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Torah in Translation

Just before he passes away, Moses gathers the Jewish people together to offer an explanation of the entire Torah. Rashi, the medieval French commentator notes that Moses taught the Torah in 70 languages.

In other words, he taught the Torah in different ways, and in different languages to ensure that people received the message in the way that would be most clearly communicated to them specifically.

On the banks of the Jordan River, just a few short weeks before he was to leave this world, Moses spoke to a new generation of the Children of Israel who had not experienced the awesomeness of Sinai, the joy and dancing after the miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea, and who had not spent years in backbreaking servitude to cruel Egyptian taskmasters. This new generation had not participated in the largest march to freedom in human experience.

In order to make sure that the lessons learned in the desert were transmitted from generation to generation, Moses spent the last weeks of his life teaching Torah at their level, in their language, in a way that they could understand it vest. Moses made sure that he didn’t just transmit his enthusiasm about their future legacy, but was careful to also teach the more complex details of the fabric of Jewish life and values in a way that they could best integrate into their lives.

I learn from our teacher Moses that to be an effective teacher, I need to teach with great sensitivity to others experiences, tradition, and background. I can’t make assumptions, be condescending, or judgmental, for if I have not walked in my students shoes, I can’t possibly know who they truly are. Everyone has a unique set of experiences, and knowledge that is special, and helps them understand our Torah in a way that is meaningful to them.

When I bean working in the Polish Jewish community in 1991, I didn’t speak any Polish. I learned a few words and patched them together haphazardly. I learned to count and important words like bread, beer, and “I’m a vegetarian.” But really, in those first summers that I worked in Poland with Jewish youth, every time I taught, I taught in English, and sometimes with an eager teenager as my translator.

I would speak a line or two in English, and then someone would translate what I said into Polish. If I attempted a joke or something humorous, there would inevitably be a delay in people’s responses. If someone asked me a question and didn’t feel confident about their English, which was often the case, I would wait for the translator to get the question into English. Often the translator would have to ask a few questions to the petitioner to make sure they understood the question in Polish before attempting to translate it into English for me. Read more