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Parshios Netzavim & Vayeilech

Lost in Translation

By Rabbi Label Lam

“For this Mitzvah that I command you today- it is not foreign to you nor is it distant. It is not in the heaven (for you) to say, “Who can ascend to the heaven for us to take it for us?” Nor is it across the sea (for you) to say, “Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us to take it for us so that we can listen to it and perform it?” Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart –to perform it.” (Devarim 30:11-14)

What is that Mitzvah that we would think we need to climb the heavens or cross the oceans to fulfill? The verse doesn’t say explicitly what it is. The Ramban says that it’s talking about the Mitzvah of Teshuvah (repentance) while Rashi claims that it is in reference to the Mitzvah of learning Torah- both the Oral and the Written. Which is it? Why is left obscure? How is the Torah so close and ready to be performed for one who never had a Torah education? Why is the order offered- “in your mouth”, “in your heart”, “to perform it”? Why is the sequence 1- speech then 2-thought and then 3-action?

Many moons ago I was just an all-American guy, a recent college grad living and working in the big city, New York. For some mystical reason I found myself in a small mid-town Synagogue on Saturday mornings regardless of where I had been on Friday night. Sitting in the back of the Shul I would read the archaic, “thy”, “thou”- Old English style translations of the Hertz Chumash and the Birnbaum Siddur. I never knew what page we were on. It didn’t matter much. I stood and sat when everyone else did. The words tickled my mind even in translation. I often glared at the Hebrew side of the page longingly like Moses looking into the promised-land. I knew something major must be lost in translation.

One weekday night back at my Manhattan apartment I turned on the desk lamp and with trepidation opened a Chumash to page one and started to read in Hebrew for the first time since my Bar Mitzvah. The words crawled out slowly from my mouth and by the time I had finished the first verse I was experiencing an unusual phenomenon. My heart was pounding so wildly I suspected that it may be a medical emergency. It was not at all painful but rather curiously pleasant.

I didn’t understand what had happened to me that night till years later when I was already a Yeshiva student. One of our regular Friday afternoon rituals was to go with a group of guys to the local nursing home to sing and wish Gooooood Shabboooooos to the elderly folks. There was one woman there who was not so old. She was a stroke victim and unable to express herself except for a few desperate grunts. The nurse tried to wave me away from paying attention to her claiming she was just a bitter but I sensed she was trying to tell me something. It was frustrating for her. I knew that her boys came to visit her at lunch time so I positioned her near to the elevator bank. She then carried on more frantically than before. In spite of the nurse I persisted and somehow figured out that the face of her watch had slipped downward on her frail wrist so I turned it upright. She began to cry and laugh with joy like a weepy Shofar. Someone had finally and for once understood what she was trying to say.

Soon afterwards, I was able to relate that incident back to my encounter with the words, “Breishis…Bara…Elochim” and the sublimely emotional response that awakened within me. I realized that for the duration of thousands of movies, ball games, and poetry of the highest order my Neshama had been waiting patiently for me to say those words, words of Torah. That simple exercise of reading triggered an inner ovation. I was intrigued to know more and eventually to do more. It all started with words of Torah, “the mouth”, which opened up new thought avenues in “the heart” before being born into action, which is better than being forever lost in translation.

DvarTorah, Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Label Lam and



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