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Home » Ekev

Ekev: The Art of Translation

Submitted by on July 25, 2010 – 3:56 amNo Comment | 2,670 views

Where Is G-d?

Reb Mendel of Kotzk is said to have asked his disciples to tell him where G-d can be found. They offered many answers, all of which he rejected, until he explained, G-d is where you let him in.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe OB”M was approached by a student, who asked where G-d can be found. The Rebbe smiled and said G-d is everywhere; in the trees, the birds, the branches, etc. The man insisted, saying, really Rebbe, where can I find Him. The Rebbe grew very serious, pointed to the man’s heart and said, If you mean it that way, He is in your heart.

Indeed, G-d is in us; but we have no way of knowing it unless we let him in. The role of a Jewish leader is to show us how and Moses did just that. Allow me to explain.

Speaking For G-d

The book of Deuteronomy reads like Moses’ diary. He retells the story of his forty year journey through the desert and shares kernels of wisdom with the people. In this book, Moses usually refers to himself in the first person and to G-d in the third, but there are exceptions. (1)

Consider the following verse: “If you hearken to My commandments that I command you … to love the Lord, your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul. I will give the rain of your land at its time… and I will give grass in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and be sated.” (2) Here Moses seems to appoint himself master of crop and rain. Is this not Hubris of the highest order? (3)


The answer is found in a curious set of verses several chapters earlier. Recounting the Ten Commandments Moses said, “Face to face, the Lord spoke with you at the mountain out of the midst of the fire. And I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to tell you the word of the Lord.” (4)

Which is the truth? Did G-d speak to the people face to face or did Moses serve as intermediary between G-d and the Jews? The answer is, both. You see, there are two forms of intermediaries. One puts distance between the parties; the other builds a bridge between them.

Think of a mediator in divorce proceedings. Soon to be ex husband and wife are estranged and tense; they see every issue through the prism of sorrow, anger, and animosity.  The mediator puts distance between them and helps them resolve their differences. the art of translation - innerstreamThe successful mediator does not repeat verbatim what the other said. Instead s/he chooses words carefully to strike an impartial tone and move the proceedings forward.

Now think of a translator. The two parties do not require a mediator; they would gladly talk to each other if they could overcome the language barrier. The translator serves as mouth piece to the parties; what they say, the translator repeats; verbatim. Changing the words without license is a violation of the trust that both parties place in the translator.

Both mediator and translator are intermediaries, but where the former rephrases words, the latter renders them faithfully.

When the mediator speaks for the husband s/he must speak in the third person; your husband said. When the translator translates s/he must speak in the first person; I say. In other words, mediators act as a separate party; when they represent others, they must say so. Translators are not separate parties; they are mouth pieces through which others speak; their presence must be completely transparent. When they speak for others it must sound like the other is doing the talking.

Moses was a translator not a mediator. When he said, “I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to tell you the word of the Lord,” he was telling the truth; indeed he did act as an intermediary.  But he was a mediator who translated, not one that mediated. He rendered the words so faithfully that it was as if they heard it directly from G-d.

This is why Moses was also correct to say, “Face to face, the Lord spoke with you at the mountain out of the midst of the fire.” G-d spoke to the people through Moses, but because Moses acted as a translator setting himself completely aside and letting G-d’s words flow through him, his presence was completely transparent; the Jews did not even hear him; they heard only G-d as if G-d were speaking to them face to face. (5)

Language Barrier

We understand the need for a translator when the parties do not speak the same language, but what role did Moses serve? The Jews all spoke Hebrew; why did they require Moses?

Imagine the following scenario. Albert Einstein is visiting your neighborhood. The enterprising principal of your child’s grade school takes full advantage of the opportunity and invites Einstein to speak to the graduating class about the theory of relativity. Einstein accepts, but the principle has a problem. Though Einstein speaks English the children cannot follow the complex math that Einstein will present.

The principal invites the children’s teacher to interpret Einstein’s words in language the children can understand. Einstein, unaccustomed to speaking to eighth graders would find it difficult to distill his complex ideas into child friendly language. The teacher is an old hand at this. Now ask yourself the following question; since the teacher will be addressing the children, why do we need Einstein? Let the teacher explain the theory; surely the teacher knows it well enough to explain it to eighth graders.

The teacher is an intermediary. He does not understand the theory as well as Einstein, but he understands it better than the children. He also does not know how to talk to eighth graders as well as children do, but he can do it better than Einstein. He is thus the perfect bridge between them. Sitting on neither end, he is right in the middle; he has a little of both worlds. The teacher will use his unique position to understand Einstein’s message and translate it perfectly on the children’s level.

The same is true of Moses. G-d is infinite and holy. Man is finite and mundane. G-d could either speak on man’s level and we would lose out on hearing G-dly wisdom or He could speak on His level and we would understand nothing. Moses was a perfect intermediary; a human who, processed information like humans do, but who could relate to the intellectual level of the Divine. There is one difference between Moses and the teacher. Unlike the teacher, who chooses his own words, Moses did not speak for himself. Like a translator, he set himself aside and let G-d speak through him, which is why he spoke for G-d in the first person, “I will give the rain” etc. (6) (7)

In Life

In life we have choices. We can choose to live for ourselves and devote some time to G-d or live for G-d and leave some time for ourselves. This, in a nutshell, is the difference between speaking for ourselves and G-d speaking through us. G-d is in our heart and soul, but to feel it, know it and live with it we must first let him in. Moses set himself aside and let G-d in. He showed us how it is done, but we must each decide for ourselves; will we be mediators or translators? (8)


  1. See for example Deuteronomy 11: 1-5. Moses refers to
    himself each time in the first person and to G-d in the third person.
  2. Deuteronomy 11: 13-15.
  3. The astute reader will defend Moses and note that
    in the very same verse Moses acknowledges G-d as lord and exhorts the
    people to serve G-d with all their heart and soul. However, rather than
    resolving the issue this only serves to further obfuscate it: Moses is a
    humble servant, but does he somehow consider himself master too?
  4. Deuteronomy 5: 4-5.
  5. This reconciles the notion of Moses serving as
    intermediary with the basic tenet of our faith that Jews require no
    intermediary between themselves and G-d. See the next part of the essay
    where this idea is more fully developed.
  6. This is why the example of the teacher is
    imperfect. It works to illustrate the distance between speaker and
    listener, but it does not work because the teacher selects his own words
    whereas Moses offered a perfect rendering of G-d’s words. Both examples
    must be taken together, the translator and the teacher.
    Another example is that of the written word. The hand motions that write
    do not change the word at all; they faithfully render words from mind
    to paper. Yet, there is some impact on the words. Just like in
    translation, when the translation is done the words have been rendered
    in a new language so too when the writing is done the words have been
    rendered in a new format; they are now on paper. Moses rendered G-d
    words perfectly in a format that the human mind can grasp.
  7. There are times, however, when the narrative
    required Moses to speak of himself. Though he was merely translator,
    when G-d spoke of Moses he was required to refer to himself in the first
    person. This is the primary difference between Moses in the first four
    books and Moses in Deuteronomy. In the first four books Moses was not
    even a translator, he was a repeater. In Deuteronomy Moses was a
    translator. The translator translates the words into another language or
    to use the example of the writer, who renders words in a new format.
    The repeater plays no role at all; merely repeats words and sounds.
    In the first four books, when G-d said the words, G-d spoke to Moses,
    Moses repeated the words verbatim. When G-d said those same words in
    Deuteronomy, Moses said, G-d spoke to me, as translators are required to
    do when the words refer back to themselves.
    It is interesting to note that though Moses translated the words in his
    own format, Deuteronomy remains a sacred book of G-d. This is because
    G-d’s presence in Moses was so pervasive that even his mind was suffused
    with G-dliness. When Moses thought, his mind naturally jumped to the
    conclusions G-d wanted him to make. For more information see Likutei
    Sichos IXX p. 9.
  8. This essay is based on Sefer Mamarim 5659 p. 190.