PARSHAT NITZAVIM – VAYELECH
WHERE IS THE TORAH?
“It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’” (Deuteronomy 30:12)
This week I want to become a bit mystical. I want to look at the question, where is the Torah? Many would find the answer obvious. The Torah is in the holy ark in the synagogue, except when we take it out to read it on Shabbat mornings and certain other times. That is the Torah scroll, the Five Books of Moses carefully written on a scroll by a scribe. But if we define Torah as “God’s teaching,” where is it? Let me answer as the mystics might have answered this question.
According to a very old Rabbinic tradition, God had a copy of the Torah when God created the world. Just as an architect has blueprints to design a building, so the Torah was the blueprint of the world. This obviously was not the written Torah scroll. Rather it is a primordial Torah, fundamental teachings about the purpose of this world. Mystics called this the Torah Kelulah, “the Torah of the all-in-all.” It is a vision of the Torah similar to the Ideal Forms of Plato, something that existed from the beginning in some spiritual dimension.
Where did the Rabbi’s get this idea of a primordial Torah? They read the first word of the Torah Beraishit not as “in the beginning” but as “with wisdom.” Based on a verse from Proverbs, the word Raishit also can mean “wisdom.” God possessed a primordial wisdom, what we call Torah, and used this to create a world. In fact, the Jewish philosopher Philo, influenced by the Greeks, taught that Logos or the “word” existed from the beginning and God used it to create the world. The Christians took off on this idea, where the book of John says, “In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God the Logos was God.” To Christians the Logos was Christ. To Jews the Logos was the Torah.
If a primordial Torah existed from the beginning, what about the written Torah we read each Shabbat? This is already a human interpretation of this primordial Torah. The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “The Torah is a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation.” The Torah is an interpretation by Moses of God’s primordial teachings. This primordial Torah, which was with God from the beginning, was given over to humans for interpretation.
Perhaps this is made most clear in a wonderful story in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b). Rabbi Eliezer argued against the other Rabbis regarding a point of Jewish law. He brought a number of miraculous proofs that he was correct. A carob tree jumped from its spot, a river ran backwards, the walls of the house of study leaned in. The Rabbis responded to the tree, the river, and the walls, stay out of the argument! Finally, a voice called out from heaven, “why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer?” The Rabbis responded with a quote from this week’s portion, lo be’shamiyim hee, “The Torah is not in heaven.” Rabbi Eliezer is wrong, the Torah is not in heaven but here with us, and the law follows the majority of Rabbis.
The Talmud continues, at that moment Elijah visited with God. He reported that God started laughing and said, “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.” The Torah is no longer in heaven, no longer with God. The Torah has been given to the Rabbis in each generation to interpret.
So where is the Torah? We will define the Torah as God’s primordial teaching on how we are to live in the world. And that primordial teaching has been given to the Rabbis of each generation to explain and interpret, according to their best understanding. Where is the Torah? It has been given to us. We must interpret and apply it according to the needs of our generation. May we learn to appreciate the gift of the Torah.