Shabbat BaMidbar, erev Shavuot: What Is This Torah That We Receive?

The very first lines of Pirke Avot, a famous collection of Rabbinic 1st-century ethical “sayings of the ancestors”, goes like this:

Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; 

Joshua to the elders;

the elders to the prophets; 

and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.

Pirke Avot 1.1

The question is, what exactly is that Torah? A close reading of the Scriptures itself indicates that what Moshe received and what he passed on were not identical. We see this in several instances in which Moshe has to consult G-d for guidance, even after the Torah, with all its laws, is given. And Moshe also “edits” G-d’s directions (which is what Torah literally is, the word “Torah” being Hebrew for “direction”); as the people prepare to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai, described in Exodus, we see him explicitly doing so:

HaShem said unto Moshe: ‘Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready for the third day; for on the third day HaShem will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai. … And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their garments. And he said unto the people: ‘Be ready for the third day; do not come near a woman.’  (Exodus 19.10-15)

If Moshe transmits Torah with interpretation at the moment at which Torah is transmitted, then it seems clear that Torah is understood to be something more than the five written books that we revere as key to the meaning of Jewish life in all ages. It’s the “all ages” part that we should note. As our friends in the UCC church put it, “G-d is still speaking,”

Torah means “direction”. We are directed upon a path, in Hebrew halakhah. The meaning of our progress upon that path is always being interpreted; we, directed by the Torah sheh-b’khtav, Written Torah, are constantly accompanied by the Oral Torah, Torah sheh-b’al peh. Moshe invented it at the moment that he interpreted G-d’s directions for getting ready to receive Torah. And this process of interpretation, of making what we should do clear to us at every moment, must continue as it always has, because otherwise Torah would no longer direct us in our lives as they are now. Life keeps changing. Teachers keep unveiling new levels of understanding implicit in Torah. They were always there, just as the petals of a rose were always there in the tightly closed bud: under the light of sun and warmth, the rose unfurls new beauty, and with the light of interpretation and commentary, Torah does the same.

This is why we need not be irritated by the specifics of Moshe’s interpretation. It must have been necessary at that time, in that place. But Torah continues to unfurl. We are not limited by its shape in earlier days; rather, we are all gardeners, invited to help to bring Torah into the 21st century more fully – more open, more relevant, more amazing in the learning we can do and the depths of human spiritual experience we can reach.

BaMidbar, our parashat hashavua, means “in the wilderness”, and indeed we often find ourselves wandering, wondering where to find direction along our path. At the close of this Shabbat we’ll have a chance to review the path, the direction, and the gift as the Festival of Shavuot begins. According to Jewish tradition, we confirm our acceptance of Torah every year on Shavuot, and in some ways, every time we recite the blessing for Torah. What is this Torah we receive?  What does it mean for us?

May we each find our own personal blessing in Torah’s direction, as well as that of our community and our people, so that we can join the Psalmist in declaring that “these words are a light for my eyes, a lamp for my feet.” (Psalm 119.105)

Shabbat Terumah: In The Details

“This too is Torah, and I need to learn it.” Two millennia ago the renowned sage Rabbi Akiba asserted that Torah is not only that which is written on the parchment of the sefer Torah, the Scroll of Direction (the Hebrew verb root h.r.h means “teaching”, and also “aiming” as well as “indicating direction”). Torah is also expressed through the exegesis that gives us midrash, “investigation”, and halakhah, “path”. This larger sense of Torah is contained, more or less, in Talmud, the sixty-three tractates (volumes) that derive from the Five Books of Moshe. But it is not contained fully, for it was already acknowledged even then that there was more that would unfold, and in a very real way, “that which a veteran student will, in the future, innovate before his teacher was already said to Moshe at Sinai” (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 17b).

Clearly, then, there is more to any given parashah than meets the eye.

The parashah we read this week, parashat Terumah, gives us a minutely-detailed description of the Mishkan that the Israelites were to build in order to evoke the Presence of G-d in their midst. Chapter after chapter, verse after verse, is devoted to the topics of what goes inside the Mishkan, what goes outside, and of what it is to be made. The dimensions of objects as well as their composition, number, color, and purpose are all specified.

It is easy to grant that such detailed plans for the construction of the Mishkan existed, but why were they sanctified? Why are we to read them with all the honor and respect due to every word written in the Torah? For example, what are we to make of the first verse we read in the second year of the Triennial Cycle:

You are to make the Mishkan with ten curtains; skilled workers shall make them of fine twined linen, in blue, purple and red, with kheruvim. (Ex.26.1)

One might see this as exactly the challenge offered to the “veteran student” mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud passage above. What are we to make of this verse? If we accept that each word and each verse has value prima facie, then the challenge is not to the text, to prove its relevance, but to us, to prove our ability to see that relevance. It’s not so far away. Much can be understood and derived from such a verse once one enters the interpretative world of our tradition.

Here are three short interpretations:

1. In Jewish tradition, one important way to demonstrate the respect we show for that which we hold sacred is to bring our best effort to it. “Skilled workers” are to make the curtains. When we are building something important, than, we are to look through our community for those best suited and most capable. Art is best done by the artistic.

2. Blue, purple and red – תכלת, ארגמן ותולעת שני – tekhelet, argaman v’tola’at shani – are important colors in the ancient Near East, all of them bright and deep (and expensive). The blue tekhelet color is also that which we are commanded to include in the fringes on the corners of our garments. Perhaps in that way the fringe – the tzitzit – is meant to remind us of the Mishkan, and what it symbolizes.

3. Kheruvim are fantastic creatures that were imagined to be among the animal and human-like servants that surrounded our G-d; for example, G-d is described as “riding on the back of a kheruv” into battle with Pharoah at the Reed Sea during the Exodus. They are symbols of divine power and awe.

at the entrance of the palace of Nineveh; now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

A kheruv (?) at the entrance of the palace of Nineveh; now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Our ancestors guarded every detail of the Mishkan for the ages because it was the most important structure they built; they built it together, they brought their best people to it, and they made it a place that evoked their sense of awe for the holy. In such a place, that means so much, there is no such thing as too many details, for every single one is a precious part of the whole. As are you and I in the building of our own Mishkan today.