My first introduction to learning Biblical Hebrew was such an influential experience – looking back in hindsight, without that experience I would not be where I am nor who I am today. In Beit Riklis on Mount Scopus, the former home of Young Judaea in Jerusalem, a small class would gather around a conference table littered with various English translations of the Torah.
It was astounding to see how many different translations one verse could produce. I recall having a conversation a number of years ago at Bele Chere with a milk crate preacher (I call him that because he was literally preaching on the corner standing on a milk crate) screaming about the “undying, unchanging Word of God.” I asked him how he could call it “unchanging” when so many different translations have been produced. He smiled and said, “No matter what language it is in, it is all from the Mouth of God.” Well, he may be correct and it turns out that the “unchanging Word of God” comes in many, many, many different versions. And, it should come as no surprise, those many versions produce many different meanings.
An example par excellence can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo. This particular line is also well known to those who participate in a Passover Seder – in fact, the passage to which I am referring makes up the foundation of the Maggid section of the Haggadah.
Deuteronomy 26:5 reads:
וְעָנִ֨יתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ֜ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גָר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב׃
And now for some translations.
The Jewish Publication Society 1917: “And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number;
and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.”
The Jewish Publication Society 1985: “You shall then recite as follows before the LORD your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.”
The Koren Tanakh: “And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD your God, An Arammian nomad was my father, and he went down to Mizrayim, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous:”
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah: “You shall then make the following declaration before God your Lord: ‘My ancestor was a homeless Aramean. He went to Egypt with a small number of men and lived there as an immigrant, but it was there that he became a great, powerful and populous nation.'”
Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses: And you shall speak out and say before the LORD your God: ‘My father was an Aramean about to perish, and he went down to Egypt, and he sojourned there with a few people, and he became there a great and mighty and multitudinous nation.'”
Artscroll Kestenbaum Tikkun: Then you shall call out and say before HASHEM, your God, ‘An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather. He descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there be became a nation – great, strong, and numerous.'””
Artscroll Saperstein Edition: “Then you shall call out and say before HASHEM, your God, ‘An Aramean would have destroyed my father, and he descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation – great, strong and numerous.'”
Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses: “And you are to speak up and say before the presence of YHWH your God: ‘An Aramean Astray my Ancestor; he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, as menfolk few-in-number, but he became there a nation, great, mighty (in number) and many.'”
I could keep going with many more, but I will end with my own translation: “And you will recite and you will say before YHVH your God: An Arami attemped-to-end my ancestor; he descended toward Mitzrayim, he emigrated there with numbers few, but it was there he would become a great nation, robust and many.”
As you can likely see, even subtle differences in translation can transform the meaning substantially. In this particular instance, the original Hebrew is vague as to the subject and object of the sentence. If the subject of the sentence is “Arami,” and the object “my ancestor,” and the verb I render as “attempted-to-end” is understood to be transitive, then it is in reference to the struggle between Yaakov and Lavan. This is how our Sages of Blessed Memory render it in the Midrash which is quoted in the Haggadah. It is also how Rashi understands the verse. However, R’ Avraham ibn Ezra reads the verse differently. He holds that the verb is intransitive and that “my ancestor” is the subject, therefore the Arami in question is Yaakov himself. However, the Torah is vague and the ancestor is not named. Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, understands the Arami in question to be neither Yaakov nor Lavan; rather he understands, and it seems JPS agreed with him, that the Aramean ancestor is none other than Avraham. All of these grammatical and philosophical subtleties produce radically different understandings of the verse.
The truth is this: Torah is not intended to be understood in one monolithic sense. Rather, its beauty, its power, its Truth is grounded in the fact that its meaning is as “robust and many” as the Children of Israel alluded to in the verse in question. This is how I understand the tradition that Torah comes al pi Hashem – from the mouth of the Ineffable One. The Source of the abundant diversity in Creation is the source of the abundant diversity of the human capacity to seek meaning and relevance, and for the Jewish people this means constantly engaging and wrestling with the Torah to tease out its abundantly diverse meanings.