While I was working on my maftir [concluding section of the weekly Torah portion], Deuteronomy 11:22-25, there were several points where I noticed some differences in translations of the text. These differences could be as seemingly minor as “Red” or “Reed” Sea, or as major as “Sea of the Philistines” or “Western Sea,” or even which Wilderness. Differences in translations and/or text arise because of language, misunderstanding, human error, knowledge etc. My aliyah [segment of the Torah portion], however, concerns the Promised Land. So, as you can see, knowing which sea or wilderness the text is referring to marks a boundary and is significant. Despite how minor many of these changes may seem, they still can make incredible differences in what we are to take away from that section. Looking around [i][ii] to see if this was simply an anomaly, I noticed that there were other points in the Torah where this kind of change occurred. After thinking about why this might happen, I decided that there could only be one major possibility for a change as this: there is no definite word or phrase of text that must be placed there, so people simply wrote in what they assumed to be what was meant to be there. While this often works, the example with the Red and Reed Sea shows that often times there is little to no communication or standardization between people attempting to translate the Torah.
Differences in translation may also be due to differences in agendas and purposes. Few of us read or speak the Hebrew of the Torah, so we depend on translators. Some translators wish their translations to reflect, to the degree possible, exactly what was written. Others, recognizing that a world of 5,000 or 6,000 years ago is very foreign to modern readers, try to make the text accessible to the reader, making changes to make the events and discussion straightforward. We can see similar, if less important, differences in translations of the Bard’s Hamlet, in which there are at least 3 different versions, despite the fact that only 1 is used[iii]. Equally important, there may be differences in the translator’s view of the Torah and Judaism that influence the translation. Is a given event a recitation of a real event, or is it to be interpreted and put in some context? All of these result in differences of words and of meaning.
While this can make serious problems for someone studying the Torah, it also gives insight into how, as Jews, we select what parts of the Torah to pay attention to. For example, put up your hand if you have made your own Torah scroll. (You can put down your hands now). As we can see, despite the fact that it is a mitzvah to make your own Torah, not very many people do it. Now, that may not have been the greatest example, since it is a rather obscure mitzvah that takes months or years of work. But there are still many parts of the Torah that are purposefully or otherwise ignored. While working on this d’var [words about a Torah portion], I compiled two lists; one of the lists contains the mitzvot that we normally follow, and the other is the ones that we most often ignore. Since both of these lists would take an extraordinarily long time to read off, I decided to shorten both lists to 100 parts, and then since that would still take a long time, to 5 mitzvot each.
On the Follow side we have:
1 To know that God exists.
2 To put a Mezuzah on your door.
3 To give charity according to your means.
4 To know that there is only one G-d.
5 To return lost property.
And on the Ignored (by many of us) side:
1 To put Tefillin on your head.
2 Not to make statues, even if they are not for worship.
3 To know that a leper is unclean and defiles (us).
4 Not to offer up a beast that has a temporary blemish.
5 To redeem the firstling of an ass.
Overall, the general rule for this list is its relevance to you. For example; who personally knows someone with leprosy or Hansen’s Disease? So why would any of you have need to consider a leper to be unclean? In point of fact, medical science is now able to limit the effects of leprosy and make it non-contagious so there isn’t a sound reason to fear lepers, to isolate them, or to shun them[iv]. On the other hand, many of us know the importance of tzedakah. So this mitzvah is a lot more relevant than the leprosy example. Another example is “Not to make statues,” which is a very complicated matter. We as humans are an extraordinarily self-centered race, why else would we be able see our own faces in an electric socket or make five lines and one circle into a stick figure, a representation of ourselves? All this makes it a lot more difficult to avoid making statues.
What rules does someone who considers themselves to be a Jew need to follow? I can only answer this from my perspective, so it is likely not the final word. There are many different interpretations of how one should follow the Torah. Let’s consider the dietary rules. At one extreme are those among the ultra-orthodox who not only follow the dietary rules exactly, but interpret them to forbid consuming almond milk with meat because it has the appearance of “mother’s milk.” More common are those who have separate dairy and meat utensils and plates to keep meat and dairy separate. Others, less rigorous, make some exceptions when we travel and still others do not follow the rules at all about consuming shellfish and other forbidden or tref foods. What does following these rules, or not following them, say about Jewishness? Does anyone wish to answer this question, or what it means to be a Jew? (Repeat answers.)
In my view, the essence of being a Jew is believing in the existence of the one God and giving tzedakah or charity. The first is essential because it is central tenet of Judaism. There are other religions, equal to Judaism with different beliefs, but to be a believing Jew one needs to believe in the one God, Adonai. Also, that there are no other Gods. This is not to say that there are not other manifestations of Adonai that other religions follow, but the one God’s appearance to the Jews is as Adonai. The second is essential because it acknowledges the importance of other people and of our relationship to a community. Actions which acknowledge and support community are central.
For my Mitzvah, I decided to help out my former second grade teacher, Josh Tumolo. While working with him to keep control of his class, I discovered several things about teaching that my seven-year old self couldn’t understand. First and foremost being that the teacher mostly likes you and does not, despite all evidence, get paid to make your life as hard as possible. I also learned about how extraordinarily fast we, as people, learn. In only a couple years we progress from not fully understanding addition to using and designing reactors to help power the modern world. Despite the fact that I now know that I have no wish to teach second grade, I enjoyed helping Josh.
As the third part of my D’var, I would like to ask all of you to consider joining with me and donating to the Corner Health Center. The Corner Health Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing young people (12-25) get affordable and effective health care treatments. Last year alone, they provided services for 1,433 people. The Corner Health Center is located in Ypsilanti, MI.
Finally I would like to thank you all for being here, but especially; Deb Kraus and Michael Zimmerman for making all of this possible
[i] Parashat HaShavua Eikev: The Weekly Torah Portion. New York: URJ Press Publication, 2005. Print.
[ii] Coogan, M. Eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha. NRSV 4th Vers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
[iii] Thompson, A. (n.d.) The First and Second Quartos of Hamlet. http://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/hamlet.html
[iv] National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). (2015). Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) https://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/leprosy/Pages/Default.aspx