised Land, Moses gives what is likely the longest and most important sermon in history. The sermon lasts weeks. Moses, knowing his preordained death is near, delves into the recent history of the Jewish people, the future, and the divinely mandated laws, the heart and soul of the Torah, in exquisite detail that we still have, word for word, in the Fifth Book of Moses, the Book of Deuteronomy.
Rashi, the premier rabbinic commentator, tells us that when Moses explained the Torah, he did so in seventy languages. The Berdichever asks why. The entire nation of Israel spoke Hebrew. What reason could Moses have for taking the painstaking effort of translating the Torah, not just to one other language, but to seventy other languages?
The Berdichever answers his own question and explains that specifically in that place, outside of Israel, there was a vital importance in Moses translating the Torah into all the languages of the Earth. The very survival of the nation of Israel depended on it.
Moses knew, through divine prophecy, that the Jewish people would eventually be exiled from the land they were about to conquer, and would wander throughout the world, reaching all corners of the planet. They would be adrift in a sea of languages. God needed to provide some “hooks,” some linguistic connection to keep the bond between the Torah and the Jewish people going. The Torah itself has a handful of foreign words, including some of Aramaic, Egyptian and African origin. However, a full (oral) translation was required to really serve the Diaspora that has spanned millennia and continents.
Somehow, this early translation of the Torah, outside of Israel, is what has sustained the nation of Israel in its long exile.
May our exile end and may we witness the rebuilding of our Temple in Jerusalem, speedily and in our days.
To the amazing Yemei Iyun – Bible Study program of Herzog College.