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Parashat Chayei Sarah 5775 — 11/12/2014

Parashat Chayei Sarah 5775 — 11/12/2014

The conversation of the Patriachs’ servants is superior to the Torah of their descendants.  (Bereishit Rabbah 60)

   In fact, the “conversations” of the Avot were also a form of Torah.  This Torah was more elevated than the later Torah of their descendants, as it reflected the extraordinary holiness and nobility of these spiritual giants…

   A conversation is natural, unaffected speech.  The Torah of the Avot was like a conversation, flowing naturally from the inner sanctity of their goals and aspirations…

   The Torah of their descendants, on the other hand, lacks this natural spontaneity.  It is a thought-out religion based on willed-holiness, a compendium of detailed rules and regulations calculated to govern all aspects of life. …

   The lofty tzaddikim must recognize this secret.  Their task is to combine these two Torahs, that of the Avot with that of their descendants.  Then they will reveal a Torah crowned with honor and strength, beauty and splendor.  (Sapphire from the Land of Israel, adapted from Orot [Lights])

We hear a great deal about the primacy of Torah study in Jewish life.  Sa’adia Gaon (882-942, one of the last of the Gaonim / religious leaders in the period following the redaction of the Talmud) commented that Israel is a nation only on the basis of Torah.  Some claim that the ideal life for a Jew is full-time Torah study, meaning, in the case of some extraordinary individuals, perhaps a few hours of sleep during the day, and all the rest of the time devoted to learning.  When someone commented that the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) slept only two hours a day (in the form of 4 30-minutes naps), his colleague corrected him: “He doesn’t sleep 2 hours a day, he learns Torah 22 hours a day.”  Others claim that besides the practical need for a livelihood, Torah study should be combined with a worldly occupation, “for engaging in both leaves no time for sin.” (Avot 2:2)  Furthermore, the purpose of Torah study is its fulfillment in the performance of mitzvot; thus study and action both have a place in the ideal life.  One is reminded of the famous line in the Beatles’ song: “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out and play?”  We certainly have to be inside ourselves, connecting with our own inner essence, but we also have to come out and play, actualizing that essence in the world of action.

What then, is Torah study?  We are familiar with the academic aspect of it – Torah encompasses not only the Five Books of Moses, but all the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash, the halachic codes, and their elaborations and explanations down through the ages – an extremely voluminous literature.  Mastering this corpus of knowledge is indeed a full-time job, and only a very few manage to do it in a way that it is quickly accessible when questions arise.  For most of us, the old Indian adage applies: “Knowledge in the books remains in the books – it’s never there when you need it.”

On the other hand, since at least Talmudic times, our religious leaders have recognized that the actual goal of Torah learning was to internalize Torah values to the point that they become inseparable parts of our personality, and we are able to act in a halachically acceptable manner based on an intuition honed through years of contemplation of the texts.

Rav Kook appears to be giving a different angle on the essential nature of Torah and learning Torah.  Although Torah is generally translated as “law,” it really means “teaching.”  Where does this teaching come from?  One answer may be found in the famous statement of the Sages that in the womb, and angel teaches us all of Torah, only to strike us on the mouth during birth, so that we forget it all.  Of course, it is not completely forgotten, and once we grow up and begin studying Torah from a human teacher, it is something that is deeply familiar to us, and we just have to refresh our memories as it were; we aren’t really learning anything new or foreign to us.  The knowledge is structured in our own awareness and just needs to be reactivated, as it were.

According to Rav Kook, the nature of this inner teaching (the root meaning of the word in-tuition by the way) is dependent on our spiritual level.  Earlier generations, the generations of the Patriarchs, were at a much higher level, and therefore their intuitive understanding of Gd’s Will was much more perfect and instinctive that that of later generations.  Thus our tradition tells us that the Patriarchs observed the entire Torah even before it was given.  The knowledge was structured in their awareness; in Rav Kook’s words, it was a naturally flowing conversation.

With the passing of the generations, the spiritual level declined, and Gd could no longer trust that we had access to the requisite knowledge internally.  It had to be supplied from a source external to ourselves – Gd speaking to us at Sinai, or through Moshe Rabbeinu, and eventually through the Elders, the Prophets, the Men of the Great Assembly, the Rishonim and the Acharonim down to the present.  Thus, knowledge of Gd became enshrined, or entombed if you will, in the voluminous literature we mentioned.  Thus, we have controversies about what exactly is the correct halachah in various situations.  We have many, many Rabbinic enactments that serve as a “fence around the Torah,” because we can’t trust ourselves to have sufficiently intuitive knowledge to avoid violating the Torah’s prohibitions.  We have to set the boundaries, in some cases, pretty far out, so that if we err and violate them, there’s a long way to go before an actual Torah commandment is violated.

The Midrash (Shir haShirim Rabbah, 1:9) likens acquiring wisdom to looking for a valuable coin or a piece of jewelry one has lost in his own house.  It may take a lot of searching, and it may take some time, and we may have to clean the house pretty thoroughly, but what we don’t have to do is to go outside the house.  The point of the parable is obvious: All knowledge is within us, structured in the deepest levels of our consciousness.  We only have to rediscover it by clearing away the layers of materiality that keep us separate from our own selves.  We do this by studying Torah, going progressively deeper in our understanding and developing our intuition for Gd’s point of view.  This is why the Talmud tells us, Talmud Torah k’neged kulam – Study of Torah is equivalent to, and forms the basis of, everything in our lives.

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 5: History and Memory

I was discussing web site design with some Israeli investors a number of years ago, and I was explaining to them the concept that the web is “stateless.”  This is not a political term; it means that once a web site sends your browserr a page, it doesn’t remember anything about you or what you requested.  If you want to follow up on the information you’ve been given (e.g. place an item in a shopping cart) you have to pass a bunch of data back to the web server so it can figure out who you are and what you want.  They looked puzzled, so I just said, “the web is goyish, it has no memory.”  They understood.

R. Sacks points out that the Jewish people were the first to see Gd in history, guiding it and giving it meaning, as he guides and gives meaning to our individual lives:

The prophets of Israel were the first people to see Gd in history.  The ancient world – the world of myth – saw the presence of the gods in nature, in the unchanging rhythm of the seasons and the fearful dislocations of flood, famine and storm.  The revolution of ancient Israel was to see Gd not in nature but above it, utterly transcendent, yet revealing Himself to mankind in the form of a call to build a different kind of society than any that had existed hitherto.

How is this memory, this historical sense, to continue to be part of the life of the people?  After all, the course of history is much more than a single lifetime.  The answer is that it must be passed on from generation to generation, from parents to children, from teachers to students.  Thus in every generation we must see ourselves as if we personally went out of Egypt.  The words we speak, the foods we eat, the songs we sing, the order of the service, all re-enact for us, and perhaps more importantly, for our children, the great events of our history.  The Seder makes the kids curious, so they ask questions.  This gives us the opportunity to tell them that all this is because of what the Almighty did for me when I went out of the land of Egypt!