Each Generation Reinterprets the Torah

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Torah scroll
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By Rabbi Helen Plotkin

Parshat Devarim

The medieval Jewish commentator known as Rashi is famous for saying much in few words. With his brief comment on one Hebrew term near the beginning of Deuteronomy he makes the profound suggestion that the need to reinterpret the Torah for every new generation began inside the Torah itself.

Deuteronomy 1:5 begins: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began to elucidate this Torah.” Rashi zeroes in on the Hebrew term be’er, which I’ve translated as elucidate. He offers a four-word comment (it’s slightly longer in English): “In seventy languages he explained it for them.” Seventy languages?

Where did that come from? The text doesn’t mention languages, and it’s written entirely in Hebrew. A literal understanding of Rashi’s comment is so implausible that we can assume it’s not what he meant.

Rashi didn’t make up the idea that Moses was a polyglot; it’s drawn from an older interpretive tradition. However, Rashi always insisted that he interpreted the Torah according to the peshat — the naked, unadorned, contextual meaning. If he chose to highlight that particular tradition, he must have thought that it reflected the meaning of the text as written, that there is some question about the text that this commentary might answer.

One question that piques Rashi’s interest is about be’er itself. Only twice in the Bible (here and in Deuteronomy 27:8) does Moses elucidate. Usually it’s “Moses spoke” or “Moses said.” That’s what Moses does. Therefore, Rashi figures, this unusual term must be asking us to tease out some extra nuance.

Behind Rashi’s investigation of this single word is a larger question about the book of Deuteronomy: It contains lists of laws that differ from similar lists found elsewhere in the Bible, primarily in Exodus and Leviticus. Sometimes Deuteronomy has more details or alternate explanations; sometimes the laws are different in substance. Even the Ten Commandments don’t seem to be written in stone.

Academic scholars explain these differences historically, theorizing that the text was assembled from a variety of law codes developed and recorded by different subcommunities in different eras with different interests. Rashi also recognized the differences noticed by scholars, but his method was to explain them in the context of the narrative presented by the text.

Deuteronomy opens in the 11th month of the 40th year after the Exodus from Egypt. Of the hundreds of thousands of Israelites who escaped slavery and heard the voice of God at Mount Sinai, only three —Moses, Joshua and Caleb — remain; the rest of that generation has died in the wilderness.

Their offspring stand looking across the Jordan at the Promised Land. Joshua will lead them from here; God has told Moses that he must die without crossing over to the other side. As he sends the younger generation on its way, Moses speaks a bookful of words, retelling their history and reviewing the laws around which they will build a new society.

In the biblical story, the Israelites are only one generation removed from their parents’ life in Egypt. Maybe they speak Egyptian; maybe their ancient mother tongue — Hebrew — has been passed down to them. But they certainly don’t speak 70 languages.

Did Rashi mean that Moses translated the laws so they could be understood by neighboring nations? Or that he prepared a translation for later epochs, when new languages would emerge?

No: Rashi’s comment specifically says that Moses elucidated it in many languages for them — for the very people whom he had led through the desert for their entire lives, whose parents had encountered God at Sinai. Rashi seems to believe that their new context requires a new interpretation of the Torah.

Living in France in the 11th century, Rashi was a teacher and rabbi to a community of Jews whose context could not have been more different from the eras of the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic texts that were their birthright. He made it his life’s work to annotate those texts — the Bible and the Talmud — to make them accessible to his generation.

Sometimes he literally translates, offering French equivalents of difficult Hebrew terms. More often, he writes in Hebrew, using explanatory language to bridge the meaning gap between the tradition and the world around him. With his comment on be’er, he claims Moses as his model: both elucidate the text in a language suited to the context of their listeners.

In the Jewish tradition, the number 70 is used to describe the many-sidedness of complex things. There are 70 faces of Torah, 70 nations of the world and 70 (or 72) names for God. A millennium after Rashi, it’s not surprising that the texts of the Jewish tradition sometimes seem foreign in our generation.

If Moses needed to speak 70 languages to reach his audience at the Jordan, how much more so does the Torah requires translation and interpretation today? Whatever our language — be it English, Spanish, Hebrew, sign language or a language of the head or the heart — it is our challenge to find the 70 ways of reading that make the riches of our tradition accessible to us.

Rabbi Helen Plotkin teaches courses in biblical Hebrew and classical Hebrew texts at Swarthmore College and is founder and director of Mekom Torah, a Jewish community learning project. She is editor and annotator of In This Hour: Heschel’s Writings in Nazi Germany and London Exile. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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