Sunday, February 06, 2005

Parashat Mishpatim - part II - Love of Torah

In chapter 24 of the book of Exodus, there is a remarkable text, underscored by an even more remarkable Rashi, which is so radical that later interpreters literally had to turn the text inside-out to accommodate what Rashi tells us in black and white.

Exodus 24:4 tells us that "Moshe wrote all the words of G-d..." Then, verse 7: "And he [Moshe] took the Book of the Covenant and read it into the ears of the people, and they said 'Everything that G-d said we will do and we will hear." This is seen by many commentators as one of the most important verses in Torah -- the "we will do and we will hear" is the very heart of observance. (It's easy to remember, because it is chapter 24, verse 7, and we should all, of course, be involved in Torah 24/7...)

The more famous half of the verse -- "we will do and we will hear" -- is taken to mean that we accept all the mitzvot, and we will do them, even the ones we haven't heard yet. This is the formula that is required of a convert, and signals the readiness of Bnei Israel to accept Torah without reservation. But what does the first half of the verse mean, "Moshe read the book into the ears of the people..."?

But what is the text telling us here? Moshe, in verse 4, wrote the book? Then he read it to the people in verse 7? Then, in verse 15, Moshe actually ascends the mountain to receive the Torah? And Rashi is no help, because on verse 7 he states that Moshe reads to the people all of the Book of Genesis, plus the entire Book of Exodus up to this point, this being what he had written in verse 4!

There is an ongoing debate -- crystallized in the approaches of Rashi versus Ramban -- about the order of the giving of Torah. How many times does Moshe go up the mountain? There are multiple ways to count, perhaps as many as seven. Perhaps more. Perhaps only two.

How many times is torah given? Rashi says twice: once at the giving of the Ten Commandments, which conflates with the giving in Parashat Mishpatim; and a second time after the Golden Calf. The Ramban seems to say three times -- with the Ten Commandments being an aperitif, separate and distinct from the two times the tablets are given.

Each morning we say three blessings on the study of Torah. The first is a blessing of performance of a mitzvah -- the mitzvah of Torah study. Sephardim say "... who has commanded us on / concerning words / things of Torah." Ashkenazim say"... who has commanded us la'asoq in words / things of Torah." The word la'asoq is generally translated "To engage in", and this is certainly a correct translation. However, the root of the word -- 'eseq -- has the meaning of engagement / struggle / dispute / involvement / transaction. Thus, it is possible to read this Berachah: "To carry on our business in accordance with words of Torah", also: "To fight with words of Torah" -- in other words, to struggle with the text until it yields its inner meaning.

The second starts: "And make sweet, we ask you, the words of Torah..." The rabbis tell us that this blessing is not a blessing of performance of a mitzvah. When we put on tefillin, for example, we make a blessing regarding the performance of that mitzvah -- just as the first Torah blessing is a blessing of mitzvah. Here, though, the rabbis say this is actually a birkat ha-nehenin -- a blessing of enjoyment, similar to the blessings we make when we eat food.

And indeed, enjoyment, delight is one of the key components of Torah study. If we do not approach our study of Torah with passion and profound delight, we are not living up to the fulfillment of the mitzvah! The gemara in Avodah Zarah (18a) states: "At all times, a person should study Torah in the place that his heart delights." Enjoyment is not a side-effect, not a collateral benefit of Torah study. Indeed, the gemara tells us it is a precondition to proper fulfillment of the mitzvah!

Gevalt!

And so, "In the place in which he delights..." As the midrash tells us, Israel rushed towards Mt Sinai in passionate desire for Torah.

And what did Moshe do? Before he had even received the words of Torah, he sat down and composed them. Did he write the words that G-d would later speak? Did he learn the words of the Ten Commandments and tease out from them the inner meaning, thus enabling him to write the actual text of Genesis?

Who is right: Rashi? The Ramban? Neither?

The answer is: both. And then some. For Torah tells its own story, and the tellings and retellings of the giving of Torah is like a vast cubist painting, where the same event is examined from multiple perspectives, is turned over and over, and each angle reveals new truths we never grasped before.

Moshe, passionate, desperate, pining for his Beloved, the Torah, was creating Torah for himself. Creating Torah out of a pure love. He was truly "in the place that his heart delights" and could wait no longer for his Beloved. And, seeing this, G-d realized Torah had to be given immediately. Otherwise, the people, in their passion and love, would cling to the words written by a man.

Why does G-d wait so long to give Torah to the world in all its glory, in complete form? Is it because nobody wanted it? Over and over in Torah we see the theme that merely wanting something is not sufficient. A combination of readiness and necessity must prevail, a delicate and complex mix of conditions must be met before G-d intervenes. We have just seen this clearly in Mitzraim, where our salvation came only after we lost sight of G-d completely, and at the same time, Moshe was able to see and comprehend the vast scope of exile.

As Hamlet says: The readiness is all.

As with the redemption from Egypt, and as he will do on repeated occasions, so too with the giving of Torah, Moshe forced G-d's hand.

Are you ready?

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