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The True and Enduring Meaning of the Torah

Rosh Hashanah 5780
October 2019

A prominent memory of my childhood is of my grandfather and a newspaper.  My grandparents have always spent the winters in Mexico, and every year we would go down for New Year’s and often for Passover.  One of our tasks was to bring my grandfather the newspaper, and it had to be the Sunday New York Times.  When we were there, I would get up in the morning and head outside to see my grandfather.  One leg crossed over the other, slightly out from under the table, baseball hat within arm's reach, ready to be donned as the sun began to rise, a pot of coffee in front of him, and holding that paper that he had been eagerly anticipating.  Yet every morning for two weeks, it was the same thing, he would still be reading that same newspaper.  And, even more peculiar, if we came down again in the spring and we brought a new paper, he would excitedly slide it to the bottom of the pile of papers that other family had brought him.  I found this so odd, and it has become one of our family jokes:  my grandfather, Pa as we call him, reading the news from three months ago.  I had always seen this as endearing quality, a quirk of the man that we all love and greatly admire, and this was just an eccentricity.

Yet since I admire him so much, I realized there must be more to this routine of his that I had been missing.  First, I learned that it is the writing he values.  They have a TV, so being current was not the intended purpose of the activity; he was not filling a worldly need of being informed.  But I could only see reading the newspaper through the lens of its immediate and seemingly obvious purpose, of informing its reader in various areas of interest.  I could not see beyond its elements, as a pastime, something to do while drinking coffee.  Yet I now know that this was a gross oversimplification in my grandfather's case.  For him, it was doing something bigger, playing a role in his life that I could not have understood since I thought I was looking at a newspaper, at something with a specific and solitary function, which he did not subscribe to.

Secondly, I came to understand that I was watching a ritual, the repetition of a sustained practice, where great meaning exists.  This is where the potential is contained for something to be far greater than what it appears to be.  He has been doing this, in the same spot, with the exact same surroundings from when he was a dark-haired young man on vacation, to a greying one, and eventually to a retired, fully grey haired great-grandfather many times over.  Yet the ritual has remained constant, whereas much of his life and the world he was reading about had not.

What made me think of this and understand it, was Torah.  All summer I had been thinking about how to give a sermon that conveys my love of Torah, to offer you the genius I have seen in it for over five years, an awareness of its weekly gems that had eluded me prior to becoming a rabbi.  Reading the weekly portion has turned out to be one of my surest pleasures and consistently turns out to be a thrilling obligation.  A part of that pleasure, a significant one, are the discussions that we have on shabbat morning.   Shabbat after shabbat, year after year we engage with the same text.  Often I ask the same questions, yet your responses, thoughts, and interpretations always change.  The literal text, we know, remains the same, but we don’t.

The Torah is what I am pulled towards, locked in its eternal magnetic charge.  And for five years I had thought, like my grandfather’s newspaper, it was the Torah's stories and psychological insights that were compelling.  I thought that it was smart, and that its wisdom was what was capturing my attention each week, but I was wrong.

I have come to think that the Torah may actually not have anything specific to tell us.  It does have deep insights into our lives, and we are right to quote it on placards and in our daily thinking.  It is a brilliant text.  But I think it is the instrument—the discernments, the device we have been given, cherishing over and throughout history, in order to get to us to realize what we need.  The Torah says enough to stimulate the process of what we need to produce or address the clarity we need about life.  Yet, what is on-going is not that the Torah has a message of clarity but precisely the opposite.

The problem with Torah is not the Torah, but rather how it is taught.  We are taught that its message is eternal, its answer is in the scroll, that if we learn it, then we’ll get it, that a world will open up.  That’s not how life is; life is not filled with an unwinding series of eureka moments.  You cannot show up at Hebrew school or an adult education course and walk out knowing Torah; we should hope to walk out more confused than before.

The Torah is not unlike anything else.  It is a practice that requires time and care, and we need to recognize we, whether we are the student, reader, religious adherent, or a proud heretic are all a part of the text.  The actual text matters far less than our commitment to making the practice of it a part of our lives.

Another problem with the Torah comes not from how we teach it but how we consume it.  You can drop in at any moment, and that is a bad thing.  You cannot simply show up because you like the story of the Burning Bush or the story of the Spies scouting the Land of Israel because, more often than not, our tendency then would be to avoid the many difficult stories:  the stoning of the wayward son, the tortured story of the Sotah, the woman accused of adultery, or the so-called laws of sexual immorality, the monotony of entire portions.

And to use a word of the times, you cannot binge on Torah, coming to shul or reading the Torah portion every week for a while or even a whole year.  It needs to be a practice, not a New Year’s resolution.  Its practice will yield the confidence to engage not only with it but with those who have also come engage.  Dropping in or binging on it for a specific period of time isolates the experience, reducing it to something that can only be confined within the strictures of likability.  You need to encounter these stories as you change, not simply as the scrolls are turned, slowly inching from the birth of Eve to the death of Moses, but as the hand of time winds on you.  The Torah is essential to our lives because it is constant and consistent and we are anything but.

Anyone looking to Torah for a single ideology will be disappointed.  The Torah begins by offering differing and conflicting accounts on the birth of the world.  Chapter One details the creation in six days culminating with the creation of man and woman.  Whereas Chapter Two begins with God creating man, Adam, literally from the earth, and later woman, Eve, from his hip; and these inconsistencies and paradoxes only continue.  Life is unpredictable, and people are hypocritical, and perhaps the Torah is signaling to us from the phrase In the Beginning that we better learn how to reconcile the conflicting truths we encounter in the world and, more importantly, our inner conflicts.

The Torah, like the religion it spawned and the one we practice, defies instant gratification or immediate responses but yields a value that accrues, gaining interest over sustained engagement.  Although this ritual always begins with Genesis and ends with Deuteronomy, we age and grow, drawing nearer or more distant as life moves us.  And while I am focusing on this distinct practice, it is true for so many of our traditional technologies:  coming to morning minyan, observing some form of shabbat, having a Seder with the same people each year—the meaning it has to offer will only grow, but you need to sustain the practice long enough, zoom out far enough to see its beauty.

The weekly Torah reading is asking us to interrogate a text that never moves, and the challenge is for us to recognize that the text is not what it says its about.  It is about what we uncover when we are reading what this text is said to be about.  It is not about your relationship to the text; the text is nothing more than vehicle to get you to arrive at what you need to discover about yourself.  It is about how this practice helps us see who we are and who we are reflected through the lens of the person sitting next to us, the memory of the person who is no longer sitting next you, but she might have been last year.

It is about entering into this process, a process that says its ritual is one thing but is actually another.  It is about remembering what that person said a few years ago, that crazy thing they said and your shock to agree with it now.  It is about the excitement you feel when life has given you the insight into what had previously been opaque and your surprise at tripping over the stumbling block that had not been there in years past.  The true genius of the Torah is not in its words but that we made it a ritual and do it together.  We are being changed by the Torah’s melodies and discussions and its ever evolving face.  Reading the Torah together is our practice; it is where we are all equal in the eyes of our tradition and where we recognize that we are not followers of a text but the Torah of community.

We all have strong opinions on Torah, what it is and what it is not, why it is good or why it is dangerous.  But this misses the point and reduces it to a stagnant practice with a desired endpoint.  Torah is fluid; it has no endpoint, and the choreography of this ritual is on-going because we are not and never will be fully formed.  We may be introduced to this ritual at our baby naming or as our voices crack when we ascend the bima for our bnai-mitzvah; maybe when we see our children up here for their auf ruf before their wedding, or when your grandson becomes a rabbi.  When we sit together, week after week, year after year, going through the cycles of life as we age and mature, celebrating births and deaths, we get to watch our Tree of Life blossom in the faces of those around us.

Torah is like a kaleidoscope:.  Twist the end with the colored objects, and little bits shift as we look through the translucent piece of glass.  The pieces are the same but what we see keeps changing; those fixed pieces that are being reflected back to us change by the way we orient them.  You do not know what they will look like, and you won’t get the same picture again.  Nothing inside of what we are holding has changed, only our experience of it.  It is not an illusion, but we hold onto the illusion that the beauty is inside when it us who are twisting the mirrors and receiving its reflections.  If we can continue to fully embrace the practice of reading and discussing the Torah together not because it is holy, not because the God inside this book commands us to do so, but because we become holy and God emerges among us when we do.  Lets have the courage and the conviction to continue to twist our tradition’s ritual so that we fully see the text of those around us.  Twist it again and we will see our neighbor in a new light.  Then, twist it again because that image is offering us the hope and prayer of this season.  Turn that knob again because the image that will materialize is of ourselves, and it's an image of the divine.

  Rabbi David Minkus

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