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Parashat 02/19/2010

Parashat Terumah

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

“…and its [the Altar’s] height — 3 cubits” (Shemot 28:1)

Rashi ad loc: “As written” – the words of R. Yehudah.  R. Yose says, “It says here ‘square’ and it says regarding the inner [altar] ‘square.’  Just as there its height is twice its width, so too here the height is twice the width.  How do I interpret ‘3 cubits its height’?  From the surrounding walkway and above is 3 cubits.”

I just finished my first (of hopefully many) pass through the Babylonian Talmud.  There is a program which was begun in the 1920’s by R. Meir Shapiro of Lublin called Daf Yomi (“a page a day”).  Many people have been daunted by the scope of the Talmud (it covers a total of 60+ tractates and 2711 folio pages); R. Shapiro suggested that if one learns a page a day one will complete the Talmud in about 7½ years.  Nowadays there are numerous programs on the Internet, for people on all levels of knowledge and linguistic ability, so that everyone can take part in this great world-wide connection that all Jews share.  The basis of Jewish life is to be found in the Talmud, and I hope many of you will take advantage of these programs.  (The Talmud actually begins at a different point – the 12th cycle actually began in 2005 – but I began my study of the Hebrew text at the point we’re at now.)

The reason I bring this up, besides taking the opportunity to encourage others to embark on this journey, is that it gives us the opportunity to consider the nature of Torah, and particularly the Oral Torah.  As you can tell from the quotes with which we opened this essay, the Written Torah can be very difficult to understand properly without the Oral Torah.  In fact, Gd tells Moshe Rabbeinu in our Parashah that the Mishkan (Tabernacle) should be made “as I have shown you” – clearly this is an allusion to the fact that there is a traditional body of knowledge that is not written in the Torah, and which is indispensable for us to understand the written Torah and to carry out its mandates.

Why should this be the case?  I believe the reason lies in the nature of finite creation and its relationship to the infinite.  The “ultimate” in the Written Torah was the Luchot (Tablets) of stone that Gd gave Moshe to bring down to us, and which were enshrined in the Ark in the center of the Mishkan.  Now the Luchot contained only the 10 commandments.  Clearly Gd felt that these 10 very basic statements needed elaboration, as we discussed last week in Parashat Mishpatim.  Even if we consider the much larger corpus of material in the written Torah there is still a need for elaboration.  For example, what is the height of the altar?  What exactly does it mean that an ox is “known” to attack other animals or people?  How many times does it have to happen?  If an ox is known to attack other animals, is it also considered “known to attack” if it turns around and attacks a person?  The list could go on and on, and in fact it does go on for 2711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud, and a smaller number of pages of the Jerusalem Talmud, and untold numbers of pages of commentary, discussion, questions and answers, and practical halachic decisions spanning two millennia.

When Gd, who is infinite, reveals Himself in creation, to created beings, of necessity that Revelation must be through boundaries.  Boundaries however are not only finite, they are always changing.  The only thing in creation that is constant, is change.  Consequently, even though the Torah is immutable (see Rambam’s 9th Principle of Faith), its expression in practical life (i.e. life within ever-changing boundaries) necessarily must be changeable.  A very current example: We have all kinds of technology that can prolong a person’s life, almost indefinitely.  When should it be used and when not?  This is clearly a question that didn’t arise in Talmudic times; however the principles that govern modern halachic decisors’ considerations are in fact found in the Talmud.

There is a tradition that in the 40 days Moshe Rabbeinu spent on Mt. Sinai every question that every student ever asked his teacher, and every answer from every teacher, was taught to him.  How can this be possible?  An analogy I heard concerns the relationship between a seed and a tree.  A tree has many branches and innumerable leaves and twigs and perhaps fruit, but all the information to produce this proliferation of life was contained in the tiny seed from which the tree grew.  The seed represents the infinite potential from which creation comes, and the tree represents one expression of that potential.  In the same way, Moshe Rabbeinu was given the knowledge of infinity, the infinite level of potential from which all creation is expressed.  The point to be made here is that no finite expression of the infinite can fully express the infinite, even though it contains infinity in potentia (the way the tree contains the seed’s DNA in every cell).

Perhaps then we can understand this (originally oral) tradition, and the nature of the Oral Torah itself, like the tree and the seed.  The Torah is infinite, and it therefore cannot be confined to stone tablets or the parchment of a scroll.  It can only be a living, breathing infinity in the fully developed minds of human beings.  And that infinity can only be passed down from generation to generation, from teacher to student, from parents to children — orally.

Purim is coming up in a few days.  According to the Midrash, Purim was the time when the Jewish people once and for all committed themselves to the Oral Torah (having already committed themselves to the Written Torah centuries earlier).  We would all be wise to follow in their footsteps, and open ourselves up to the infinite value of our Torah.