"And they knew not that Yosef understood them; for the interpreter was between them."
The 8th, 9th and 10th day of the month of Tevet are each remembered for the unfortunate, damaging and destructive events which occurred on every one of those days long ago. At one time all three days were marked by fasting, but today only the 10th is a fast day, the day in which Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon first laid siege upon the city of Jerusalem, marking the beginning of the end for the Holy Temple built by King Solomon. The ninth, as noted in the book of Ezra, was the day of the passing of both Ezra and Nechemia, the two remarkable leaders who led the Jews out of their exile in Babylon and back to the city of Jerusalem. There they rebuilt first the walls of Jerusalem, then the altar, allowing for the renewal of the Divine service, and finally, the second Holy Temple itself. Most significantly, Ezra not merely took the Jews out of the exile, but he took the exile out of the Jews. He retaught Torah to his brethren, many of them having forgotten their patrimony due to the stress and trauma of exile. The measure of his historical importance and spiritual stature is readily revealed in the comparison made by our sages between Ezra and Moses.
The 8th day of Tevet was the day that the Greek king Ptolemy ordered seventy two sages to translate the Hebrew Torah into the Greek language. Each sage, unbeknownst to the others, was sequestered away in a private cell where he was told to translate. Reminiscent of the psalmist's lament, "How shall we sing HaShem's song in a foreign land?" (Psalm 137:4) each of the seventy two sages reluctantly went about his work. Remarkably (miraculously), each of the seventy two produced for king Ptolemy identical translations. It is understood that G-d blessed their efforts with the divine inspiration that enabled them to complete their work in so propitious a fashion, yet the day is still considered a black day in the long annals of Jewish history, even earning a comparison with the day of the golden calf. Why?
"And they knew not that Yosef understood them; for the interpreter was between them." (ibid) The verse clearly states that an interpreter was present. Yosef, second only to Pharaoh in all the land of Egypt, no doubt received many visitors who spoke a tongue foreign to his. In order to enable communication he hired the services of an interpreter. No doubt the interpreter was expected to translate for Yosef all that was spoken in his presence. And no doubt this is what he did, even as Yosef's brothers were talking amongst themselves. So why would they have been unaware that Yosef was understanding, (in translation), every word they spoke?
The brothers conversation was undoubtably peppered with expressions that only they would understand, implied messages that only they would pick up. Perhaps they even employed turns of phrase that were unique to them. They certainly were making veiled references to past events that only they themselves were aware of. An uninitiated interpreter would be clueless as to the true inner message of their words.
How much more so when we are talking about the Holy Torah. The five books of the holy Torah received by the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai are a book unlike any other book. Comprised of numerous segments, each segment made up of numerous verses, and each verse made up of distinct configurations of Hebrew letters, the distinctive black Hebrew letters written upon the white parchment which are described by our sages as nothing less than "black fire emblazoned upon white fire." Each individual Hebrew letter contains its own unique combination of quill strokes and every detail of each letter's design contains the deepest secrets which harken back to origins of creation itself. When these letters are read aloud according to the traditional cantillation, vowelization and punctuation of the Hebrew scribal masoret they transcend the dry parchment upon which they are painstakingly written and become living transmitters of cosmic Divine energy. Nothing less!
Of course, translations of the holy Torah are a fact of life, and good translations have provided countless spiritual seekers their first insights into the vast limitless and sublimely spiritually challenging and fulfilling world known as Torah. For yes, Torah is not simply the name given to the five books which comprise it, Torah is the reality through which G-d would have us perceive His creation, and our part in it. We are not capable, as our sages were, of determining whether this or that translation was undertaken with ruach hakodesh - Divine inspiration - but we strongly suggest that the test of a faithful translation can be measured in great part by its footnotes: does it contain much Hebrew text? Are individual words and phrases analyzed according to traditional interpretation? Are the names and words of the great Jewish commentators frequently quoted and explicated? If the answer to all these questions is yes, then the translation you are holding in your hands should provide a faithful guide as you explore the true living message of Torah.
"How shall we sing HaShem's song in a foreign land?" (Psalm 137:4) How shall we understand His word in a foreign tongue? A daunting challenge indeed!
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK, as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the ups and downs of the month of Tevet, from the concluding joyful days of Chanukah to the 8th, 9th, and 10th - days of somber reflection, each revealing unique insights into Torah faith, true Jewish leadership, and Temple consciousness. Plus: News aplenty from the Temple Institute!