On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah – Bo: What is Lost in Translation

In Parashat Bo, we learn about the last three of the plagues that are visited upon the Pharaoh of Egypt. Rabbi Rick Jacobs focuses on the plague of darkness, and examines how the translations of the ancient Hebrew by Robert Alter allow us to glean new meanings from this portion.

Three ways to listen:


[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the parasha of the week, in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs talks about Parashat Bo, and teaches us specifically about the word "darkness" and the word "shadow," and how translation can sometimes change what you think.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Bo from the Book of Exodus, that that dramatic showdown with the last three plagues between Moses and Pharaoh, a story we know well. And each of the plagues we also know pretty well, if only from Passover seder, when we remove some of the fruit of the vine from each of our glasses as a way of acknowledging each of these plagues. I'd like to focus our attention on the 9th of the plagues, the Plague of Darkness. Of course, we know the story -- the darkness isn't simply the absence of light. It's a deeper kind of darkness, a palpable darkness. Before I train our attention on the verse in particular that talks about that darkness from Chapter 10, I would just say that there is actually a new way to shed light on this Torah portion and all Torah portions. And that is that Robert Alter, the brilliant biblical commentator and literary critic who's been teaching for decades at UC Berkeley, has just this week come out with his new entire translation of the Hebrew Bible. Something absolutely extraordinary. [It's the] First time ever that one individual has actually translated the entire Hebrew Bible into English -- and also with commentary, with explanation. He is an exceptional individual, and of course we know that no book has been re-translated as often as the Bible. And also there's no book that's been as widely published as the Bible. I'm told that here in North America, half a billion dollars is spent each year on copies of the Bible. So we have lots of people who read the Bible and all the different translations, from the King James to the Revised Standard Version, one of the first standard versions that included a Jewish scholar, Harry Orlinskey is part of that team. But this accomplishment is absolutely singular.

Now let me just point out that reading the Torah portion of the week in translation is actually an ancient obligation. [The] Talmud says that we should each one of us read the portion a couple of times to prepare for Shabbat's reading in the Temple. And once we should read it in a targum, once in a in a translation that is perhaps more familiar to us. The targum was done first of all in Aramaic, because that's what people understood. So this was a way of making sure that the meaning of the portion was understood.

I love the great Hebrew poet and writer Haim Nahman Bialik, who once famously wrote "Reading a poem in translation is like kissing through a veil." To be honest, sometimes it clouds the meaning. But I think with Robert Alter, we can actually get a sense that he has actually been able to shine light and help us feel and experience the text in new ways.

If we could, I would just point out some things that he says in his framing of the translation. He says there are two common approaches to the Bible: One, it's either a sacred revelation whose existence we have to simply take at face value, or it's a historical artifact to be dissected and analyzed. But in his very, very well regarded the Art of Biblical narrative, Robert Alter in 1982 wrote that there's a third way to analyze the Bible: as an interconnected series of works of literature, using the tools of literary analysis, as he's been doing his whole life, we can actually shed new light. And some of us will rebel from any new translation, we've internalized some of the very famous ways that the Bible has been translated. But we're going to look at one particular little excerpt from the King James and from the Robert Alter translations, and see if we can actually get a feel for what he was accomplishing. What I love also, just as more biographical note, is that if we think about Robert Alter, he is an American-Jewish child. He learned first preparing for his bar mitzvah, and then went to Hebrew-only-speaking summer camp, and he went to a Harvard study comparative literature [program] -- actually got his degrees, [a] Ph.D. in English literature, and then taught Hebrew in comparative literature. His work is really something for us to pay attention to. Let me point out something that you know well, which is the King James translation of Psalm 23. In particular, we're going to pay attention to the Valley of the Shadow of Death, because that is also that word darkness from the 9th plague in the parasha, Bo. Remember the parasha? Yes I do. And yes we're going to come back. -- But in that very famous translation, the King James version of Psalm 23 -- which some of us I'd bet could recite from memory -- we're going to see that what Alter does isn't simply to change the translation, but to accomplish something very different: a kind of fidelity to the ancient Hebrew.

King James, Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His namesake. Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me." And I know that's not the full psalm, but you get the flavor of the translation, and in particular the "walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death."

Listen to Robert Altar's translation of Psalm 23 from his new collection. "Psalm 23, a psalm of -- a David Psalm: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. In grass meadows he makes me lie down. By quiet waters, guides me. My life, He brings back. He leads me on pathways of justice for His name sake. Though I walk in the vale of Death's shadow, I fear no harm, for You are with me."

It's different, clearly, and some of you say, "Because it's different, I react to it." I may not take kindly to it at first, but just note in his little notes at the bottom of the translation of Psalm23. He points out not just the difference between the King James version and his own; he says the King James version is eloquent, but too lengthy. Hebrew has "valley of the shadow of death" in two words. "B'geil tzalmavet." Two words to convey what takes the King James many, many words. And he points out that "tzalmavet" is a poetic word for darkness.

If we go back to the 9th plague, Chapter 10, verse 21 of Exodus here is Robert Alter's commentary on his translations which he says the darkness was a darkness one can feel. In his comment at the bottom of the page, he says the force of the hyperbole -- which beautifully conveys the claustrophobic palpability of absolute darkness, you hear in the comment that this is a literary genius at work.

Here's Robert Alter in his 80s. Decades of work on this project. Obviously, to have to immerse yourself in every nuance of the Hebrew, every nuance of the literary project, and every nuance of the religious, spiritual project of the Bible, the Hebrew Bible, and its translations. One of the things that Alter says is that some places where the King James is translated differently by him, it's not just a literary question. The King James version gets some of the actual text wrong. It is before all of the most recent excavations, archaeologists' findings, comparative ancient literature. So is there a greater fidelity by Altar to the Hebrew text? Yes, he is absolutely in its literary conventions, in its literary brilliance, and he is hoping to bring us closer to the text. He's hoping to shine light in the text in his translation. Of course, we could all say, "Any translation is going to remove us. Maybe put a veil between us and the text." But for most of us, it's how we make sense of it, is that [it's] translated into our most familiar language -- and even if you're a modern Israeli, the Biblical text is not the language of Hebrew that you speak. [It's] Already separated by millennia. So this project of trying to translate is [an] effort at trying to make more meaning, to trying to bring new understanding -- and hopefully a new sense of relevance and power and beauty into our lives through the Biblical text.

So I'm not actually working for the publisher, but I have to say this three volume set is now beautifully situated right in front of me in my office. And I love that as we read through this cycle this year, it's great to see that we can actually discern new meaning by reading the text with this new translation. He'll make us notice things we've never noticed before. He'll point out ways of being more closely aligned to the rhythm of the Hebrew text -- and in so doing, what is in the Book of Exodus in Parashat Bo a plague, meaning "darkness," the text also reminds us that while while the Plague of Darkness was out over Egypt, he says that beautifully the text said, "But all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings." Powerfully, the light was not extinguished everywhere. It was extinguished among the Egyptians. They were not able to see, not able to take in the world around them, but the Israelites they enjoyed that light. The light of learning, the light of Enlightenment, the light of goodness.

I have to say, in reading Robert Altar's new translation of the entire Hebrew Bible -- every single verse I have to feel that the Biblical text is alive."U'l'chol B'nei Yisrael haya or b'moshav'tam." In all of the dwellings, let there be more light in this text, and let that light illumine our lives.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten minutes Of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org, and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!