The Temple Institute: Temple Talk: Tevet 11, 5767/January 1, 2007

The Language of Truth

"And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for the translator was between them."
(Genesis 42:23)

Normally, we understand the use of a translator as being a means of clearly conveying a message spoken, (or written), in one language, into another. Yet ever since the confusion of tongues which G-d caused in order to confound the imperialistic machinations of the tyrant Nimrod, the megalomaniacal genius behind the building of the tower of Bavel, (Babylon), what is spoken in one language, is incomprehensible in another. The great sage Rashi, commenting on the "confusion of tongues" (Genesis 11:7), describes how one worker would ask for a new brick, another would hand him mortar, and yet a third would hit him over the head with a hammer. This wasn't a simple linguistic impasse which could be readily overcome by some hand gestures or facial expressions. A great gulf had been created between how peoples conceived of and described their worlds. To this day, we must concede that even the finest translation of words from one language to another is at best, a distant approximation. Imagine what must be lost when reading Hamlet in Chinese, or War and Peace in English.

Bearing all this in mind, one must question the motives of the Greek-Egyptian emperor Ptolemy, who, in the year 246 BCE, brought together 72 Torah sages, sent each one of them to his own separate chamber in order to work in total isolation, and ordered each one to translate the Torah from Hebrew to Greek. Was Ptolemy merely trying to fulfill the words of the prophet, by helping to spread the light of Torah to the nations? Or was he deliberately setting up a situation in which seventy two Torah sages would simultaneously produce seventy two different and conflicting translations, thereby confounding G-d's words, just as He had confounded the words of man so many generations before. So when the seventy two sages, through Divine inspiration. each produced the identical translation, it should have been a cause for great rejoicing. Yet the day that the translation was completed, the eighth of Tevet, was marked by the pious for many generations as a fast day. For even though the translation itself was Divinely inspired, the appearance in the world of the Torah exposed to the various cultural predilections of people, wise and great, perhaps, yet hostile to the divine truth of Torah, was, and remains, a great cause for trepidation. The Hebrew Torah, anchored in the very shapes and sounds of the Hebrew letters, is resilient, and ultimately repels all who would attempt to hijack its meaning for the sake of supporting their own intellectual or political agendas. But the Torah translated to a foreign tongue has been cut off from its source of Divine light, and is rendered vulnerable in the hands of the dissemblers.

Yosef - Joseph - also made use of a translator, not to convey truth, but as part of his ruse before his brothers. The mere presence of a translator led the brothers to assume that Yosef did not understand their Hebrew tongue: "And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for the translator was between them." (Genesis 42:23) The very wording of the verse seems to imply that the translator himself was the cause of their deception. The verse serves to confirm that translations are not to be taken at face value. And no one better understood the importance of language than Yosef. After all, he was the captive slave that described himself to Pharaoh as being a Hebrew. Underlining this is Rashi's comment that the translator referred to in the above verse was none other than Yosef's son Menasheh. Yosef, who never lost the knowledge of his own true identity, made certain to teach his children the Hebrew tongue.

In this past week's Torah reading, Vayigash, Yosef finally does away with all pretenses, and reveals to his brothers that he is Yosef. The ensuing emotional scene of reunion provides that answer to the question that begs to be asked: If the Torah cannot be adequately translated, then how can we encourage all those who are not knowledgeable in Hebrew to study Torah and to attach themselves to the G-d of Israel? When Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers, the interpreter disappeared. When Yosef came clean, the brothers remained speechless. The ultimate unity of brothers in true light of Torah is not achieved through a mixing of tongues, but a unity of hearts.

Join Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven on this week's TEMPLE TALK, as they discuss the Torah reading of Vayigash, the three days of sorrow in the month of Tevet, and the enduring challenge of remaining true to the truth of Torah.

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Part 1
Part 2