Parasha Shimini/Shabbat Parah

It always comes and always puzzles us.  Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat about the red heifer falls this year on Parashat Shimini.  I would like to share a curious comment about one verse in chapter 11. The Torah commands Israel not to eat the "arnevet" (rabbit) because it chews its cud but does not have split hooves/feet (the opposite of the pig).  In the TalmudMegillah 9 a-b we read the fabled story of King Ptolemy commanding 72 Jewish sages to sit separately and translate the Torah. The Holy Spirit was upon them, and they translated identically. 

What is fascinating about this text is not so much the miraculous claim that the sages translated accurately, but the opposite-that the sages were each inspired to ever so slightly MISTRANSLATE key passages of the Torah. Most of their mistranslations were theological in nature-to avoid any implication of dualism found in the Hebrew original. But the final mistranslation mentioned was diplomatic-apparently Ptolemy's wife was named "Arnevet" and the sages all realized that he would not be pleased to see his wife described as an impure animal, so they all changed the animal's name to "the hairy leg" lest Ptolemy would say, "The Jews are mocking me." 

This story brings to mind the well-known (at least in rabbinic circles) Midrash of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who explained the red heifer ritual in terms that a pagan would understand-as an exorcism ritual. But to his own students he offered a more radical explanation-the ritual of the red heifer has NO physical efficacy. Rather, it is all about demonstrating obedience to God.

Together the two narratives teach us about the task of translation. Sages of Israel have always had the responsibility of interpreting our sacred texts not only for the Jewish community but also for the broader public. These stories indicate a diplomatic agenda for a vulnerable population. That is, the goal of the sages is to MISINTERPRET the Torah for gentiles so that they will not be offended in the case of Ptolemy, or they will be comfortably deceived as in the case with Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. 

Part of the transition from Purim to Pesach is that of moving from insecurity to freedom. We do not live and work in a Jewish ghetto-a segregated and insecure community trembling before the depredations of the outside world. We live and work in an integrated society, and our Torah interpretations should reflect that integration. Our task is to present our sacred texts to Jews as well as to non-Jews as a tradition of holiness, not of magic. Like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, perhaps the greatest transitional figure in Jewish history, we believe that Jewish ritual is not about magic. Rather, it is about creating communities in relationship with God. Unlike Rabban Yochanan, we are free to share this Torah with the broader society and to offer it as a gift which may enhance the lives of other people, even if they do not join in the covenant of Israel.


Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham