Thursday, February 5, 2015

Yitro and Calming Smiles

The Torah recounts the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai:
All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. (Exodus 20:15)
The Talmud reimagines:
When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah he found the Holy One sitting and fashioning crowns upon certain letters. Moses said to God: "Master of the world, who requires you to do this?" God replied: "There is a person who will come to be after many generations, called Akiva ben Yosef; he will one day expound heaps upon heaps of laws from each and every crown." Moses said before God: "Master of the world, show him to me." God replied: "Turn around." He turned around and found himself behind the eighth row in the Talmudic academy—behind the regular students arranged in order of excellence in the first seven rows. Moses did not understand the discussion and was dazed. When Rabbi Akiva came to a certain point, his students asked him "How do you know this?" Akiva replied, "This is a law given to Moses from Sinai." Then Moses was calmed. But Moses turned back and stepped before the Holy One and said: "Master of the world, You have such a person, yet You give the Torah through me?" God replied: "Be still, that is how it entered my mind." (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 29b)
Here the Rabbis appear to admit that although their project is interpretive it is in truth innovative. They seem aware of the fact that they are creating something so new that even Moses would be unable to understand it. He would be relegated to the back row of the class.

Sometimes the distance between generations is so great that one generation struggles to understand the other.

And yet a thread connects the two. Both share a belief. They hold on to the faith that even such apparently unrecognizable innovations were given on Mount Sinai. When God handed the written Torah to Moses God also revealed the oral Torah, the method by which we would continue to interpret its written words.

We weave new interpretations.

Would my grandparents understand my children’s Jewish lives? Would they find comfort in today’s prayers and songs? Would they approve of such new interpretations as Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu or Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach: “Bless those in need of healing with r’fuah sh’leimah, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit, and let us say, Amen”? Would their hearts only be stilled when my daughter would declare: “I am named for my father’s grandfather and my mother’s grandfather.” Then they might be calmed. The thread becomes revealed. Their hearts would exult. And their minds might declare, “Look at her smile. Look at her sing.”

The exultation is found in singing. We draw comfort in a smile.

The story unfolds. Moses is not satisfied. Perhaps he asks too many questions.
Then Moses said: "Master of the world, you have shown me Akiva’s Torah, now show me his reward." God said: "Turn around." He turned around and saw Akiva's flesh being weighed in a butcher shop.
Their earlier admission turns horrifying. History reminds us that the greatest rabbi, the most masterful interpreter of Torah, is murdered by the Romans. As we recount on Yom Kippur afternoon, Rabbi Akiva is martyred because of his devotion to Torah and his support for the Bar Kochba rebellion.

We discover hidden warnings within the Talmud’s story. If you believe that a life devoted to Torah, a life committed to Jewish observance, guarantees a life of ease and the blessing of 120 healthy years, then beware. Take care against such seductions. Even the individual who Moses himself admits was the most deserving of receiving the Torah suffers a cruel and torturous end. Torah can add meaning to our lives. It does not promise longevity.

Still Moses will not relent with his questions.
Moses exclaimed: ‘’Master of the world, such Torah and such a reward?" God replied: "Be still, that is how it entered my mind."
The thread continues.

Emily Dickinson writes:
They might not need me—yet they might—
I’ll let my Heart be just in sight—
A smile so small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity—
The questions daze. The smile stills.

And we continue to weave the imagined thread that extends to Sinai.

…Be still, that is how it entered my mind....  

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