Many years ago, when I was a chosson, I was in the study of my father-in-law, the renowned kashrus expert, Rav Yacov Halevi Lipschutz. He was on the phone, and someone must have asked him a convoluted question.He answered succinctly with a brief sentence that must have contained no more than six or seven words. I was not privy to the other side of the conversation, but I must assume that the fellow responded, like many of us do by adding his own clarification, “In other words…”
All I know is that my father-in-law’s response was strong and equally succinct. “There are no other words. These are the words!” Then he repeated the psak with the exact six or seven words with which he had originally responded.
Parshas Mattos begins with Moshe teaching the halachos of nedorim, and unlike many of the nevi’im, and even some of Moshe’s own prophesies that began with the more ambiguous words, “Koh Amar Hashem,” this parsha begins with the more direct and powerful words, “Zeh hadovor. These are the words.”
When it comes to nedorim and swearing, there are no other words. These are the words. And if a person must be so precise in what he is saying, the way those halachos are transmitted must be precise, succinct, and exact.
We live in a world where everything has a spin. The same event can be reported through one medium as a heroic act, and yet in another medium it is reported as a heinous crime. We live in a world where people feel that truth is objective and can be obfuscated to meet the values and morals of the reporters. It is extremely difficult without the “einei ha’eidah,” the chachomim who are considered the seers of Klal Yisroel, to first interpret and then transmit world events through the clarity of a Torah lens.
Even what one may think is pure can be tainted and spun “in other words.”
Sometimes, words are taken and repeated verbatim. Indeed, they say exactly what you said, but then they take the words and make a little addition.And the extra addendum clearly epitomizes the words of Chazal of “Kol hamosif gorei’a – Those who add actually subtract.”
In a recent book, Heads and Tails, Rabbi Berel Wein relates a fascinating story. When he was a rov in Miami Beach, he had built a new shul that was an architectural masterpiece. The design was very innovative and included some fancy stained-glass windows. It was so striking that photographs of it appeared in the newspaper and it included a review of the architecture. The publicity prompted a Catholic elementary school for girls that was only a few blocks away from the shul to call him up. Rabbi Wein relates that as he was sitting in his office one day, he received a phone call from one of the nuns who ran that particular school. She asked very politely and respectfully if it was possible to show the girls of her 7th and 8th grade class the interior of the synagogue and to explain to them what the synagogue was all about. Rabbi Wein, who was never active in interfaith type of work, didn’t want to say no, so he agreed to allow the students to visit and ask questions about Judaism. After the visit, the nun who was in charge of the group asked him if it would be okay if they would recite the 23rd chapter of Tehillim – of course in their vernacular, a chapter of Psalms – in the sanctuary. Rabbi Wein was hesitant, but he did not want to refuse the request. He figured that they were saying Tehillim in English, so what could be wrong? However, he was worried as to what they would be saying, so he asked to see the booklet that they would be using. The nun was surprised. After all, Psalms were Psalms. Don’t they come from the Jewish Bible? But the nun acquiesced and allowed Rabbi Wein to look.
To his chagrin, he saw that at the end of each chapter of Psalms, they had added their own verses extolling their own religion and their deities and theology.
Rabbi Wein told them that they could not use that book, as it was not the true translation. He took an ArtScroll volume off the shelf and showed them the true and accurate translation, with nothing altered. He explained how their book had King David saying ideas that were the antithesis of Judaism.
When the nun saw the true verses, she was shocked and said, “Now I understand why the Jewish people never accepted Christianity and remain so stubbornly against it. I always thought that they were blasphemous, as they had refused to follow the words of their own Bible. Now, you have shown me that those words don’t even appear in the Hebrew Bible. And thus, you have justified reasons for preserving the way your religion was transmitted to you.”
Although what people add to the actual facts of any story may not be as blasphemous as the nun’s version of Tehillim, adding one’s own comments may prove destructive.
However, it’s not only adding. Altering words when they get lost in translation is also another misdeed that happens so often.
When the great gaon Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, who was the chief rabbi of Antwerp, first visited the United States, he was known as a brilliant illui and orator. Many kehillos vied for the privilege of him visiting their shuls and speaking for their congregations, even though some were simply not on the level to comprehend the great gaon’s oratorical brilliance.
The story is told that one particular shul, whose constituents were all Americans, invited him to speak, but as the rov only spoke Yiddish and Lashon Kodesh, the president of the shul insisted that Rav Kreiswirth speak in the language most comfortable to him, Yiddish, and then he would translate the drosha into English.
“I will repeat your speech word for word in English so that everyone will benefit from the great gaon’s pearls,” he said.
Rav Kreiswirth spoke for approximately half an hour. And though no one in the audience understood his message, they were mesmerized by his animated and vivacious delivery, and they sat in awe until he completed his thoughts. The president followed in perfect English, almost as animated and flawlessly delivered, as if he had the text prepared weeks in advanced.
After both the main speech and its translation were completed, the kehillah approached the great sage, thanking him for gracing their community with a visit and an inspiring lecture. One man went up to him and, with great effort, verbalized his compliments in a broken Yiddish.
“I especially enjoyed the thought you quoted from Rabbi Reines,” he said.
“Yes, the story about the farmer was delightful,” said another.
Rav Kreiswirth was puzzled. He did not speak about a farmer, nor did he mention Rabbi Reines anywhere in his speech.
It was not long before Rav Kreiswirth realized what you, my dear reader, probably realize as well: The president did not repeat the rov’s drasha. Rather, he inserted his own canned lecture that he had been longing to preach for a while!
Unfortunately, everyone has an agenda. Some may twist a tale by adding their own words, while others may relate real news in a truly counterfeit manner.
Make sure when you hear or repeat something that the words “Zeh hadovor” resonate.These are the words. There are no other words!