Lost in Translation: Understanding G-d


Can spiritual concepts be expressed in everyday language?  Or must they be discussed only in somber tones and sacred whispers, if they are even discussed at all?  For many of us, spiritual literature seems hopelessly out of touch with our everyday experience. We associate “sacred texts” with yellowed, crumbling prayer books written in archaic language, or faded scrolls with barely decipherable hieroglyphics. But does sacred literature necessarily need to be so remote and estranged from reality? Is there anything incongruous about discussing G-dliness and spirituality using down-to-earth language and examples drawn from real life?

When we discuss G-d in personally relevant terms, we invite Him into the core of our lives, rather than relegating Him to the periphery of our existence. Yet it can be argued that toning down the reverence too much can easily lead to flippancy and lack of respect for truly sublime matters. A certain distance must be maintained in order to preserve the sanctity of the subject matter. We cannot lose sight of our own puniness and ignorance in relation to truly lofty and Divine matters, and start creating G-d in our own image.

The fine line between making G-d accessible to human understanding, as opposed to humanizing Him altogether, has been discussed since Talmudic times. It once happened that five scholars were commissioned by King Ptolemy to translate the Torah into Greek. That day, says the Talmud, was “as ominous for Israel as the day on which the Golden Calf was made, since the Torah could not be accurately translated.” Yet we find in the Torah that before crossing the Jordan River to enter the land of Israel, Moshe explained the Torah in seventy languages.  Furthermore, he charged the Jewish people that upon crossing the Jordan, they were to inscribe the entire Torah on stones, in seventy languages. If the Torah had already been rendered in seventy languages, why was the Greek translation considered to be so devastating?

What is the relationship between the Ptolemeic translation of the Torah and the sin of the Golden Calf?  Note that the Talmud does not make the comparison to “the day the Golden Calf was served,” but rather “the day the Golden Calf was made.” Initially, the Jewish people were not seeking an object for idol-worship. They were only looking for a leader to take the place of Moshe, who they wrongly presumed had died on Mount Sinai.  Just as G-d appointed Moses as his agent to redeem the Jews from Egypt, they hoped that the Golden Calf would also serve as some sort of intercessor between the Jewish People and G-d. They felt the need for a tangible representative to help them bridge the distance between their earthly existence and G-d.

In Judaism, every person is able and is expected to build a relationship with G-d without any go-betweens. Why, then, is there the need for any leadership whatsoever?  G-d desires us to relate to Him on real life terms, to understand Him with our minds and love Him with all the love our human, fleshly hearts can generate. G-d therefore chooses a leader, a tzaddik, who, through his personal conduct and example, becomes a living manifestation of G-dliness to whom we can all relate and emulate.

The Jews wanted to carry this one step further. They argued that G-d’s revelation need not be limited to the human level, and can be expressed through the animal kingdom as well. On Mount Sinai, the Jews perceived G-d descending to the mountain on a chariot borne by angels with four faces, one of which was that of an ox. They attempted to capture this spiritual vision in a tangible form.

Their mistake lay in their inept “translation” of a G-dly vision into physical matter. Such a representation cannot be made without an explicit divine instruction. Physical matter becomes invested with G-dly energy only through a direct command of G-d. The consummate example of this is the construction of the Tabernacle, where divine energy flowed through the ark topped with the cherubim. Since its construction was divinely ordained, it became a conduit for G-dliness and was utterly nullified before G-d.  But any attempt on our part to convert spirituality into physical form, guided only by our own perception, is doomed to failure.  Since it represents not G-d’s will, but only our own limited conception of G-dliness, it actually results in a separation between us and G-d.

When the Torah is translated into a foreign language, there is a similar risk that our human interpretation will cloud over the divine meaning of the words. Hence the statement of the Sages that the Ptolomeic Greek translation of the Torah was “as ominous as the day the Golden Calf was made.” Indeed when the translation is divinely commissioned, as was the case on the bank of the Jordan River, there was no possibility of distortion.

What is the lesson to be derived from these two events? Should the story of the Golden Calf serve as a deterrent, to keep us from ever attempting to relate to G-d on our own terms? It is obvious that G-d does desire that we draw Him into our world, as evidenced by the fact that Moses himself translated the Torah into seventy languages. The Golden Calf serves only as a vivid example of what can go awry when we base our interpretations on our own understanding, without deferring to Torah authority.

In our generation, we have an unprecedented capacity to make Torah accessible in all languages, to individuals and populations that have never been reached before. We can choose to balk at this opportunity, citing our own unworthiness and the crassness of the world at large. Or we can use the impetus to communicate the values and ideals of the Torah in all languages, each on its own terms. G-d will be truly revealed in this world when all people, from every perspective, are able to acknowledge His presence and study His teachings.

Our efforts in this direction can serve to nullify the negative effects of the Golden Calf. Their original intention of drawing closer to G-d (although through improper means) can be redirected to its proper source by our intense efforts at making G-d manifest in this world under terms sanctioned by the Torah. One of the descriptions of the Messianic era is when G-d will “make the peoples pure of speech so that they will all call upon the name of G-d and serve Him with one purpose”. Then the days of mourning, beginning from the 17th of Tamuz and culminating in the 9th of Av, will be transformed into days of rejoicing and holidays, G-d willing, with the coming of our Righteous Moshiach.

Based on a talk from the Rebbe. By Chaya Shuchat.


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