This is a D'var Torah I shared February 11, 2023 for Parashat Yitro, but I'm publishing it now right before Shavuot, when we read the same section of the Torah, Exodus 19-20.
This book -- the Torah -- has been read and encountered by millions of people through so many generations, and changed their lives and changed the world.
Here are some books that have also been read and encountered, by millions of people -- Aristotle’s Ethics, the Harry Potter series. Some by nearly as many generations as the Torah, some by only a few -- and nonethless they too have changed lives and changed the world.
Are they all kind of the same?
A couple days before Rosh Hashanah of 5781, I read an article in Slate magazine online, by Amanda Prahl, and it was about kindness. It was about kindness in the TV show Ted Lasso, and the article was wise and engaging. It had me at “kindness” -- but the whole thing was phenomenal. I thought Ms. Prahl’s observations would make a great D’var Torah. I guess what I really thought was: It’s two days before Rosh Hashanah and this is better than my upcoming D’var Torah, in let me count how many ways!
Had I had more than two days, I might have worked on incorporating Ms. Prahl’s essay into a D’var Torah of my own. I did speak about kindness on the two days of that Rosh Hashanah, but not directly, and without nearly the perfect touch of Ms. Prahl. I might have woven her article into and around some stories from the Torah or midrash, had I had the same. If you’re a Ted Lasso fan just read her article!
What is Torah? Is it one of the many great books? Like Aristotle’s Ethics, which is a longer book about ethics than, say, Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy combined? What is a D’var Torah -- is it in the same category as thoughtful articles and great TED Talks? If I had woven a secular writer’s beautiful essay on kindness into a Rosh Hashanah sermon, would that make it Torah?
Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the medieval scholar who is the greatest of all Jewish philosophers, says essentially: Yes. If it’s wisdom, and if it’s truth, then by definition its source is in the Divine. It’s Torah, and we have to expand our conception of Torah to include it.
And yet. There is more to Torah than really good content.
In the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon said: Woe to the person who says that this Torah has come to present stories in regular words. For if this were so, even in our time we would be able to make a Torah using ordinary words, better than any of the stories in the Torah... even the nobles of the world have among them superior words. We could just go and make a Torah out of those words.
Rabbi Shimon’s point is that the Torah is not unique because it’s one of the great books. And a D’var Torah might sound like a TED Talk, but it’s not just a really good TED Talk, and often it’s not even as good by TED standards. (Although to be clear, I am always trying to be as good as a good TED Talk!)
It’s not that the Torah isn’t good content well-delivered. That’s just not all it is. The midrash says that the Torah is black fire inscribed on white fire. It is that something different that we need to define. We can’t completely define that something -- we can gesture at it, just as we point at the Torah and reach toward it when we see it in the air and sing V’zot HaTorah, this is the Torah.
So mah zot, what is it?
The introduction to revelation we read today in Exodus 19 begins: Bachodesh hashlishi l’tzaytz b’nai yisrael me-eretz mitzrayim, bayom hazeh -- ba’u midbar Sinai.
On the third new moon after B’nai Yisrael’s Exodus from Egypt,
On this day,
They come to Mt. Sinai.
As our rabbis understand it, the Torah says of itself both that it comes from a particular place and time in the past, and it comes from today, whenever today is. Torah is most Torah when the day you are encountering Torah is new and fresh, and the Torah itself is new and radical to you. This day when you encounter Torah in its fullest dimensions is in the immediate afterglow of the Exodus, even if it’s 2400+ years later. Torah isn’t just the message but what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the event -- a portal not backwards in history but outward, toward the top of the mountain and toward the fellow Israelites next to you.
We say this same thing twice a day in the Shma. V’hayu had’varim ha’eleh asher Anochi m’tzavcha hayom al l’vavecha. These words, which I charge you with today, shall be on your heart.
And the words of Torah themselves -- Heschel calls them prophetic understatement. Prophetic, understatement. I think Heschel’s doing his thing of taking something that seems unbelievable and saying: You think that’s unbelievable? That’s actually the easy one and here’s the hard one.
Heschel thinks that the problem people think they have is believing that God could reduce all of God’s thoughts for all time to this book, much of which is about animal sacrifice, and that God could somehow reveal God’s entire essential self and message to this small people at one particular point in time.
What Heschel thinks is more unbelievable is that the words in the Torah, however they got there, could possibly carry Divine wisdom and a Divine charge. As Rabbi Shimon said in the Zohar, they are just words, and we’ve seen mere humans make stories and philosophy out of words that are just as amazing if not more. Believe that these Torah words uniquely contain truth? That’s hard to believe, says Heschel.
So Heschel says the Torah is not such a wild leap but a prophetic understatement. The words themselves are not complete. They hint at only a fraction of what they are about. They are the first step on a ladder -- but without them you can’t begin to climb. They are each stone at the foot of Mt. Sinai -- but without standing on them you can’t go anywhere else. Words of Torah are prophetic understatements -- the words themselves are only the beginning.
So of course the Torah has animal sacrifices. And stories and laws, and maps and recipes, and architectural drawings and shopping lists, and poems and songs and sarcasm and comic relief, and if you go out further in the Bible into the prophets you’ve even got a sports section every so often! If you’re going to make something out of human words, you’ve got to use them in every way possible.
What is unique about the Torah is not what is written -- it’s where it can take you, where it can take us together, and where it can take the world as a consequence. The words and verses, one by one and one after another, written in scrolls and books don’t do the job alone, and reading and speaking them and even chanting them are just the start.
We have to recreate the event of Mt. Sinai together -- which is why we re-enact today’s reading every time we read the Torah, calling people up the mountain and sending the words to every single person standing every single place around it.
We have find the Torah together with all our generations. That’s what’s great about the chumash, the book with the Torah text and commentaries. The best chumashim and now the best websites surround you with teachers and translators from every era. As I never tire of saying to our kids when they come of age and hold the Torah, the noise these ornaments make should make you think of everyone who has ever chimed in on any word, trying to find the rung after the rung on the ladder which is that particular word.
We get help to find the Torah from beyond ourselves, somehow. My favorite midrash about the Ten Commandments imagines us standing at the foot of the mountain ready to talk to with our own individual mal’ach, a Divine messenger who wants to engage each of us separately with each one of the Ten Commandments, to explore their ins and outs and our objections and what-if’s and really?-s.
All of that is not a book, and it’s not a TED Talk.
We need not just to read the Ten Commandments as a list of principles, which they are, but to experience them as both so obvious -- I mean really we could come up with every single one of them in a brief meeting -- and also so radical, because look how missing they are in the world. We need to let the words say to us not just implement me, but also: Figure out why I’m necessary, and what is it about you humans that could make this possible, and what it is about you humans that you have to get to the bottom of that is in the way of don’t murder and don’t covet and why aren’t you resting and renewing. That’s the black fire on white fire.
And when we bring the Ten Commandments or any teachings of Torah out into our lives or the wider world, we’re supposed to try to bring those fires.
Imagine if whenever you mentioned or taught words of Torah, or argued about them, you knew they were alive with divinity and humanity more than the other words people use that are just on paper or in air -- and all that divinity and all that humanity were standing with you when you brought up those words.
That’s hard to do, especially when the other words in our conversations are less hot -- words presented in regular essays and stories and books and position papers. Each time we bring down the Torah and cool the fire off enough to use it, we bring something unique to the table, but we risk the Golden Calf -- we risk freezing the fire, making an idol of a single teaching, even a central one like Tzelem Elohim (the image of God), and stopping our own inquiry into the word and into who we people are in relation to what those words are asking.
So that’s why we come back with regularity every Shabbat to recreate the event at Mt. Sinai, to experience the words as fire, together with each other and with our many generations.
I am often guilty of not doing that. I have often treated the Torah even at its best as a position paper, as a really good article. When that works, for you or for people I work with on pressing issues of the day, dayenu, that might be enough for the time being.
But that’s not going to work all the time, because there are other books and other articles, and often Torah is meant to be the event of experiencing Torah wisdom, not just the content of that wisdom. It’s meant to be the commitment to what the Torah is teaching and to figuring out why and how that could be and why it’s not already.
We usually know right and wrong already, and know what we want to say about it. Torah is more.
This dimension of Torah does not require Hebrew and it’s not just Jewish. If we relate to Torah the way I’m gesturing at, then we’ll know if a book or a great article from any source is just really good content, or if it too is Torah.
To know Torah as Torah, we have to be willing to be shaken up often when we encounter it, to know that our commitment is on the line anytime we learn Torah or try to impart it. That doesn’t come from just listening to a D’var Torah or reading one -- it requires you as well as I to be active participants. But Torah is so unique and so good that Torah itself will help us allow ourselves to tremble that way, and to open ourselves.
Because this is what the words of Torah are, according to Heschel, and none of these other books are like it:
No other book so loves and respects the life of man... It has the words that startle the guilty and the promise that upholds the forlorn... It continues to scatter seeds of justice and compassion, to echo God’s cry to the world and to pierce humanity’s armor of callousness....
There are no words more knowing, more disclosing and more indispensible, words both stern and graceful, heart-rending and healing. A truth so universal: God is One. A thought so consoling: God is with us in our distress.... A map of time: from creation to redemption. Guideposts along the way: the Seventh Day: An offering: contrition of the heart. A utopia: Would that all people were prophets... a standard so bold: ye shall be holy. A commandment so daring: Love your neighbor as yourself. A fact so sublime: human and divine pathos can be in accord. And a gift so undeserved: the ability to repent.
If that’s Torah, what soul would not want to be receiving it, every day.
Whenever you hear words this way, or whenever words you read bring you that picture -- then you know what you are engaged in is not just good content, but Torah.