Thursday, February 18, 2016

Tetzaveh and Making Light Again and Again

Thousands of years ago we decided the Torah is so important that we would read it in one year’s time and that we would repeat this year after year. Every single year we read about Adam and Eve and Moses’ death. Every fall we look anew at God’s promise to Abraham. Every spring the sacrifices and the laws of keeping kosher. Every summer the mitzvah of the tallis and the story of the spies scouting the land.

And every winter we examine the words we uncover again this week, those about the eternal light: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.” (Exodus 27:20)

Regardless of the year the very same stories and the very same laws punctuate our seasons. The portions are how we count the year. They are how we mark time. Their words are married to the seasons as warmth is to summer and snow is to winter. Just as spring will soon welcome us with its flowers, we will continue to march through the Torah. And when, this October, we finish the last chapter of Deuteronomy we will begin again with the first of Genesis.

There is no break in our rhythm. There is no rest in our learning.

It is the same chapters and the same verses year in and year out.

Why? Why not read something different? Why not tell a different story? Perhaps a Hasidic tale might inspire. Why not read other laws? Perhaps a Talmudic discussion might enthrall.

And yet we persist. We refuse to let go. We affirm that everything revolves around Torah. Everything stands on this scroll.

Such reverence for the ancient word is not unique to Judaism. All religious traditions share the belief that the older the word, the closer you reach the original source of inspiration. Whether it is Sinai, Jesus death or Mohammed’s life, when you read these words our traditions affirm the closer you approach truth. And yet the mere recitation of these words does not offer truth. It is our engagement with the word that allows truth to unfold.

We reaffirm that learning is not about the mastery of new material (should I learn how to code?), but the taking to heart of an inheritance. In our new hearts the ancient traditions are refined. When we read these words from the Book of Exodus—again—we are renewed. The Torah reading is not intended to be a regurgitation of the old. We are not meant to mouth ancient words but instead to make them our own.

We believe that wisdom can only be derived from an ancient pool. Learning can only be achieved by a regular return to a revered text (or perhaps a favorite book). Wisdom is about growing. It cannot be Googled. Answers to questions are not the same as the pursuit of wisdom. If this were the case, if this were our faith, then everyone would shout, “Hey rabbi you read that story last year. You talked about the ner tamid last February. Tell us something new!”

That is exactly the point. We did read this same story last year. But we are different. The word must be married to experience. The same old word must this year be learned by a different older person. Furthermore we might sit with someone else. It is in the music of discussion, and debate, that we truly discover meaning and arrive closer to truth.

We can only learn, we can only grow, we can only become wise if we return, together, to the same words. That is our belief. Torah is supposed to change us. Torah is intended to give our lives meaning.

Recently I read about a university professor who offered his students the following hypothetical. He guaranteed that he would award them all “A’s” in his writing class as long as they promised not to tell anyone. The catch is of course that in addition to no assignments, they would also not receive any feedback. 85% of the students said they would accept the offer. They needed the grade, they argued.

John Warner concludes: “Students are not coddled or entitled, they are defeated. We have divorced school from learning, and this is the result.”

The mystical work of the Zohar writes that the ner tamid, the eternal light, is not really about physical light but spiritual. It is the light of Torah.

The Hebrew of the verse offers a glimmer of this understanding. It suggests that this light must be lifted. The light cannot burn without human agency. It must be maintained by our work.

Every year we must discover new meaning within the same words. We learn. We are renewed.

And perhaps one year we might even grow wise—together.

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