LOST IN TRANSLATION
Rabbi David Walk
The Bible is not only the most printed book in history it is also the most translated book ever. Both records are by a wide margin. The Bible has been translated into over 2,000 languages, and in English alone there are over 450 known translations. Why so many? The cynical answer is that each translation has its own agenda, but I think there's more to it. First of all translations reflect their cultural context and each translation has a different audience with different concerns and baggage. The second reason is even more important. It's very hard to translate material like the Bible which can be understood on so many different levels. However, the translator has to choose one possibility out of many. One of those Biblical passages which can drive a translator crazy appears right at the beginning of this week's Torah reading. Our issue is: What the heck does eikev, the first significant word in our parsha, mean?
This week's parsha begins with the passage: And it will be eikev you have listened to all these laws…God will favor, bless and multiply you (Deuteronomy 7:12-13). Here's a few Christian attempts at translation: it shall come to pass (King James), if you pay attention (New International Version), on your part (The Message), completely (contemporary English Version), carefully (New Century Version), faithfully (God's Word Translation, that's a might pompous name) and because (New King James, this is most popular and appears in many Jewish translations like Chabad.org and old JPS). Okay, there's six ways to translate the Hebrew Eikev. How do Jewish translations deal with the problem? Here's a sampling: when (Artscroll), carefully (new JPS), as a consequence (Isaac Levy in SR Hirsch Chumash and Robert Alter, this follows Onkelos), if only, and as a final result (both suggested by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, the second based on Ibn Ezra). Phew! So, now there are eleven possibilities. Which one makes the most sense? How do I decide? Basically there are two possible approaches. Either this word, eikev, is an independent term which is a sort of conjunction like because or since, or the term is borrowed here from the existing word eikev which means heel, as in Achilles or Ya'akov, our Patriarch grabbing the heel of his older brother during their birth.
I like door number two, because it opens much juicier options. The most famous, of course, is Rashi (Reb Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105), who says: literally heel. If you will heed the minor commandments which one usually tramples upon with his heels. So, according to Rashi this term describes the kind of mitzvoth one must perform to get the full Divine reward. They must be obviously the right thing to do, but we take them for granted and, therefore, don't give them their appropriate attention. Now, the list of mitzvoth in this category may change from person to person, but the principle remains the same: We must give the same effort for the daily humdrum mitzvoth which we often reserve for the occasional, yet big mitzvoth. My exertion to recite a daily blessing should equal the energy I expend to blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah. This is a worthy task, but an extremely difficult goal. Rashi sets the bar very high.
The Kedushat Levi (Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, 1740-1809) suggests that there are different kinds of people, rather than a variety of mitzvoth. There are intellectuals who think long and hard about the existence of God and after much sophisticated contemplation decide that there must be a God. If, indeed, there is an All-powerful Creator, then it is incumbent upon me to serve this Deity. These individuals are designated by the head. They are members of the Maimonides team. Then there are others who believe simply and fully that there is a God, without any complex cerebral endeavor. These down-to-earth Jews believe in God because they feel it in their bones, rather than in their gray cells. We identify these precious people as eikev or from the bottom of their being. The Berditchever is explaining to us that the warmest spiritual vibes are reserved for those unpretentious individuals who sincerely try to do God's will and then sense God's favor and blessing. This approach explains the term eikev by the type of Jews who can be described by this comportment.
However, I'd like to suggest a third path. Why is the term heel, rather than foot or sole, employed? What is special about the heel? Look at a footprint in the sand. The deepest, most distinctive feature is the heel. Even though some athletes run on their toes, for most of us, where we place the heel describes the direction we are headed. And when we must hold firm to a course, we dig in our heels. These are not just metaphors; these are physiological reality. The verse, therefore, is describing the trail trodden by the individual striving to follow God's way. We discern this course by observing where this person has carefully chosen to place his heel. We must step back and get a picture of the dots made by the person's heel. Is this life describing a route plotted out by using the mitzvoth as the GPS? Or, God forbid, is there a pattern generated by a private agenda, serving self rather than God? Or, perhaps worst of all, is there no discernable trend at all, just random ramblings?
Ultimately, every life is analyzed and assessed. Our verse is informing us that the assessment is based on reading the map drawn by our heels. The word Torah is probably best translated as the instruction. However, in our instance the best translation is the guide. When planning any journey we must heed the map, follow directions and signs to arrive safely at our desired destination. Life is such a journey. We ignore the guidebook or Torah at our peril. Eventually, the heel prints will tell the tail.
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