Divrei Torah

PARSHAS VAYIGASH 5780

The Jewish people live by the calendar. We use it to celebrate major holidays, minor holidays and recall events in our nation’s history. Some are better known than others. This coming week there are three very significant days in the Jewish calendar -- the 8th, 9th and 10th days of Teves, all of which used to be observed as fast days. The 9th of Teves is the yahrzeit of Ezra and Nechemia, the two great leaders who rebuilt Jewish life in Israel after the Babylonian exile.

The 10th of Teves marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, eventually leading to the destruction of the 1st Bais Hamikdosh and Babylonian exile. What happened on the 8th of Teves. 

On the 8th day of Teves, the Septuagint was completed. The Septuagint is the translation of the Torah into Greek by 72 elders. The Talmud in Megilla briefly relates the story: King Ptolemy gathered 72 elders and placed them in 72 different rooms. He did not tell them why he had gathered them. He then went to each one individually and said to them, “Write for me a Greek translation of the Torah of Moshe your teacher.” G-d placed counsel in each of their hearts and - miraculously - all of them independently identically translated the Torah. Ptolemy found no discrepancies between any of the individual translations. This itself was a great miracle and sanctification of G-d’s name.

There are numerous places where the literal meaning of a word or verse is in doubt and subject to various interpretations. It is highly unlikely that two scholars would come up with the exact same translation. In addition, there are many verses in the Torah, which can be misunderstood by the non-Jewish world if translated literally. This would lead to their casting doubts on the Divine origin and sanctity of the Torah. So, Ptolemy’s idea was to mislead the 72 scholars and to find a means to fault them. Therefore, G-d assisted the 72 elders and miraculously they all translated exactly the same. They also made several changes where they wrote the interpretation rather than the translation. Once again, G-d miraculously assisted them so each one of the interpretations was exact with the other.

It would seem that the miraculous exact translation of the Torah into Greek should be a happy day. The open hand of G-d and His assistance to our people was obvious. It should be a cause for great celebration. Yet, our Rabbis saw it as a sad day. Why? Because the cat was let out of the bag. As long as the Torah was solely in our hands and in its own holy language, people had reverence for it, respected it and were afraid to tarnish it. It even evoked reverence in the non-Jewish world. However, once the Torah was translated, it was open to everybody. Anybody who wanted, was free to read it, find fault with it and misinterpret it. As we all know, whenever you translate from one language to another, something gets lost in the process. People could think that they know the Torah, even though their translation lacks substance.

So, the lack of reverence for the Torah and the ability to misinterpret it were a result of Ptolemy’s decree to translate the Torah. Despite the miraculous Divine intervention, the Rabbis correctly saw this decree having disastrous results.  We must attempt to rebuild the honor of the Torah, by studying the Torah, - all of Tanach - the basis for our Mitzvos and history as a nation.

The Jewish people have been blessed with many great Biblical commentators: In the middle ages we were blessed with Rashi, Ibn Ezra, the Ramban, the Redak, the Ralbag, and many more. Later on, we had the Abrabanel. In the 19th century we had the Malbim, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch and the Natziv – Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin.

One cannot compare commentators - not talking in terms of greatness -- nobody matches Rashi. As the Ramban states in his introduction to his Chumash commentary – Rashi is the Rebbi of all commentators. Rather, the commentators all have different styles and frequently differing interpretations. People studying the commentaries also have different styles and preferences. They might take a liking to one approach over another. However, what everybody must realize is that these commentators did not make up interpretations with no basis. Each one used their knowledge of the entire Tanach, the entire Talmud, Hebrew grammar and the context of the verses.

Although the commentators have differing interpretations, they all have respect for each other and for the Torah knowledge that each other provides. They all have the same Mitzvos and they all have the same realization that the Torah is the word of G-d. In their diversity they have unity. It is an idea to think about, as we take note of the calendar this week.