Originally Published July 2015
What happens when we repeat a story or lesson in our own words? Does it improve with the retelling, or does it worsen? Is the message lost, or is it made more relevant? What is the point of retelling? Why not repeat things verbatim? Parsha Devarim opens with an epic retelling: a speech that took Moshe Rabbeinu more than a month to deliver. He retells three books of the Torah—Shemot, Vayikra, and Bamidbar—using his own words, not those of God.
The Midrash makes special note of the person doing this retelling (Devarim Rabbah 1:1). It is 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” relating the entire book of Devarim? We might just as well ask why Moshe was chosen to be God’s spokesperson. Why not pick an ish devarim?
The simple answer is this: A person of words might contaminate God’s message with his own words or ideas. Moshe, being challenged in speech, was certain to communicate God’s word without embellishment or change. By the same token, a person such as Moshe is most suited to tell over the Torah in his own words. With Moshe Rabbeinu—with his humility, his desire to act only as a vessel for the Divine, his reluctance to love the sound of his own voice, and his general lack interested in asserting himself and his ideas—the message was sure to remain pure. God’s words would be communicated through Moshe’s. Hence, Moshe’s words became part of the Torah itself, which became, in essence, God’s own words.
Yet something did change in the retelling. The Gemara tells us, for example, that even if the literary juxtaposition of two mitzvot is not significant in the rest of the Torah, it is in Sefer Devarim (Berakhot 21a). Why is this so? The Shita Mikubetzet (ad. loc.) explains that, with Moshe now reordering previously given mitzvot, the reordering itself communicates a particular message. When we retell a story, it is shaped by choices we make in the organization of material, the order in which we put things, what we choose to emphasize, and even what we choose to omit. All these become part of the message.
Thus, we find that an enormous percentage of Torah she’b’al Peh, the Oral Law, focuses on the verses—on the wording of the mitzvot—in Sefer Devarim. The Oral Law emerges naturally from Devarim because Devarim is already part of Oral Law. It is 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, the interconnection of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. 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; it is the passageway connecting 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 who were about to enter into the land. It took the Torah away from Mount Sinai and out of the wilderness and brought it into society, into the daily lives of the people. Moshe’s retelling of the Torah was true to God’s word, but it was also a reframing of God’s word. It was the beginning of the Oral Torah, the religious enterprise of engaging God’s word with integrity while using our own, in each generation and for each generation.
The act of translating is another form of retelling. We are told at the beginning of our parsha that “Moshe began to expound this Torah” (1:5). Rashi, quoting Tanchuma, comments on this: “He explained it to them in seventy languages.” When we translate, there is the risk of things getting lost or changed. But there is also opportunity. Translations allow a message to reach the widest possible audience. In fact, echoing Moshe’s seventy-language translation, 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 millennia, and with every translation, the Torah becomes more accessible and more widespread.
However, translation can do more. It not only disseminates the Torah, it can also provide a fuller, truer realization of its meaning and its essence. When something is written in a person’s native tongue, it becomes intelligible to him or her. When words are relayed in a way that person can relate to and understand, metaphorically, in one’s own language, they become not only comprehensible, but meaningful. Such words can resonate and enter into our mind, our heart, and our soul.
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. On the one hand, clothing conceals; it covers our naked bodies. But clothing can also reveal; we wear different clothes for different occasions or moods, revealing different parts of ourselves. 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 and 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, sections from the retelling in Sefer Devarim form the essence of our daily religious lives. The two paragraphs of Shema—shema and v’haya im shamoa—are both from Devarim (6:4-9, 11:13-21). These verses make up the Shema prayer, they are written on the mezuzah scroll, and they are two of the four chapters that constitute the tefillin scrolls. These are some of the most central components of our religious observance.
Our daily affirmations of faith in words, on our homes, and on our bodies are all from Moshe’s retelling. His translation revealed a part of the Torah’s essence, and it has entered into our homes and our hearts. To retell the Torah and to translate it into our own words is to partner with God, making the Torah that is written into a Torah that is spoken and heard, a Torah that is lived.