Why do we read the entire Torah? Why don’t we just read the parts that apply to us? There are, after all, vast swaths of the Torah that seem as though they do not.
OK, well, for one thing, the ancient rabbis understood that we are commanded to do so. And, BTW, not just once through each year, but actually three times, according to a passage in the Talmud, Massekhet Berakhot 8a – Shenayim miqra ve-ehad targum. Read it in Hebrew twice, and then once in translation. (Even Numbers 32:3, which is just a listing of place names.)
Here’s the irony – when Rav Huna made that statement in the name of his teacher Rabbi Ammi, he was living in the third century CE, at least 200 years after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, and aproximately 1400 years after the period of the mishkan, the Tabernacle used while the Israelites were wandering in the desert. That portable, sacrificial worship center was described in excruciating, monotonous detail in today’s parashah. And yet, if the traditional chronology is to be believed, it was in use for perhaps 300 years, until King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem.
Even in the Middle Ages, when commentators such as Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, an additional millennium removed from its existence, are still trying to muddle their way through the varieties of fancy cloth, wood, skins of animals that they surely could not have found in the desert, precious metals and stones that were featured in the mishkan’s construction.
And here we are today, in a 140-character world. Aren’t the chapters on the mishkan (mostly repeated again in a few weeks when the Israelites will actually build it) a frightful waste of time? The average teenager could easily send and receive over 150 text messages in the time it takes to read all of the details related to Moses by God. Surely by now the total length of time just spent READING this mass of detail by various Jewish congregations over the last two millennia far exceeds the actual period of usefulness of the mishkan itself.
So why on earth do we read it? And what can we possibly glean from it?
I’m going to come to the answer in a sort of roundabout way, so hold onto those questions for a moment.
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Time. Accounting for time features so heavily in all the choices we make. And I take issue with the Rolling Stones on this: time is NOT on my side. Instead I’ll go with the Steve Miller Band: Time keeps on slippin’ into the future. And we all seem to have less and less of it.
Let’s face it – Judaism takes time. (Takes money too, but time is, I think, more valuable for most of us.)
And, more to the point, learning to be Jewish takes time. A lot of time. It takes more than 4-6 hours per week, which is generally what we provide our children with. And it takes even more time after the bar/t mitzvah.
My primary goal as a rabbi is to teach Jews about Judaism, and to help shape our congregation around the ongoing learning of our Jewish bookshelf. This task is made far more difficult by some of the parameters of today’s world. Yes, we are all short on time. But even more than that, we are all impatiently waiting for the next text message, the next email, the next 4G-LTE intrusion.
I am beginning to be concerned that the Information Age is, in fact, leading us into a new, tech-savvy Dark Age.
We are living in a great age of misinformation. We have so much more data at our fingertips than we did just 20 years ago. And yet we know, or perhaps are willing to learn, far less. Everything is moving so fast today that depth and intellectual rigor is falling by the wayside.
A few years ago at Temple Israel of Great Neck, we received a visit from Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue (the umbrella organization for all the wings of the Conservative movement). He spoke about developing a new model for the institutions of Conservative Judaism, but during the course of his remarks, he pointed out that this is the age of the handheld digital device, and one challenging feature of of these devices is that they allow us to hear and see only the things that we want to hear and see.
The iPod (remember that?), and all the devices that followed it, changed fundamentally the way we relate to information. Unlike the good ‘ol LP, the black vinyl that some of us are still nostalgic for, where you had to get a whole bunch of unremarkable songs along with your favorites, the iPod gave its owner complete control to edit those out, or not even purchase them to begin with.
These devices – tablets, smartphones, and so forth – are tools that keep us in touch, yes, and put all sorts of information at our fingertips. But they also elevate one’s personal choice and taste over all other considerations. Hence the “i” in “iPod” and “iPhone.” And we’ll be seeing a great many more i’s as we move forward. The larger phenomenon at work here is that we are moving into an age in which nobody feels that they have to listen to anything that they do not want to hear.
Here is an example:
Also a few years ago, at UC Irvine, the Israeli Ambassador to the US, noted historian Michael Oren, was invited to give a lecture. A large group, perhaps 50, anti-Israel activists interrupted him, with one student at a time standing up and shouting anti-Israel slogans. As each of these students stood up, they were escorted out by the campus police as their friends cheered.
The president of the university, after the first of these outbursts, reminded the protesters that they were violating school policy, and emphasized that there would be an open Q&A session at the end of Ambassador Oren’s remarks, and that this would be the appropriate forum for challenging him. They continued, not allowing Mr. Oren to speak, until the large group left en masse. 11 people were arrested.
The way that dialogue happens, the way that we solve big problems, is by listening to the one with whom you do not agree. Silencing the discussion, in my mind, produces exactly the opposite effect.
I am certain that we could all think of countless examples of ways in which we do not listen to each other today; one need not look too far past our fractured political system to see that compromise is a lost art.
We are all listening exactly to what we want to hear, and not to each other, or the other side. And that does not bode well, for democracy, public discourse, the State of Israel, or Judaism in general.
And to return to where we started, if we do not have time to listen to all of the words of the Torah, we have as Jews a slim chance of surviving the forces of modernity. And I fear just as much for the rest of America.
So back to why on earth do we read the whole Torah – I’m going to give you the words of Don Isaac Abarbanel, the 15th-century Iberian commentator and noble:
Do not think that the commandments about the mishkan, which do not apply to us here in the exile, or the laws that are valid only in the land of Israel, or the laws of priestly purity, have no value for us today. The Torah is a book of elevated wisdom and divine teaching. What we understand of these matters today, in terms of their allusions to higher things, is of as much value as when they were in practice. The same is true of all Torah matters. The Torah is a tool to prepare the way for us to become “like God, knowing good” (Gen. 3:5), to keep us alive in every place and at all times.
Reading the entire Torah seems, at best, quaint, or perhaps outmoded. But that is, in fact, why we do it. One of the messages of the Torah is that, in the words of the curiously-named Ben Bag-Bag from Pirqei Avot, we turn it over and turn it over, because everything may be found in it. We have to keep looking, not merely hitting the repeat button on those passages that we want to hear. And so we read the details of the mishkan, and the sacrifices, and the barbaric ritual for testing a woman accused of being unfaithful, alongside the commandments to treat one another with respect, and to be just in your business dealings, and to keep the Shabbat. And we need to dedicate enough time to this task to earn our reward in this lifetime and the next.
We have to read the whole Torah. We have to listen to and parse all of its words, even the ones that we do not like, or do not want to hear.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/13/2016.)