In our multinational society, translations are an important part of life. Ideally, they enable different peoples, who have totally different ways of thinking, to connect together. But are translations always accurate?
The Parshah of Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), beginning the fifth and final Book of the Torah, presents Moses giving talks to the Jewish people, explaining what the Torah is going to mean in their lives when they enter the Land of Israel. The Sages tell us he did not only speak to them in Hebrew: he also translated the Torah into the seventy languages of the original seventy nations of the world1.
This was opening the possibility for future translations of the Torah, as in our time, communicating aspects of Torah thought to very disparate kinds of people: men and women with different life-styles, with different questions. The Torah has answers for them all, but these have to be translated in a way which they can understand.
Now, this is a sensitive and possibly dangerous process. A false phrase in the translation might lead a person in the wrong direction, with serious consequences. In fact, the Sages were very anxious about an actual event in Second Temple times, when the Torah was translated into Greek. The Greek king of Alexandria was fascinated by the idea of the Torah, and ordered the Sages to produce a translation. He was worried they might falsify something, so he made seventy two Sages sit in separate cubicles, so that each one would write an independent version. Miraculously, their translations tallied with each other, even when it came to delicate passages which could easily be misconstrued.2
Nonetheless, the later Jewish sages commented that the day the Torah was translated into Greek “was as difficult for the Jewish people as the day when the Golden Calf was made, because the Torah cannot really be translated.”3 What is meant by the comparison with the day the Golden Calf was made?
Incidentally, the worship of the Golden Calf caused Moses to break the Tablets of the Law on the 17th of Tammuz, commemorated recently with a fast. This began the Three Weeks which culminate with the fast of the Ninth of Av, when both Temples were destroyed.
The Sages were worried about a false translation of the Torah. In a sense, that is exactly what the Golden Calf was: a false translation of spirituality. The people wanted something spiritual which would be here, in our lower world. A true translation of holiness would be the Sanctuary, or the Temple. According to Nachmanides, the Golden Calf was actually intended to substitute for Moses. Moses’ role was to connect the Jewish people with G-d. A false translation of this role was the Golden Calf: an idol, which would only separate people from G-d.
However, ultimately the translation of the Torah into Greek had a positive effect: it communicated the Oneness of G-d to all nations. Further, Moses’ translation of the Torah into the seventy languages was the key to the communication of Torah in our own time, to Jews all over the world.
The effect of this spread of Torah will eventually be the transformation of the sad day of the Ninth of Av into a joyous festival, with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. This, at last, will be the true translation, translating sorrow into joy.