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The Language(s) of Torah

This week we begin reading the Torah’s final book, Deuteronomy. Moses is now 120 years old and must relinquish his leadership to Joshua. Soon he will die and be buried on Mount Nebo. Beforehand he reminds the Israelites about the many rules they must follow. He recounts the adventures of their forty years of wandering the wilderness. This is Deuteronomy’s plot. “I am about to leave you. Don’t forget to…”

The Torah states: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 1)

The rabbis ask: How did he begin to teach? Being rabbis they answer their own question and state, “Moses began to explain the Torah in the seventy languages of the ancient world.”

Didn’t the Israelites all speak the same language? Didn’t they speak Hebrew? Of course they did. So why would Moses need to explain the Torah in every language the rabbis believed to exist? It is because the Torah has universal import.

Too often we focus our Jewish learning on the mastery of the Hebrew language. Too often we mistake the Torah’s language for its essence. While Hebrew is of course important it does not always unlock the secrets; it cannot always unravel the mysteries. This is why even Moses taught the Torah in many languages.

The lesson is clear. The most important thing about Torah is its teachings. These must be translated into every language. Moreover these teachings must be interpreted according to everyone’s ability.

Torah was never meant to belong to a privileged few. It is meant for all. It is meant for the world.

It begins with the language we speak.