Thursday, September 14, 2006

Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Midrash)

“It is not in the Heavens”

Last week, I devoted so much time and space to my discussion of the selection from Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuvah that I completely neglected my avowed aim of bringing and interpreting at least one midrash from each week’s portion, for which my apologies to my readers. This week’s Torah portion, a combination of two very short portions which even in combination are not all that lengthy, contains several important statements of principle about the nature of Torah and mitzvah, e.g., viz. its availability and accessibility to human beings—“It is not in the heavens” (Deut 30:12; the late Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz wrote an excellent book about the halakhic process and the active role played by human beings in its shaping, whose English version bore that title. See also the central role played by this verse in the famous incident of the “oven of Akhnai” in Bava Metzi’a 59b). One of my favorite midrashic passages, which contains a simple but important, as well as highly relevant, lesson, appears here. Deuteronomy Rabbah 8.3:

[“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too wondrous for you”; Deut 30:11]. Concerning this Scripture said: “Wisdom is too high for a fool, in the gate he shall not open his mouth” [Prov 24:7] … Rabbi Tanhuma said: The fool enters the synagogue and seems them arguing debating back and forth in matters of Torah study and he does not understand what they are saying, and he is ashamed [to ask]. As is said: “in the gate he shall not open his mouth.” And the gate refers to none other than the Sanhedrin, as is written, “And his yevamah [i.e., his brother’s childless widow] shall go up to the gate, to the elders” [Deut 25:7].

The acquisition of wisdom in Torah is one of the highest possible goals a person can strive to achieve in life. Shame, embarrassment, self-consciousness about ones own ignorance, is among the first hurdles a person must overcome in order to progress on the road towards knowledge. The Midrash continues in the same vein:

Another thing. Our Rabbis said: The foolish person enters the synagogue and sees them engaged in Torah, and asks them: How does a person start studying Torah? And they tell him: First he reads in a scroll [i.e., containing one or two brief sections of the Torah], and then in a book [i.e., Torah scroll], and thereafter in the Prophets, and then in the Writings. When he completes Scripture he learns Talmud [in this context, probably halakhic midrash, i.e., works analyzing the Torah text using the midrashic method of Oral Torah], and then halakhot [probably Mishnah, i.e., Oral Torah organized by legal units and topics], and aggadot [homiletic expositions and legends]. When he hears this, he says to himself: When can I learn all this? And he turns from the gate. This is, “in the gates he shall not open his mouth.”

The experience described here is surely one that is familiar to many neophytes to Judaism, a common breed in our day. There is so much to learn—all the varied types of books in the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Halakhah, Midrash, Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, etc. (including all of the literature written in the 1500-2000 years since the period of this midrash!)—the task of learning it all is truly daunting and overwhelming! And where does one start? And how can one hope to master it, seeing all those yeshivah bochurim who’ve been learning Torah since early childhood? (I do hope that the folks encountered by our “fool” weren’t deliberately trying to discourage him, out of a misguided elitism.)

R. Yannai said: To what is this comparable? To a loaf of bread that was hanging in the air. The fool says: Who can possibly reach it? But the wise man says: Did not someone hang it there? So he brings a ladder or a long stick or reed and takes it down. In the same way, one who is foolish says: When can I read the entire Torah? But what does the wise one do? He studies one chapter each and every day, until he completes the entire Torah. The Holy One blessed be He says: “It is not too wondrous” [Deut 30:11; i.e., “difficult” or “inaccessible”]. And if it is too wondrous, this is “from you”—that is, because you do not engage in it. This is: “For this commandment…” [ibid.]

Nifla [or the feminine niflait] is usually translated as “wondrous” or “miraculous,” but in its root sense it can refer to anything that is special, unusual, outside of the ordinary (such as the Nazirite’s vow; see the usage ki yafli in Num 6:2)—hence, “difficult,” “inaccessible” or, per NJPS, “baffling.” The lesson conveyed here is a simple one: the value of simple persistence in a task—and, for a Jew, what more significant intellectual task can there be then learning the Torah? “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration”; “Every journey begins with one step”; etc. The Torah cannot be absorbed all at once; by setting aside fixed times for study every single day, one gradually, imperceptibly, begins to learn, and to understand things more and more easily, until suddenly—yes, it may be five or ten or even twenty years later—you suddenly look at yourself and say, “Hey, I know this stuff!” or “I’ve learned the entire Mishnah” or “all of Rambam” or even “all of Shas!” And, incidentally, kevi’at itim la-Torah, setting fixed times for Torah study, is a basic halakhic obligation. For the average person, who is hopefully not a ”heavy-duty sinner” (see below), what better act of teshuvah to undertake during the Ten Days than to decide upon a fixed routine of Torah study as part of ones life? (Each person is of course free to decide for him/herself the most suitable study material and how much to do each day.)


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