Being Torah–Sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning

Last night, I began a series of sermons on the values that Beit Shalom has as part of its mission statement. I spoke about the concept of chesed, which has traditionally been translated as “lovingkindness” but is more accurately understood as grace. This morning, I’d like to talk about Torah. For starters, I want to make sure that we all agree on what Torah is. Many Jews will confidently state that Torah is the first five books of the Bible, and they’ll be right. But confusingly, the term Torah is also used by the rabbis to represent all Jewish teachings from all time, right up until today. The Talmud, midrash, kabbalah, Shulkhan Arukh—all can be considered Torah, and the study of any of those texts, along with thousands of other Jewish texts, is all talmud Torah—the study of Torah.

Torah study, even of those first five books of the Hebrew Bible, is a world away from what Christians call Bible study. In Bible study, there are a limited number of questions, and each question generally only has one answer. When Jews get together to study Torah, there are many many questions and just about an infinite number of possible answers. The rabbis cheerfully include contradictory answers right next to each other, adhering to a teaching from the Talmud that many find challenging: “These and these are the words of the living God.” The goal of Torah study appears not to get to The Answer but rather to reach an answer that feels right for each of us. One interpretation may ring true one year, but feel wrong in another year. As is quoted in the Talmud of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it and turn it, for all is contained within.”

Few passages in the Torah have been interpreted and re-interpreted more than this morning’s Torah reading. The wonderful website Sefaria.org records no fewer than 64 commentaries and midrashim discussing just the very first verse! Some of those 64 interpretations themselves include multiple understandings, such as the medieval commentary Chizkuni who quotes four conflicting interpretations of the verse, “Sometime afterward, God put him to the test.” The rabbis very early on observed that the word דברים can mean “events” or “words.” They generally opted for the second definition, and then set about trying to figure out what conversation had precipitated God’s test of Abraham. Here are Chizkuni’s answers: “Ishmael had boasted to Isaac that he had voluntarily undergone circumcision at 13, an age when it was most painful, to which Isaac had replied that he, Ishmael, had endured pain only on one part of his body, whereas he, Isaac, would be prepared to undergo such pain on his whole body, i.e. he would even give his life for G-d. Another interpretation of the words: ויהי אחר הדברים האלה is that they refer to the treaty concluded between Abraham and Avimelech, when Abraham had voluntarily postponed the fulfillment of G-d’s promise to him without having first obtained G-d’s permission to do so…Another interpretation, one which places the emphasis on the words נסה את אברהם, “God tested Abraham.” Abraham was not tested in order for G-d to be convinced of his willingness to offer up his beloved son, seeing that God, Who is omniscient, already knows such matters; he was tested by the attribute of Justice which had dared question the degree of loyalty Abraham could summon when so tested. Passing this test successfully would convince the people around him of the absolute obedience to any command G-d would issue to him. There was no way the nations of the world could challenge his faith thereafter.”

Each of these three different interpretations paint the story of the Binding of Isaac in a completely different light: the first interpretation makes it all about Isaac, who brazenly challenges his older brother Ishmael to a very serious game of truth or dare. In the second interpretation, Abraham’s faith is actually placed in doubt, as it appears that he himself postpones God’s promise of the gift of the land without asking God first. And finally, the third interpretation suggests that the whole test was intended to prove Abraham’s faithfulness to the world. Another commentator Ibn Ezra challenges this third interpretation, noting that the only ones who witnessed Abraham’s faithfulness were God and Isaac. And so the debates continue on and on over centuries. Ultimately, it is generally this last interpretation that prevails. In the end, it is not important that there were no human witnesses present but rather that God was watching and was favourably impressed. We blow the shofar today and even invoke Abraham’s faithfulness in our prayers to remind God that though our own deeds may be small, we are descended from someone whose faith was tested and found to be true.

Chizkuni includes a fourth interpretation of the first verse that first appears in the Talmud, is quoted by the famous medieval French rabbi Rashi and is repeated by many others after. Says Rashi, “Some of our Rabbis say that it means after the words of Satan who denounced Abraham saying, ‘Of all the banquets which Abraham prepared not a single bull nor a single ram did he bring as a sacrifice to You ’. God replied to him, “Does he do anything at all except for his son’s sake? Yet if I were to bid him, “Sacrifice him to Me’’, he would not refuse.” Knowledgeable readers will immediately recognise in this ancient midrash an echo of the opening of the book of Job. The start of that book, buried in the back of the Tanakh, sees God engaged in conversation with Satan. God boasts of Job’s faithfulness, but Satan question the depth of Job’s loyalty, pointing out how abundantly God has blessed him. God rises to the challenge, permitting Satan to make Job’s life completely miserable so that his fidelity to God can be confirmed. And so by the end of the first chapter, all that Job has is gone, including his seven sons and three daughters.

My teacher Rabbi Jacob Staub pointed out how the Talmud’s twist on the opening words of our Torah portion turns the story dark and sinister. No longer is Isaac’s ordeal justified as a demonstration of his father’s faithfulness to the world. Instead, the whole test happens to decide a bet between God and Satan as to just how devoted Abraham is. All of the uplifting potential of Abraham’s selflessness and suffering are negated by the petty dispute between two beings who hold his fate in their hands. Rabbi Staub pointed out how Rashi, the greatest of all interpreters of ancient Jewish texts, was an old man when he witnessed the start of the First Crusade, an event which proved catastrophic for Jews scattered across Europe. Was it any wonder that, in sifting through the dozens of explanations for why God might have tested the faithful servant Abraham, Rashi settled on the most capricious and terrifying of them all?

Jews have continued to wrestle with this text ever since, striving to make meaning and sense out of a spare few verses which reveal so little and hide so much. I have done my part over the years, turning the story this way and that each year. I have spent significant time with Genesis 22 for thirty years and still feel I have more to understand.

It is essential to understand that you don’t have to be a professional to study Torah. Far from it. But an open and inquiring mind is essential. So is a willingness to listen with a whole heart to those whose interpretation differs from your own. Torah study is all about vikuach l’shem shamayim: argument for a higher purpose. Traditional Torah study is conducted in pairs with a chevruta—the word comes from the word for friend, but is closer to a sparring partner. You and your chevruta drive each other to go deeper and deeper into the text. You challenge one another, you contradict one another, and you affirm one another. Your ultimate goal is not to better your partner but to leave your hour of study having gained insights would never have reached on your own.

For decades, it’s been my pleasure to use the textbook Being Torah for teaching the classic stories of Genesis to students aged 9-12. The book, published in 1986, features children cast in the roles of the biblical characters. My students poke fun at the silly costumes and the felt beards. But children are cast as commentators as well. At the end of each story, three or more kids share their own interpretations. The invitation is clearly given to the children reading the stories to do the same, and happily my students pile on.

We studied the story of how Jacob wrestled with a mysterious man the night before he was due to confront his brother Esau. The Hebrew text is compellingly ambiguous about what actually happens that night. One student piped up, “Maybe he was wrestling with his own conscience.” The students noticed how even after Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, the text continues to use both names to refer to him. They noted his shadow side—how after he reconciles with his brother, he promises Esau that he will follow closely behind, only to head in the opposite direction. Even though he is trying to be Israel, he still slides back into his Jacob self—a sobering message for us at this time of the year as we hope to attain our better selves.

The following week, we moved on to the start of the Joseph cycle. The kids had very little patience for the spoiled brat that is Joseph at the beginning of the story. They were particularly offended that at multiple places in the story, the text notes, “God was with Joseph.” But why?! they wanted to know. This was Joseph who dobbed in his brothers and then related dreams to them that seemed designed to offend them further. Then one student jumped in, “Maybe Joseph doesn’t know that God is with him.” And yes, there is nowhere in the entire story where we ever see God speaking directly to Joseph.

Finally, in the week before Rosh Hashanah, we had another look at the binding of Isaac. The story—all 19 verses of it—is short enough that I can recite it from memory nearly exactly as it appears in the Torah. The kids are subdued and sober. Then one bursts out, “Why does God insist that we have trust but doesn’t trust us?! If God trusted Abraham there would be no need for the test.” We reflected back on the dream of Jacob’s ladder, how after God appears to him Jacob places conditions on his faith: “If God brings me safely home and gives me food to eat and clothing to wear, then Adonai will be my God.” Yes, but. It’s one thing for a person to be lacking in trust, but it’s definitely problematic when the one lacking trust is God.

These exercises make me very happy and fill me with pride. I see my students growing into mature, thoughtful students of Torah who are comfortable asking hard questions and are prepared to accept ambiguous answers. I see that this mind-stretching work helps them to develop into complex, nuanced thinkers who will hopefully resist the temptation to settle for easy answers. I wonder whether respectful Torah study might be one solution to the increasing problem of how often we fail to listen deeply to one another.

Talmud Torah–the study of Torah–happens at Beit Shalom all the time. We discuss the parshah at every Shabbat service, and twice a month members are invited to join in for a lively 45 minutes or so where we delve deeper into that week’s Torah portion. In October, I’ll be teaching Talmud one again–the ultimate in sacred Jewish arguments! If coming to synagogue is tough, there are virtually endless ways to study Torah at home, at the office, alone or with family and friends. I invite you in the year ahead to consider making Torah study a part of your weekly routine. Let your brain stretch in new directions, and see where it leads. Shana tova–may this be a year of sweetness, good health and spiritual growth for us all.

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