Light Up the World with Torah

National Geographic Magazine’s final issue for 2011 featured—wait for it—the Bible! That’s right; the publication whose motto is “Inspiring people to care about the planet” put the Bible on its cover. Well, it is nice to have National Geographic confirm my view–the Bible is crucial for the well-being of the planet after all.

Their story speaks of the King James translation of the Bible and opens with this sentence:

“The extraordinary global career of this book, of which more copies have been made than of any other book in the language, began in March 1603.”

This year marks the four hundredth year anniversary of its completion.

Until late in the 14th century when John Wycliffe translated the Bible, if you didn’t know Hebrew and Greek, you were out of luck. One hundred and fifty years later, in 1535, William Tyndale angered both state and ecclesiastical authorities by translating the Bible and was executed. Finally the majestic King James translation was completed in 1611 and the genie was out of the bottle. Everyone could read the Bible and thanks to Johann Gutenberg, everyone could afford one.

In its own way and for its own reasons reasons, ancient Jewish wisdom warns us about translations. It stresses that when you translate something technically complex you are not necessarily making it accessible.

For instance, here is an original German sentence from Max Planck’s groundbreaking Treatise on Thermodynamics published in 1897.

“Wenn ein gas oder ein Dampf den fur ideale Gase gultigen Gesetzen nicht folgt, mit anderen Worten: wenn e seine von der Temperatur oder dem Druck abhangige spezifische Dichte besitzt, so kann man dennoch die Avogadro’sche Definition des Molekulargewichts zur Anwendung bringen.”

You may not have grasped the full meaning, so I’ll take a shot at translating it for you:

If a gas or vapor does not follow the laws of perfect gases, or, in other words, should its specific density depend on the temperature or the pressure, Avogadro’s definition of molecular weight is still applicable.

There you are! Did that help?

No, of course it didn’t. Because even in English it is technical and full of words which possess no obvious meaning and themselves need explanation.

However, when you translate the Torah from Hebrew to English, what you get is something that sounds comprehensible and appears to be just a simple narrative. This misleads the casual reader into believing that he or she has captured all there is when the truth is that so much more lies just beneath the surface.

For instance, today is the final day of the festival of Chanukah which began eight days ago on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. Interestingly, it is the only event in the Hebrew calendar that begins on the 25th day of a month. Along with everyone else who has observed the holyday by lighting the menorah, I have now used a total of 36 candles. (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8=36)

Merely reading the English translation of the first five verses of Genesis would not help us discover that the first occurrence of the Hebrew word for “light”, OHR, is the 25th word of the Torah. We’d probably also remain unaware that this Hebrew word OHR occurs a total of 36 times in the Five Books of Moses.

We would miss that God’s original introduction of light is linked to the annual celebration of light—Chanukah— even though the historical nuances of the holiday were not to surface for thousands of years. Aspects of Chanukah reveal—or enLIGHTen— us to how the world really works, including an understanding of economics and how we should relate to energy.

As we post the final issue of our fourth year of Thought Tools, we appreciate that National Geographic recognizes that caring about the world means knowing the Bible. Delving beneath the surface of the Bible is what we help you achieve through our weekly email, our TV show, media appearances and through our audio CDs and books. This week, you can save an additional dollar off each of the five audio CDs in the Biblical Blueprint Set (including Festival of Lights) when you order the entire set online. Start your year the LIGHT way!

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