Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson
Translated by Hillel Fendel

Adorn yourself first!

The translation of the Torah into Greek was mourned by the Rabbis. How, then, should we spread the light of Torah in the world?


Rabbi Neria Guttel

Tevet 11 5782

The German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen explained to Martin Buber why he opposed joining the Zionist movement: "Do the Jews really want to be simply 'content' just like everyone else? Was it just in order to establish another small and nationalist Albania in the Middle East that we suffered as terribly as we did throughout Jewish history? Will we exchange the great mission that the Jewish People took upon itself – to be an ethical and spiritual light to the Gentiles – simply for the amusement of flags and parades?"

This is certainly not the approach of our Yeshivot, but the matter is not simple. On the one hand, Moshe Rabbeinu saw fit to explain the Torah to Israel in 70 languages, and even commanded the Israelites, when they entered the Promised Land, to leave such a translation for all the nations to learn from. And when Achilles the Convert translated the Torah into Greek, the great Sages R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua praised him for disseminating Torah throughout the world.

On the other hand, the Rabbis were greatly pained when the Torah was translated into Greek during this month of Tevet two millennia ago. They even instituted a day of fasting – the Fast of the 10th of Tevet – on which to mourn the translation. The Sages likened the darkness that the translation brought upon the world to the Sin of the Golden Calf.

Why were the Sages so upset? Does not everyone know that without a translation, there can be no universal dissemination of the Torah?

We find similar intricacy regarding the Sages' attitude towards learning the Greek language, which was the "English" of their generation – the primary tool by which to universally spread ideas. On the one hand, we find Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel attesting to "1,000 children in my father's house – 500 [who] learned Torah and 500 [who] learned Greek wisdom." And similarly, Rebbe, the redactor of the Mishna, said that no language other than Hebrew or Greek should be spoken in the Holy Land.

On the other hand, only those who had already learned their fill of Torah were permitted to study Greek, and even then only "at an hour that is neither day nor night." And still then, a form of a curse was placed upon those who would study "Greek wisdom."

How are we to understand these seeming contradictions? Let us avail ourselves of the Talmudic teaching regarding our Patriarchs: Avraham's way is likened to a "mountain," the path of Yitzchak to a "field," and of Jacob to a "house." What can this mean?

Avraham was the "Father of All Nations;" his tent was open in all four directions, and, as we learn in Avot D'Rabbe Natan, "he converted the men while his wife Sarah converted the women." But what remained of all his work? Barely anything.

His son Yitzchak took a more small-scale approach; he was not a "mountain," only a "field;" he did not go out to others, though he provided spiritual help to all those who sought him. He, too, barely saw fruits of his labors.

Finally came Yaakov, who understood that the work of teaching others must begin at home. Universalism will yet come, but first one must concentrate on particularism… The Prophet Isaiah referred to "the House of Yaakov that redeemed Avraham." Apparently this is the only way for Avraham's way to reach the general populace; one must begin with Yaakov's approach of "inner fortification" in order to have influence externally.

We must therefore say as follows: We acknowledge that very many Torah sources, from the 5 Books up to contemporary scholars, and everything in between, indicate the obligation – not just the privilege – of spreading the light of Torah, faith, and mitzvot. In the Prophets we read, "Nations will walk by your light…" and "I will place you as light of the nations." In addition, Moshe Rabbeinu, at G-d's behest, commanded all nations to fulfill the seven Noahide Commandments. But with all this, the remaining question is: When does this obligation to "spread the light" apply?

The Sages teach: "Adorn yourself, and only then adorn others." This is appropriate for the question at hand. It is doubtful whether it is correct, or possible, to achieve suitable and effective influence over the nations of the world before the Nation of Israel receives the best proper training. Thus Rav Avraham Kook, of saintly blessed memory, taught that during the Exile, "we have left world politics - having been compelled to do so, but out of an inner desire - until the opportune time comes when it will be possible to administer a country without wickedness."

Not for naught did the Prophets Micha and Yeshayah state that only at the End of Days would "the mount of the House of G-d stand upright atop the mountains… and all the nations will stream towards it… From Zion will go forth the Torah, and G-d's word from Jerusalem."

May it happen speedily!

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