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December 11th, 2017

Inspired Living

My least favorite 'text' is the Torah

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

By Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

Published October 11, 2017

My least favorite 'text' is the Torah
One of my least favorite words is "text" — as in "text of Torah."

Any text can be exciting or dull, subtle or stupid, frightening or intimidating; basically, rich or poor.

A text may be a summons to a court hearing, a newspaper article, a novel, a wrenching confession, a will, a codex, a box score. All of these may be exciting, intimidating or insipid — rich or poor.

But not the Torah.

For it is not a "text."

How so? Is not the Torah the text par excellence? Is not the Torah rich and subtle and rewarding in some places, and obscure in others? The answer is yes, but the Torah is still not a text.

A text is a human production. Something with limits. Something that can be figured out, or whose meaning will always be disagreed about, even across generations. A text is the whole of the reality it represents; in others words, a text is its words. That's all: long, short, influential, forgettable, blunt, winding, tear-jerking, hateful or inspiring . . . words.

But not so the Torah.

When one studies the Torah, the communication is unlike when one studies a text. A text may communicate the intent of its author (exegesis), or the intent of the reader (eisegesis) or, perhaps, communicate nothing at all. But that's it: the text is the text, a communication between two people, the author and the reader; or between the reader and himself. Yes, a text may communicate powerfully to countless thousands of people, but when the individual reads the text, there is only an individual communication.

Not so with the Torah.

It, too, may be rich and poor, subtle in some places and baffling in others; by turns intimidating, rewarding, uplifting or challenging. But all these characteristics do not begin to exhaust the Torah or even to describe its essence.

The Torah is not the transfer of the meaning of the words that exist on the page into one's mind or heart. Not primarily.

Rather, the Torah is a window, a Divine messenger. An instrument for expanding the mind and soul of its reader.

The Torah may be apprehended, but not comprehended.

The prayer for the apprehension of the Torah pointedly asks the Divine to open ours hearts "to understand, to elucidate, to hear, to study, to teach, to observe, to perform, to fulfill all the words of" — not! — the Torah.

Not a text.

Rather, the prayer asks the Divine to open our hearts to "the process or study of Your Torah, talmud torasecha."

What's the difference between the Torah and the study of the Torah?

The Torah is limited to 304,805 letters, arranged in a discrete number of sentences and paragraphs. If they exhaust the Torah, if they constitute a text only, then whatever depths one might plumb in them, that's it.

The Torah, however, is without limit. We can never "understand" it fully; we can only reach a certain level of understanding, then increase that, and increase that, as far as our mental and spiritual capacity and motivation take us.

The Torah is a ladder whose rungs are without number. What is the difference between studying the text of Torah, and studying the Torah? It is the difference between a poem and a prayer; between a communication between me and my soul, and between me and my Sustainer.

One may study poems or even luxuriate in them. One may do both when engaged with the Torah, but that engagement would push one much further.

When one is engaged in the Torah, one addresses one's deepest issues and problems. One poses existential and philosophic questions — tenaciously.

Answers may come in a minute — or not for a lifetime. Engagement in the Torah may require an overturning of all of one's feelings and assumptions.

One grapples with the Torah, even the very same passage, even the passage that one has mastered — grapples over and over, since the depths of the passage may never be fully fathomed.

The prayer pointedly insists that we not expect to understand the Torah, but to study it, to learn to live with a question, to come back to that question again and again, sticking with the Torah even when it does not provide an answer — yet. The study of Torah demands patience. The great Rabbi Aharon Kotler ( 1891-1962 ) is said to have commented: I struggled with a comment of the Vilna Gaon (d. 1797) for 24 years before I grasped it.

When a person lives on this level of personal engagement with the Torah — talmud torasecha, the process of Torah — it overcomes pain and loss, it carries a person above the trivialities and pettiness in life and constitutes its own living joy.

All this is contained in one word in that prayer, which pointedly does not make reference to the "Torah" — that would be a mere text — but to the study of Torah, which makes it what it is: a ladder to eternity.

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Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, where this first appeared, and the author of several books on biblical and Judaic themes. His writings have appeared in JWR since its inception.

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