Starting to Walk

WalkingThe Torah is a living document, to be applied to all societies and all generations of history. Thus, the Almighty entrusted the sages and Torah authorities of each generation with the responsibility of interpreting the Torah and implementing it in the specific conditions and circumstances of their time and place.

-from the Chabad.org commentary for
Avot Pirkei (Ethics of our Fathers) Chapter 1
“Barrier and Gateway”

First put on your right shoe, then your left shoe, then bind your left shoe, and finally bind your right shoe. That’s the way Jews do it. The Torah was given to sanctify the mundane.

-Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
Kabbalah and the Art of Tying Your Shoelaces

For the past several days, I’ve been blogging on topics related to the Torah and the meaning it has for not just the Jewish people, but for all of us. I’ve also been trying to describe that the Torah is more than just a document and in an almost mystic way, it transcends its own physical nature and becomes both the blueprint and container for Creation.

As the Chabad commentary I quoted above states, the Torah has an expansive mission to address all people everywhere and as Rabbi Ginsburgh suggests, part of that purpose is to help us understand that holiness and sanctity are infused in everything we encounter.

The Chabad.org commentary for Chapter 2 of Avot Pirkei introduces an additional mystery in how we are supposed to understand what the Torah, the book of instructions for living in a created world, is to be understood and lived out:

Rabbi [Judah HaNassi] would say: Which is the correct path for man to choose? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind…
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:1

[Rabbon Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi] would say… Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His…
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:4

On the surface, Rabbi Judah HaNassi’s statement appears to go against the grain of the rest of the Ethics and, indeed, the essence of Judaism itself.

Simply stated, the basis of the Jewish faith is the belief that the Torah is G-d’s blueprint for existence. In the words of the Midrash, “An architect who builds a palace does not do so on his own. He has scrolls and notebooks which he consults how to place the rooms, where to set the doors. So it was with G-d: He looked into the Torah and created the world.”

So how can Rabbi Judah say that the “correct path” is defined by “whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind”? Imagine the worker who consults the original state of his materials rather than the architect’s plan. “The blueprint calls for a square plank,” he muses, “but the log I have is round. Perhaps we can edit the plans a little?” This is what man is doing when he refers to the “way things are” in his own nature, in society or in the world at large for guidance as to how to live his life. Indeed, why labor to change the world if we can conform our moral vision to reflect it?

To the Jew, the “correct path for man to choose” is determined by the Divine revelation at Sinai, not by what is comfortable or what goes down well in the prevailing moral climate. To be a partner in creation means that one must, at times, contest the opinion polls as well as one’s own nature.

This is why the Ethics, which is the Talmud’s summarization of the Jew’s moral philosophy, opens with the words “Moses received the Torah at Sinai.” Morality, for the Jew, is not the product of man’s subjective thinking but of Divine revelation.

However, if “the Torah will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3), then this teaching and the ethics attached cannot be limited to the Jewish people. All of humanity becomes God’s partner in Tikkun Olam; the repairing of a broken world, and in the mission to prepare existence itself, starting with our own lives, for the coming of the Messiah. This effort at once requires that we submit to the demands of the Torah but also to interweave the Torah’s fabric with our own, fusing its life with our soul, resulting in a life made holy by God.

Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you. –Avot Pirkei 1:3

Paul, a servant (or slave) of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David… –Romans 1:1-3

Here is a painting of “slaves” of God but not slaves who serve out of a desire for self-gain or reward, but out of “fear of Heaven”. This doesn’t necessarily mean fear of punishment but rather an intense awe of God, His Holiness, His purposes, and the immense task of which we are a part. An observant Jewish man wears a yarmulke or kippah on his head to cause him to be always aware of the One who is constantly over him. The Word of God reminds us of the God we serve and who we are in Him.

It’s that awareness that gives us the drive to learn how to serve God and then to devote our lives to that service. The renowned Torah sages Hillel and Shammai both commented on this:

Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah. –Avot Pirkei 1:12

Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance. –Avot Pirkei 1:15

Many of the opinions recorded in the Mishnah seem inconsistent about whether or not it is praiseworthy to devote an entire life to Torah study. Is it better to study Torah, forsaking all other pursuits or should a person both study and practice the Torah, balancing life between student and “doer”? Torah scholars are still subsidized in Israel today and exempted from military duty and other societal responsibilities, but there is this principle to consider:

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin. –Pirkei Avot 2:2

It is very similar to lessons we find in Christianity:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” –2 Thessalonians 3:10

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. –1 Timothy 5:8

A desire to serve God and to immerse oneself in His Word does not excuse a person from the mundane chores in life or the requirements of his family. In fact, it actually becomes a sin to study the Torah to the exclusion of all other activities and supposed acts of holiness can become an excuse for disobeying God:

But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that. –Mark 7:11-13

That brings us back to Rabbi Ginsburg and the art of tying our shoes.

Shoes allow us to walk the face of the earth, to contact physicality and move around as we wish freely. More than any other material artifact that we possess and utilize daily, shoes symbolize our involvement with the mundane. As we walk forward to achieve our goals in life they protect our feet from the stones and thorns that cover the ground upon which we tread.

But so long as we have not sanctified the earth in its entirety to be a sanctuary for God we need shoes to protect our feet, while continuously on the move, doing our utmost to make this world a better place – a meeting ground for us and our Creator.

Tying ShoesThe world is a work in progress and so are we. Everything we do is a transition from the mundane to the holy. We constantly are on a quest to see the holy in every ordinary object, act, and person. Even getting out of bed in the morning and getting dressed is both common and sacred. People often “get into a rut” by doing the same things in the same way day-in and day-out. We can become bored, numb, burned-out, and tired of life. As Rabbi Ginsburgh says though, the “Torah was given to sanctify the mundane.” Studying and living out God’s Word, God’s blueprint, God’s plan, opens our eyes so that we can see beyond the surface appearance of the world and people around us, and it enables us to see beyond the surface of the Torah itself.

In stripping off the outer layers or reality, we see the mystical substance which makes up the “truer reality” of everything. The world was created through more-than-natural processes in a manner that transcends human understanding and what we think of as “the laws of the universe”. In the Torah, is the lens by which we can take brief glimpses of that reality and from it, gain the strength to get out of bed for another day, get dressed, put on our shoes, and find holiness in tying our shoelaces.

Then we begin to walk on whatever road God sets before us.

“Which is exactly what he will not concede. As he sees it, the Jewish people possesses a unique religious truth, an unsurpassable morality of peace, mercy, justice and human equality-all indispensible to a man’s salvation-and, in addition, a Tradition or way of life in which they are embodied. It is for these and their communication to the nations of the world that we have been appointed. No sacrifice on our part can be too great for the fulfillment of so heroic a destiny. What is more, no power on earth can destroy us, provided always that we remain loyal to our purpose.”

-Pappas to Elisha
in Milton Steinberg’s book
As a Driven Leaf

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Crossroads

Crossroads“Let me explain,” Demonax continued. “To you philosophy is science. To me it is art. To you it is a method of discovering the truth. To me it is a guide to noble living.”

Demonax to Elisha in
Milton Steinberg’s book
As a Driven Leaf

In my previous blog post Two Worlds, I compared my journey of faith to that of Elisha’s. Elisha is a Jewish man living in the first fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He is a man who had been trained as a Rabbi and who had served as a member of the great Sanhedrin. Yet, in a profound crisis of faith, he has abandoned his Jewish heritage and the Torah of Moses and fled to the Syrian city of Antioch to try to find the truth of his existence in the realms of Greek literature, science, and philosophy.

I, for my part, am a person who came to faith in Jesus sometime after my 40th birthday and after a few years not being satisfied by the answers of the church, proceeded into a “blending” of Christian and Jewish practices in a small, local congregation. However, in recent years, from the vantage point of a Christian man, I’ve been watching my Jewish wife on her journey of discovery to embrace her Judaism. I now find myself challenged by both the Christian and Jewish worlds to explore the value of my own faith through a Jewish lens.

But Elisha has the worst position of the two of us. He is trying to seek an objective method of proving the existence of God (or proving God doesn’t exist) and then determining, regardless of the result, how men are supposed to live based on scientific and indisputable evidence.

Good luck.

But look at how Demonax, the Greek moralist and cynic philosopher, differs with Elisha in even describing the task and the goal. Elisha is trying to understand the “meaning of life” by scrutinizing existence as an astronomer looks at a planet through a telescope. By contrast, Demonax sees the meaning of life not as an attempt to understand existence, but to live it out. The mechanic vs. the poet. While both perspectives are valid, here they are placed at odds with each other.

But should they be?

Think about why a person comes to faith, any sort of faith, in any religious structure. There are two approaches. The first is that a person concludes in their current system that life is random and without meaning. Why is the earth here? What is the purpose of existence? Is the universe the result of a blind, unreasoning accident or is there a conscious creativity at work? How am I supposed to understand the world around me?

The second approach is that a person concludes in their current system that their life is random and without meaning. The questions are similar but pregnant with a profound difference. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my existence? Am I just the result of a random joining of two reproductive cells or is my life special and meaningful? Then, the most important question is, if my life is special, meaningful, and unique, what am I supposed to do? “How am I supposed to live?”

The two questions generally lead to the same answer, for in discovering the meaning of the universe, you discover the meaning of yourself and how you are to live out the life you were given. Both Elisha and Demonax are traveling to the same city but they’re taking two radically different routes.

ChasidNow consider the Chasidic understanding of the Torah. You may look at a Torah scroll or a Bible and see words on paper, but that’s only the surface appearance and this only hints at its true purpose and meaning. In the following series of short quotes, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman brings to light some of the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to help us understand what we are really seeing:

They translate it as “The Bible,” or “The Law,” but that’s not what the word means. Torah means “instructions.”

Whatever piece of Torah you learn, you must find the instructions it is giving you. -from Instructions

Torah is the blueprint by which the world was designed. Everything that exists can be found in the Torah.

Even more: In any one concept of Torah you can find the entire world. -from Blueprint

At Mount Sinai, tradition tells, there was no echo.

Torah penetrates and is absorbed by all things, because it is their essence. There is no place where it does not apply, no darkness it does not illuminate, nothing it cannot bring alive. Nothing will bounce it back and say, “Torah is too holy to belong here.” -from Penetrating Wisdom

We find that the Torah is not only the blueprint for existence, but a set of instructions for our existence. Beyond that, we discover that every object and being within the created universe is a container, of sorts, for the “material” used for its creation: the Torah. I don’t mean to say that all of humanity should attempt to live a “Torah lifestyle” identical to the Jewish people, but it seems more than reasonable that we should study the Torah to learn the essential truths by which God intends for us to live. After all, God’s instructions to do so are here:

Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The Torah will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. –Isaiah 2:3

Rabbi Freeman’s teachings are not far from what this early 20th century Chasidic scholar had to say:

Why has God created the world and mankind, and for what purpose? Why has the soul descended into the body? (The preexistence of the soul was assumed in Chasidism.) Is there a more ideal world than the divine world in which the soul previously existed? Is there a greater joy than when man rejoices in God?

-Paul Philip Levertoff
as published in “The Love of God”
Messiah Journal issue 107

Elisha considers philosophy and thus the search for meaning and ultimately for God, to be a science. Demonax believes the same journey is the art of learning how to live in a noble, and even in a holy manner. Yet Elisha’s personal doubts have blinded him to what he should have known, having been a student of the Torah from childhood. He should have seen that the Torah contains all the questions and all the answers. Greek science and philosophy, like our modern, western thought, seeks to compartmentalize and to segregate our objective environment, our physical bodies, and our souls, but the Torah is the maker and container of all these and indeed, we are a container for the Torah, as is the entire universe and everything in it.

Like a splinter in our minds, the questions drive us madly to seek the answers of why we’re here and why the world exists, and yet the answers are right in front of us and they have been right in front of me all along:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” –Mark 12:28-33 (quoting Deut. 6:4-5 and Lev. 19:18)

Christ’s answer tells us both the meaning of the universe and the meaning of our lives, what Creation is, who we are, and what we are supposed to be doing.

The great sage Hillel once summed up the Torah as that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary; go and study” (Shab. 31a). While the “two greatest commandments” don’t give us every detail of the journey on which we must travel, it does provide a clear direction. Here I am, standing at a crossroads looking for a direction, just as Elisha was. May I make a better decision than he did. I pray we all do.

Well I looked into dream of the millions
That one day the search will be through
Now here I stand at the edge of my embattled illusions
Looking into you

-Jackson Browne
“Looking into You” (1971)

Chag Sameach Shavuot.

Torah of the Night

In the nightThe Gemara extrapolates from the verse – “from night until morning” – that there is no other service that is performed specifically at night other than the Menorah. Ben Yehoyada suggests that the reason the service of the Menorah is specifically at night is that the Menorah alludes to Torah and the primary time to study Torah is at night when a person’s mind is clear and he is free of his daily responsibilities. This follows Chazal’s statement in Eruvin (65a) that the night was created for Torah study. This concept is also recorded in Shulchan Aruch where he writes that one must be more careful with the learning that he does at night than the learning that he does during the day. Mishnah Berurah further elaborates on the importance and value of studying Torah at night and writes that when Torah scholars study Torah at night it is considered as though they are performing the service of the Bais Hamikdash. Furthermore, the Divine Presence stands opposite those who study Torah at night.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Studying Torah at night”
Menachos 89

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defenses
Slowly, gently night unfurls its splendor
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender
Turn your face away from the garish light of day
Turn you thoughts away from cold unfeeling light
And listen to the music of the night

Music of the Night
from “Phantom of the Opera”
by Andrew Lloyd Webber

If you consider “night” to be any time the sun isn’t shining in the sky, then this teaching certainly fits onto the foundation upon which I laid this blog and what Rabbi Tzvi Freeman at Chabad.org presents here:

When you get up in the morning, let the world wait. Defy it a little. First learn something to inspire you. Take a few moments to meditate upon it. And then you may plunge ahead into the darkness, full of light with which to illuminate it.

A continuation of the commentary of Menachos 89 seems to support this idea, which works well for me as an early riser.

Mishnah Berurah writes that according to Kabbalists the primary time for Torah study is from chatzos until the onset of the morning. Shulchan Aruch HaRav writes that at the very least one should arise before morning to learn for some period of time at the end of the night.

Other Poskim support the opposite viewpoint, advocating for Torah study in the evening and then reciting the Tikun Chatzos before retiring. From an outsider’s perspective, it might be the difference between being a morning person and a night person.

For me, it’s helpful to start the day pondering God. Each day in an ordinary work week has its fair share of challenges and disappointments and, like a house, how or if it will stand depends on the solidity of the foundation. To build on “the Rock”, so to speak, means your “house” has a better chance of weathering storms. I suppose that’s why I created “Morning Meditations” rather than “Evening Meditations”.

ShavuotAt sundown this evening, the festival of Shavuot begins (at the end of the Omer count), which commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel at Sinai. It is one of two times of year (the other is Simchat Torah) where God’s gift of the Torah to the Jewish people is specifically recognized and celebrated.

Just a few days ago, I wrote a blog post regarding my small understanding of the Torah. To continue from that beginning, the Torah is the illustrative force in the life of the Jewish people and it defines them as who they are, why they exist, and their specialness in the eyes of God. Since the days of Moses, “the Torah was to go forth from Zion and the Word of God from Jerusalem” (paraphrasing Micah 4:2) and even traditional Jewish sages admit that Christianity has been one vehicle by which the principles and teachings of God have reached an unbelieving world. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Shavuot and Pentecost, the observance of the giving of the Holy Spirit to Christ’s disciples in Jerusalem, happen on the same day.

This should be a night of joyous celebration as we let ourselves fully realize how God has abundantly reached out to humanity with His love, His wisdom, and His mercy. Both Jew and Christian can consider themselves greatly blessed by all that God has done for them; what God has done for us all.

But my greatest joy is not in singing or eating or in partaking of any other outward celebration with people, but in arising early each morning, before the sun begins to lighten the eastern sky, and alone in the silence, opening the pages of the Bible, delaying the start of day for a tiny march of minutes, while I pray, thank God, and then meditate upon His Word, letting it illuminate the darkness of the night.

At Mount Sinai, tradition tells, there was no echo. Torah penetrates and is absorbed by all things, because it is their essence. There is no place where it does not apply, no darkness it does not illuminate, nothing it cannot bring alive. Nothing will bounce it back and say, “Torah is too holy to belong here.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Penetrating Wisdom”
Chabad.org

Candle in Obsidian

Rising SparksFrom the moment that they were sundered apart, the earth has craved to reunite with heaven; physical with spiritual, body with soul, the life that breathes within us with the transcendental that lies beyond life, beyond being.

And yet more so does the Infinite Light yearn to find itself within that world, that pulse of life, within finite, earthly existence. There, more than any spiritual world, is the place of G-d’s delight.

Towards this ultimate union all of history flows, all living things crave, all of human activities are subliminally directed. When it will finally occur, it will be the quintessence of every marriage that has ever occurred.

May it be soon in our times, sooner than we can imagine.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Cosmic Marriage”
Chabad.org

The 213th mitzvah is that we are commanded to acquire [by kiddushin] a woman before marrying her [n’suin]: either by giving her something [of sufficient value]; by giving her a document [of marriage]; or by having marital relations [for the purpose of kiddushin]. This is the mitzvah of kiddushin.

This mitzvah is hinted to in the Torah in the verse, “When a man acquires a woman and has relations with her….” This implies that he can acquire her through having relations.

-Rabbi Berel Bell
“Marriage: Positive Commandment 213”
Sefer Hamitzvot in English
Chabad.org.

Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.Mark 10:9

There are all kinds of “marital metaphors” in the Bible. In the Tanakh, Israel is often described as God’s bride (sometimes as a faithless lover) and in the Apostolic Scriptures, “the church” is referred to as the Bride of Christ. This language implies a special type of intimacy between God and his redeemed community (depending on your point of view regarding who is “redeemed”). While we’d like to think of ourselves as “intimate” with God, Rabbi Freeman points out that as long as heaven and earth are separate environments, man and God are like forlorn lovers, separated by a broad and dark sea, yearning for each other as if estranged paramours in a tale by Chaucer.

I once quoted Paul Philip Levertoff’s commentary on this from his work Love and the Messianic Age thus:

From this life and light proceeds the divine “spark” which is hidden in every soul. Not all men succeed in rising to this close union with God at prayer, because this spark is imprisoned in them. “Yea, even the Shechinah herself is imprisoned in us, for the spark is the Shechinah in our souls.

We are all made in the image of God and what He has placed in us yearns to return to the Source. Those of us who call ourselves “believers” are receptacles for His Holy Spirit and as such we find that we are with God and of God, yet still apart. It’s as if we can see each other and yearn for each other, but are still somehow separated. The Vine of David commentary on Levertoff says it this way:

Although every man has the divine potential of a godly soul planted within him, this is not a guarantee that every man will enter into a relationship with HaShem or even that every soul will be redeemed. Instead, the soul is separated from God by a wall of partition – sin and guilt. HaShem removes the wall of partition between man and Himself through the work of the Messiah. When the wall is removed, then the soul can connect with HaShem. Then He can “use it for the gathering of these ‘sparks’.”

But even after we confess our sin to God and receive forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation, there is still a “wall of partition” between us. We live in a broken world and that “brokeness” in Creation and in the nature of man, mars the intimacy of who would otherwise be perfect lovers.

Rabbi Bell’s interpretation of the 213th positive commandment speaks of how Jews see the mitzvah of marriage. A man may join with a woman by presenting her with a gift, a document of marriage, or by being physically intimate with her for the purpose of marriage. In the case of the Children of Israel, God in the role of the groom, presented His gift, the Torah, to the entire assembly, His bride, at Sinai. For the nations of the world, the marriage document “became a human being and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and the other document (of divorce) that condemned us and separated us from this gift was destroyed when “the Word made flesh” died on our behalf (Colossians 2:14).

We have access to an intimate relationship with God. So why do I often feel alone? Perhaps it’s because we don’t have such a relationship between ourselves or even within ourselves.

Candle in ObsidianWhile God is perfect, the human beings in the community of faith are not. We are as flawed and as broken as the world we live in. We seek to fly up like sparks into heaven while our feet are stuck in the mud and roots of a sullied earth. The Master said Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate, yet we put barriers between each other and between us and God all the time. We may gather together all of the “Divine Sparks” in the world but still struggle to reunite them to Heaven:

At a certain point, each of us, through all our many journeys through life, will have found and redeemed all the Divine sparks in our share of the world. Then the darkness that holds such mastery, such cruelty, such irrational evil that it cannot be elevated—all this will simply vanish from its place, like a puff of steam in the midday air.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Completion”
Chabad.org

Rabbi Freeman paints a very optimistic picture but the truth is, gathering together these sparks is easier said than done. If it weren’t, we would all be shining with God’s light and the darkness would not exist. Rabbi Freeman completes his thought:

All that we salvaged and used for good, on the other hand, will shine with a tremendous light beyond even the light of the G-dly realm. The world will have arrived.

More’s the pity that we must await the Messiah to ignite the final bowl of the Menorah. Our own light is not enough to illuminate the abyss of a world shrouded in darkness. What should be the courtship of estranged but impassioned lovers burning like a forest fire has become a dim flame frozen in obsidian:

I sit before my only candle,
like a pilgrim sits beside the way
Now this journey appears before my candle
As a song that’s growing fainter, the harder I play
That I fear before I end, will fade away
I guess I’ll get there, but I wouldn’t say for sure

-from “Song for Adam”
by Jackson Browne

The Author

In the BeginningWhen someone asked the Radvaz, zt”l, why the Torah lacks vowels he gave an interesting response.

He said, “To understand this we must realize why the angels asked God not to give Torah to mankind, since they wanted God to give it to them. Moshe refuted them with an apparently simple reply, ‘What does it say in the Torah? Do not kill; do not commit adultery. Can angels murder? Is it possible for an angel to commit adultery? Why, then, do you need the Torah?’ ”

He continued, “Not surprisingly, the angels conceded this point. What is strange is what they had in mind in the first place. It seems clear that the angels had a very different way to read the Torah. When read in this manner it had much to teach them, and they wanted it so that they could receive it in the manner suited to them, on their level. Our sages tell us that the entire Torah is formed of Divine Names. The angels wished to read it spiritually at one time without interruption. In this manner, the Torah makes up one long name of God.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
No Wasted Letter
Menachos 87

Sometimes I think the Torah has a life of its own. It’s certainly easier and reasonable to think of the Torah as a document that we can examine and learn from, much like any other document. On the other hand, the Torah is also the foundation of our understanding of God, the Prophets, the Writings, Israel, and the Messiah. We cannot simply treat it as if it were a good book on philosophy. Then, there are its mystic properties, such as how the Torah was with God when He created the world:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. –John 1:1-5

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. –John 1:14

Reading John, the Torah does have a life of its own and a human life at that. No wonder the Angels were fascinated (though, it’s likely that the Radvaz, zt”l did not have Jesus in mind when he wrote his commentary).

The Torah seems to exist in a sort of “multi-dimensional” state, operating differently depending on who is using it and how it is being used. We very much can treat the Torah, and indeed, all of Holy Scripture, as a document to be examined and learned from. I recently reviewed an analysis of the Great Isaiah Scroll recovered from the Dead Sea Scrolls near the ruins of Qumran, and what scholars Steven Lancaster and James Monson reveal about the Messiah is fascinating.

But however illuminating a rational and literary approach to the Torah may be, there is so much more to be discovered if you just change your angle of approach, as the Radvaz, continues to state in our “Story off the Daf”:

“Moshe explained to them that this is not the purpose of the Torah. The point of the Torah is for us to fulfill its material reading, by keeping mitzvos: eating kosher, avoiding non-kosher, and the like. Since there are many ways to read the Torah it is obvious why it is written without vowels or notes—to leave it open to an infinity of possible readings.”

The Radvaz concluded, “This also explains why the oral Torah was not recorded within the body of the Torah itself. It also explains why some stories or statements appear unnecessary while other essentials are virtually left out. This apparent discrepancy is because the Torah has many levels. Believe me, there is not one superfluous letter in the entire Torah. Place this principle before you always and you will always succeed.”.

The Torah is an enormously flexible resource that serves different purposes and has different meanings depending on its audience and its context. I have sometimes wondered why the Torah seems to include information that doesn’t make sense or why other information that would seem absolutely vital to know was “omitted”. God is unchanging but He is also infinite. There is no limit to His being and ultimately, no knowing His objective essense and thus, He can and must contain everything. Since the Torah has to be accessible by human beings, it must be finite which limits what it can contain, but by the explanation presented on the daf, we see that the Torah was created in a manner that conceals how versatile it actually is. We can read the Torah year after year, study the Oral Traditions and the commentaries of the sages, and yet never grow tired of how it speaks to us of things even Angels want to know.

The Word of God calls to each of us in a unique way. Each man or woman hears something different and we respond to the Torah as who we are at the moment we’re listening. A year later, the Torah speaks the same words again, but what we hear is different because the Torah was designed to reach us in a different way as we change and grow.

I am not the same person today as I was a year ago. What the Torah of Moses and the Spirit of God whisper to me out of Heaven captures me in a different way each time I hear it. I don’t always understand what He’s trying to say, but as I draw nearer to God, it becomes impossible for me not to strain my hearing and strive to perceive every word, every sound, and every breath, as one might listen to a lover whisper secrets in the night.

Listening to God through His Torah and His Spirit tells us how to order our lives and more. As we draw closer to Him; as we draw closer to the One who loves us without limit, bit by bit, He shows us the inner nature of the author of our souls.

People think the Torah is all about laws and customs and quaint stories, with a mystical side as well.

In truth, the Torah is entirely spiritual. But when you cannot perceive the spiritual, all you see are laws and quaint stories.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“More Than Stories”
Chabad.org

Two Worlds

What are you looking for? Wealth? Prestige? Position? You have all these right now. You should be altogether happy. And yet you are miserable – I can feel it for all your brave speech. Can you not be satisfied? And this way of living that fills you with restlessness and discontent – I am not a Jew but even I have sensed something lovely in Judaism, in its faith and in its morality with its emphasis on pity. Even its rituals are not without poetic grace. See how many Gentiles have been converted to your religion. Does that not prove that it possesses virtues which the Greek world lacks? These are at your disposal now. What more do you want?

-Nicholaus to Elisha in the book:
As a Driven Leaf
by Milton Steinberg

Steinberg’s classic is set at the beginning of the Talmudic age in Palestine during the Roman occupation, some fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple. The book’s protagonist, Elisha ben Abuyah was born a Jew but raised by a Jewish father who disdained the traditional beliefs and who pursued pagan philosophies instead. Nicholaus was Elisha’s Greek tutor when he was a child but the tutor was dismissed when Abuyah died (Elisha’s mother died in childbirth). Abuyah’s brother then took charge of Elisha, providing him with a Jewish education rooted in Torah and tradition.

Elisha eventually abandons his Greek education and as a disciple of the sage Joshua, he not only becomes a Rabbi in his own right, but a member of the Sanhedrin as well.

Yet a series of personal and political conflicts throws Elisha into a crisis of faith and pulls his heart between the Jewish and Greek worlds. A chance meeting with his old tutor Nicholaus many years later in a bookstore in Caesarea, provides the stage for a confrontation between the spiritually tortured Elisha and his former teacher. But rather than support Elisha’s pursuit of “truth” by guiding him back into Greek beliefs, Nicholaus pushes Elisha toward the only path that seems sensible and right for a Jew; the path of Moses.

In some ways, I can relate to both Elisha and Nicholaus. Like Nicholaus, as a non-Jew, I can see great beauty, wisdom, and meaning in the fabric of Jewish ritual, learning, and understanding. Like Elisha, I feel as if I’m struggling to stand between two worlds; the Christian world which is the source of my faith, and the Jewish world which provides clarity and purpose to that faith. I too know what it’s like to be self-tormented, searching the path looking for divine sparks and not letting myself be satisfied with what I already possess.

Elisha’s anguish, and my own, reflects that of Job’s in our shared search for meaning and God, expressed here in Elisha’s own words:

“‘Wherefore,’ he demanded, ‘hidest Thou Thyself from me? Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf?’
“I know how he felt. The great curiosity is like that. It is not a matter of volition. It is a stark inner compulsion, dire necessary. And he against whom it moves has no more choice than a leaf driven by a gale. No, there is no retreat. Forward is the only way.”

Why do you hide your face
and consider me your enemy?
Will you torment a windblown leaf?
Will you chase after dry chaff? –Job 13:24-25

For the past year, I have also been enduring a crisis of faith and like Elisha, seeking answers in unusual places..well, “unusual” relative to modern Christianity which doesn’t typically see a great deal of validity in seeking the Christ within the pages of Talmud and Kabbalah. Yet I have seen the Messiah in the Chasidic writings and found his fingerprints on the pages of the Zohar. How can I relent, when Jewish sages from Hillel to Maimonides teach wisdom that so clearly points to the Master?

In his desperation, Elisha desires to seek out those who his Jewish disciples and peers would categorically reject as pagans and heretics:

“Two courses are before me. I wish first of all to make contact with the Christians and the Gnostics here in Caesarea.”

“What good will that do you?” Nicholaus inquired, wary now.

“It is not impossible that they can teach me some principle to give me direction.”

While a Christian might read these words and rejoice that a Jew is seeking out the grace and salvation of Jesus, for Elisha, this could very well turn out to be a disaster. It is not so much that he sees in Christianity what Judaism lacks, but that he has not allowed his faith to rest on the foundation of his fathers, and for that matter, on the rock of Torah, which the Jewish Messiah continually taught and lived when he walked among men.

Ironically, Elisha’s quest threatened to cost him the very thing he already possessed in Judaism:

“A man has happiness if he possesses three things – those whom he loves and who love him in turn, confidence in the worth and continued existence of the group of which he is a part, and last of all, a truth by which he may order his being.”

AbyssIn a sense, I am prepared to do what Elisha has done and leave my group and to some degree, the truth they follow, in order to seek out what I believe is right for me. Like Elisha, I’m taking a risk of falling completely away from my current expression of faith in order to seek out a greater closeness with God. Like Elisha, I am convinced in the existence of God but am uncertain as to how He may be understood and approached.

Unlike Elisha, I was not born into a people and a tradition built on the holy mount in Jerusalem and forged by the Shechinah at Sinai.

Here’s the danger:

“But look here,” Nicholaus cried, discerning a possibility he had not envisaged before. “Suppose the results of your experiment are not consistent with the Jewish religion?”

Elisha’s voice was strained, as though his throat had tightened, but he did not falter.

“I have considered that possibility, too. I hope it may never become an actuality. Yet, should that be my destiny, I am prepared to assume it.”

Here is what I face:

“I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.” –Luke 12:8-9

Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself. –2 Timothy 2:11-13

I don’t say this is a great danger to me, but the challenge exists. Nicholaus called Elisha’s effort an “experiment” but for me, what I am doing is taking a journey and I expect that I will be traveling all of my life. I walk the path before me and risk losing my way. I travel in darkness while seeking the light. I pray that God travels with me and shows me who He is and who I am in Him. May my footsteps follow His as I climb a holy mountain.

As a Driven Leaf is a cautionary tale; it’s Steinberg’s warning that a Jew cannot live in two worlds without the danger of falling away from everything that gives meaning to being a Jew. Friedrich Nietzsche said that “if you gaze into the abyss long enough, the abyss gazes also into you.” Yet like Elisha, I am driven by forces I do not always understand and cannot control, to seek out God in the places where He may be found, even in the darkness of the abyss.

That’s why I write. That’s why I’m here. I am the leaf driven before the wind. Where will I finally alight and take rest?

Only time and God can answer me.

"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman