Vayelech: A 2,000-Year-Old Debate on Whether to “Get Out of the Box”
Synagogue Bulletin Blunders
These announcements, with interesting typos and phrasing blunders, were reportedly found in various synagogue newsletters and bulletins around the country.
1. Don’t let worry kill you. Let your synagogue help. Join us for our Oneg after services. Prayer and medication to follow. Remember in prayer the many who are sick from our congregation.
2. For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.
3. We are pleased to announce the birth of David Weiss, the sin of Rabbi and Mrs. Abe Weiss.
4. Weight Watchers will meet at 7 p.m. at the JCC. Please use the large double door at the side entrance.
5. Goldblum will be entering the hospital this week for testes.
6. Please join us as we show our support for Amy and Rob, who are preparing for the girth of their first child.
7. We are taking up a collection to defray the cost of the new carpet in the sanctuary. All those wishing to do something on the carpet will come forward and get a piece of paper.
8. If you enjoy sinning, the choir is looking for you!
9. The Associate Rabbi unveiled the synagogue’s new fund-raising campaign slogan this week: “I Upped My Pledge. Up Yours.”
The Torah Scroll
This week’s portion (Vayelech) relates the dramatic events that transpired during Moses’ last day on earth. Among the many things he did on that fateful day was commit the entire Pentateuch (the Chumash, or Five Books of Moses) to writing. The Torah scrolls we use today are copies of copies of copies of the original Torah scroll written by Moses on the day of his passing, on 7 Adar of the year 2488, 3,278 years ago.
After completing the writing of the full Torah, Moses commanded the Levites, “Take this Torah scroll, and place it at the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your G-d, and it shall be there as witness for you.” The Tabernacle in the desert and later the Temple in Jerusalem housed a Holy Ark containing Two Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and the newly completed Torah scroll needed to be placed at the side of this Ark.
Not surprisingly, the exact location of the Torah scroll vis-a-vis the Ark inspired a debate between the Talmudic Sages. Rabbi Meir held that the Torah scroll needed to be placed inside the Ark, at the side of the Two Tablets. Rabbi Judah was of the opinion that a shelf protruded from the outside of the Ark and Torah scroll was placed on it.
The logic behind their argument lay in the proper interpretation of Moses’ words quoted above, “Take this Torah scroll, and place it at the side of the Ark.” According to Rabbi Judah, “at the side of the Ark” is to be understood literally — that the Torah scroll ought to be placed not inside, but outside the ark. Rabbi Meir, on the other hand, believes that the words “on the side of the Ark” merely tell us that the Torah scroll should be placed not between the two Tablets, but rather at the side of the tablets, next to the interior wall of the Ark.
The Questions Three questions come to mind.
First, why did Rabbi Meir feel compelled to impose an apparently twisted interpretation to the words “at the side of the ark”? Why would Rabbi Meir not embrace Rabbi Judah’s simple and straightforward explanation that when Moses instructed the Torah scroll to be placed “at the side of the Ark” he meant it literally?
Second, why was there a need to have the Torah scroll situated in such close proximity to the Ark? Would it really have mattered if the scroll were placed at another location more distant from the Ark?
And finally, we have discussed numerous times that the Torah and all of its commandments and episodes were transcribed to serve as a Divine blueprint for living, as a road map for life’s challenging journeys. How can a 21st century human being glean wisdom and inspiration from an ancient commandment to place a Torah scroll at the side of an ark, at a time when we have no Ark and no Tablets? What type of relevance can Moses’ instruction to the Levites carry for our lives today?
The Root vs. the Branches
Our Sages have said that the Ten Commandments presented at Sinai and inscribed on the Two Tablets of the Covenant embodied the quintessence of the entire Torah, of all the Five Books. All perspectives, themes, ideas, laws, ethics and stories of Torah are encapsulated in the 620 letters of the Ten Commandments (7). The Five Books of Moses, then, serve essentially as a commentary to the Ten Commandments, elaborating and explaining the background, meaning and significance of these ten pillars of Jewish faith.
The Tablets, in other words, constitute the source, the epicenter, the nucleus of Judaism; the Five Books are the elaboration, the explanation, the outgrowth.
The debate between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah on the kinship between the Torah scroll and the Tablets is not merely a technical argument concerning the proximity of two physical entities, but rather a profound disagreement on the fundamental methodologies of the development and communication of Judaism.
How closely must we uphold the connection between the expansion of Torah and its core? Are we capable of “leaving the box” containing the Tablets without losing the real thing?
This is by no means an abstract dilemma. How does one communicate ancient truths to a young generation molded in a secular weltanschauung? How does one present a Torah which is more than 3,000 years old to a modern 21st century Palm addict? How do we pass on the gift of “In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth” to Stanford and Yale graduates for whom Charles Darwin holds more sway than Moses?
Are we to present Judaism in its original form and composition, without employing modern-day terminology, techniques and structures of thought? Or must we take Judaism “out of the box” and re-package it in contemporary language?
I once received an e-mail from a weekly reader, a very learned and observant Jew from Los Angeles: “Rabbi Jacobson, would you cease transcribing your psychobabble and begin teaching good old Judaism.”
So I wrote back: You are of the opinion of Rabbi Meir; my e-mails follow the path of Rabbi Judah…
The Light and the Vessels
The Talmud says something profoundly moving about Rabbi Meir: It is known to the Creator of the world that Rabbi Meir surpassed his entire generation and had no equal. Why then was the law not established according to his opinion? Because the sages could not comprehend the depth of his wisdom. Rabbi Meir was misunderstood even by his own colleagues; his ideas were too advanced for his times.
“Meir” in Hebrew means “the illuminator.” The light that emanated from Rabbi Meir’s mind and heart was too profound for his colleagues and students. Why? Because Rabbi Meir was of the opinion that all interpretation and development of Torah thought must remain intimately bound with its source. The commentary and exposition may never be removed from the space of their progenitor. The Torah should be placed right near the Tablets. To dilute the light in order to accommodate the vessels or students, would do an injustice to the integrity of the message.
According to Rabbi Judah, however, the word of G-d needs to leave the perimeters of the sacred Ark and be brought outward.
Judah, Yehudah in Hebrew, means surrender or submission. One has to surrender his or her own elevated state of consciousness in order to reach out and present the Torah to the student who would not be able to absorb the intense light dwelling “inside the box.” Judaism, Rabbi Judah argued, needed to be “packaged” in a manner that would make it accessible, relevant and pertinent to people trained in a different mind set and educated in secular schools of thought.
The Critical Link Yet here is the critical catch: Even according to Rabbi Judah, the Torah must always remain connected to its source by means of a plank of wood.
What this means is this: There is a difference between presenting Judaism in terminology and methodology that can penetrate modern man vs. attempting to prove that Judaism conforms to modern trends of thought. The former path is noble; the latter path is intellectually dishonest, as it does not seek to discover the authentic message of Judaism, only to create a fluffy Judaism that does not challenge the comfort zones of the progressive man and woman.
This distinction between the two approaches has been profoundly blurred in recent years, and the results have been obvious. The former approach has given countless students the opportunity to challenge themselves by the divine truths of Torah; the latter approach has brought down the Torah to suit the fancy of modern man. In the end, it comes down to the question of how confident you are in the truth of Torah: Are you employing modern thought merely to communicate Torah, or are you employing it to legitimize Judaism? (Or are you unaware of the distinction between the two, which may be worse…)
What Rabbi Judah is saying is that as far out of the box as you travel, a “plank of wood” ought always to connect you to the original, pristine “Tablets” inside the box. The link between the nucleus of Torah and its expansions must always remain evident. If not, you may be depriving yourself and your students from the vibrant, pulsating, divine wellsprings of G-d’s word.