What happens when we repeat a story or lesson in our own words? Does it improve in the retelling, or does it worsen? Is the message lost, or is it made more relevant? What is the point of retelling? Why not just repeat things verbatim?
Parshat Devarim opens with an epic retelling. It is the speech of one man, Moshe Rabbeinu, delivered over the course of a little more than a month. It is the retelling of three books of the Torah: Shemot, Vayikra, and Bamidbar. And it is told not in God's words but in Moshe's.
Note, says the midrash, who is doing this expounding (Devarim Rabbah 1:1). It was Moshe, the very man who said of himself, lo ish devarim anokhi, “I am not a man of words,” who now expounds on the entire Torah, opening with elah ha'devarim, “These are the words” (Shemot 4:10). Why is a man who is not an ish devarim the one to relate the entire book of Devarim? We might equally ask why Moshe was chosen to be God’s spokesperson. Why not pick an ish devarim? Because such a man, being himself a person of words, might contaminate God’s message with his own words or ideas. Moshe, challenged in speech as he was, was certain to communicate God’s word without embellishment, without change. By the same token, it is just such a person who is most suited to tell over the Torah in his own words. With Moshe Rabbeinu – his humility, his desire to act only as a vessel for the Divine, his being a person not in love with the sound of his own voice, not interested in always asserting himself and his ideas – the message was sure to stay pure. It would be God’s words which would be communicated through Moshe’s words. And, hence, it was Moshe’s words which then became part of the Torah itself, which became, in essence, God’s own words.
Yet something has changed in the retelling. The Gemara tells us, for example, that even if literary juxtapositions of two mitzvot are not significant in the rest of the Torah, they are significant in the Book of Devarim (Berakhot 21a). Why is this so? The Shita Mikubetzet (ad. loc.) explains that since Moshe was now reordering mitzvot that had been already given in a different order, the reordering is communicating a particular message. When we retell a story, the organization of the material, the order that we put things in, what we choose to emphasize, and even what we choose to omit all shape the story we are telling; all of these are part of the message.
It is thus that we find that an enormous percentage of Torah she’b’al Peh, of the Oral Law, focuses on the verses, on the wordings of the mitzvot, in the book of Devarim. The Oral Law emerges naturally from Devarim because Devarim is already part of Oral Law. It is already the engagement of a human being – Moshe – with the Divine Word of the Torah. As the Sefat Emet states:
וזהו עיקר משנה תורה שהוא בחי' התקשרות תורה שבע"פ לתורה שבכתב כי מרע"ה היה בחי' תורה שבכתב ובאי הארץ הי' בחינת תורה שבע"פ לכן משנה תורה כולל משניהם שהוא שער המחברם
This is the essence of Mishne Torah, which is the category of the interconnection of the Written Torah with the Oral Torah. For Moshe Rabbeinu was in the category of the Written Torah, and those about to enter into the land were in the category of the Oral Torah. Thus, the Mishne Torah contains both of these, for it is the passageway which connects them.
To retell the Torah was to take it out of the context of those who left Egypt and bring it into the context of those about to enter into the Land. It was to take it down from Mount Sinai, out of the Wilderness, and bring it into society, into the real lives of the people. Moshe’s retelling of the Torah was true to God’s word but also a reframing of God’s word. It was the beginning of the Oral Torah, the beginning of the religious enterprise of engaging God’s word with integrity while at the same time retelling God’s word in our own words, in each generation and for each generation.
There is another form of retelling, and that is the act of translating. We are told at the beginning of our parasha that “Moshe began to expound this Torah” (1:5). Rashi, quoting Tanchuma, comments on this: “He explained it to them in 70 languages.” When we translate, there is a risk. Things often do get lost or changed in translation. Perhaps this translation will not be exactly what God said.
But there is also an opportunity. First, such translations allow the message to reach the widest possible audience. In fact, echoing the midrash of Moshe’s translating into 70 languages, we find that many rabbis allowed the Torah scroll itself to be written in any language (Megillah 8b). People have been translating the Torah into the vernacular for millenia, and with every translation, the Torah becomes more accessible, more widespread.
When something is written in someone’s native tongue, it becomes intelligible to him or her for the first time. And when something is spoken in one’s own language in the metaphorical sense, when it is relayed in a way that someone can relate to and understand, then such words are not only comprehensible but also meaningful. Such words can resonate and enter into our mind, into our heart, and into our soul.
Translation however does more. It not only disseminates the Torah, it can also provide a fuller, truer realization of its meaning, of its essence. The Sefat Emet uses the metaphor of clothing in discussing the translation of the Torah. Language, he says, is a type of outer garment to the meaning, the essence, of what is being conveyed, which is itself beyond language. Hebrew is one of these garments. Other languages provide others. Clothing, on the one hand, conceals; it covers our naked bodies. But clothing can also reveal. The part of ourselves we reveal depends on the clothes we wear; we will wear different clothes for different occasions or different moods. With every garment we put on we give a distinct expression of who we are.
The same is true for the Torah. When the Torah is translated into other languages, its meaning can be expanded, more fully actualized, more fully revealed. To again quote the Sefat Emet:
שכפי התרחבות הארת התורה במלבושים החיוצנים יותר שמתקרב הכל להפנימיות
“For to the degree that the light of the Torah has spread into other external garments, the more everything gets closer to the inner essence.”
Retelling the Torah is critical to reaching people, and it is critical to the Torah’s fullest realization. In fact, it is sections from the retelling, sections from the Book of Devarim, which form the essence of our daily religious lives. The two paragraphs of Shema – shema and v’haya im shamoa – are both in Devarim (6:4-9, 11:13-21). These verses make up the Shema prayer, are the verses written in the mezuzah scroll, and are two of the four chapters that constitute the tefillin scrolls. These are some of the most central components of our life of religious observance. Our daily affirmation of faith in our words, on our homes, and on our bodies are all done in Moshe’s words, in Moshe’s retelling. It was this translation that revealed a part of the Torah’s essence. It was this translation that was a distillation of the Torah to its essence. And it is this translation that enters into our homes and into our hearts.
Israel is now in the middle of an ongoing war. It is not just a war against Hamas but also a war in the media and in public opinion. It is not the events of the war themselves which will shape the minds, hearts, and actions of people. It is how these events are told over, how they are interpreted. Do people hear and believe a narrative of Israel waging an unjust war with disregard for innocent lives, or do they hear and believe one of Israel justly defending itself and its citizens with ultimate concern for the loss of innocent human life? As we are painfully aware, we cannot trust that the facts will be looked at objectively, in proper context, and speak for themselves. We have to speak for them. We have to find a way to translate them into a language that people can hear and understand. We have to spread this Torah so that it becomes the dominant discourse. This is what it means to partner with God, to make the Torah that is written into a Torah that is spoken, into a Torah that is heard.