Shivim panim laTorah / The Torah has seventy faces
BaMidbar Rabbah 18:15
Ohaiv Torah lo yisbah Torah / A person who loves Torah is never satiated of Torah
Devarim Rabbah 2:18
Mah Yiyin m’samayach et halev kach divrey Torah /
Just as wine gladdens the heart also do words of Torah
Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) Rabbah 1:19
Although your mind’s opaque
Try thinking more if just for your own sake
The future still looks good
And you’ve got time to rectify
All the things that you should
“Think for Yourself,” by George Harrison, from the Beatles album Rubber Soul
Remember the Gene Wilder movie The Frisco Kid? There is a scene where he and
the Harrison Ford character are captured by Native Americans. Tied up on a stake,
Gene Wilder, “the Rabbi,” is questioned by the Chief who approaches him grasping
a small Sefer Torah. “What is this book?” the Chief asks. “It is Torah,”
the Rabbi replies. The Chief then goes on to test the Rabbi’s devotion to the Torah,
offering to return his horse, boots, clothing, and even his knife if he agrees to let the
Chief keep Torah. The Rabbi emphatically refuses. Then the Chief asks him if he is
willing to “purify your soul through fire” in order to keep Torah.
The Rabbi gives his assent to even this test of his devotion.
The Chief now moved and impressed frees the Rabbi who soon is teaching Jewish
dances to his new Native American friends after unknowingly consuming peyote
with them. The scene is touching, cute, and sweet even if it obviously draws on
circumstances in Jewish history that were quite traumatic.
Is that only what the Torah is, a book or scroll that we have a deep devotion to?
Can it actually even be more than that?
My rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, would sometimes look at you during a congregational
Shabbos meal and ask you to “say a Toiraleh” or “say over a Torah.” This meant he was
asking you to deliver a teaching or insight based on the Torah but not necessarily
constricted by it. Sometimes Shlomo would call on someone to “say a Toiraleh” and the
person would be caught off guard or would typically be too shy to expound on the
Parsha. Shlomo would say to the hesitant one, “Hey brother (or sister) don’t worry, just start; God will give you the words!” The idea was that there is so much to draw upon when engaging in Torah. One can find deep insight in the mystical teachings of the Chasidic masters. There are myriad commentaries from the famous commentary of Rashi to some that are obscure but fascinating. One can sail the sea of the Talmud for a diversity of opinions or the clarity offered by modern scholars like Robert Alter and Richard Eliot Friedman. Even Sigmund Freud has made his contribution to the ongoing process of Torah. However, most importantly, you need not be a scholar to add to the collective wisdom of Torah. Your own personal experiences and unique expertise in the daily activities of your life give you the opportunity to be part of this ongoing process of Torah.
You can employ the most powerful tool of all, your own creativity and imagination, just as
so many of our holy sages did for centuries. People often think Torah means law. While the
Torah certainly contains many laws, the appropriate translation is actually “teaching.”
Torah is far more than what is written in a book or even books. It is the ongoing process
of understanding the text and deriving and transmitting life-enhancing messages from it.
To truly appreciate Torah one must engage the text with honesty. Crusty, delusional pieties that serve only as an obscurant to understanding must be cast aside. If we love this Torah, we must engage in a living process of Torah to understand it and employ every modern tool of interpretation available to us. We must use the natural sciences, historical research, literary analysis, archeology, anthropology, and sociology to gain insight. We must be honest about the plain meaning of the text. For example, today most of us accept LGBT people and believe that they should be accorded equal rights including marital rights in our society. The Torah, however, mandates the death penalty for homosexuality. This has led some well-meaning clergy and scholars, both Jewish and Christian, to engage in some dissembling when teaching the text. They’ll say, “Well the Torah doesn’t actually condemn homosexuality; um…the passages cited are really dealing with idolatry.” Besides this plainly being false (see Vayikra/Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13), are they then endorsing the killing of those who engage in other religious practices? That certainly would not be religious freedom. I propose what I believe to be a superior approach. We should simply be honest and forthright about the actual plain meaning of the text and then marvel at our evolution as a people and a religion and how we have moved so far beyond the values of that ancient era to where we are today.
In the tradition of the ongoing teaching/learning aspect of Torah, our Talmudic rabbis took our ancient early barley harvest holiday and adapted it to the needs of a people who became primarily non-agrarian and transformed Shavuot into the holiday of the reception of the Torah.
So this year I invite you to join me in harvesting some Torah. And just like we would create
a salad with the delicious produce picked from a summer garden, let’s make up a refreshing salad of questions and answers or cook up some inspiring or challenging ideas. Let’s have a potluck of Torah this summer starting with our Shavuot harvest. I’ll look forward to seeing you Tuesday night, June 3, at 7:30 pm when we’ll enjoy harvesting and learning Torah together!
Chag Samayach, B’Shalom,