We “religion professionals” talk a lot about Eternity and the Eternal. It makes me stop to wonder what really is and what isn’t eternal.
To begin with, God, of course, is eternal. Our tradition unequivocally teaches that this is an inseparable quality. We also know that הרצון עליון, HaRatzon Elyon, the Divine Will for us, humanity, to achieve and experience an intimate bond with God on the soul level, is also eternal. This, we’re taught, is the ultimate reason for Creation. Both of these concepts, of course, are abstract and ethereal beyond our grasp and full understanding.
We also know that the Torah is eternal, but since the Torah exists in our physical world where nothing is eternal, this concept requires refinement. If we approach the aspect of Torah in which it is defined as “a name of God”, as our mystical tradition informs us, eternal makes sense. However, if we look at Torah, even merging both our written and oral traditions, as a definitive and objective history book or a science book, the claim of eternal becomes difficult. Of course, this is what led as great a Torah authority as the Malbim, (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel zt”l) in the nineteenth century to teach that we’re not obligated to view the science of Chazal, the sages of the Talmud, as necessarily valid science (both because they were speaking in terms of empirical knowledge of their day and, more importantly, they weren’t trying to teach us either science or history, but rather using analogies from both in order to teach spiritual concepts–as the Rambam, basing himself of Rabbi Yishmael in the Talmud, teaches us, the Torah speaks in the language of man).
The Torah is very difficult to define because it has both a finite and an infinite nature. The written Torah, for example, consists of exactly a finite number of words and a finite number of letters, so that the addition or subtraction of a single one invalidates it. There will never be more or fewer words and letters in any future or past physical Torah scroll. In fact, each individual Torah scroll can be said to contain x amount of ink on y amount of parchment, no more and no less. On the other hand, when combined with the Oral Torah, which our tradition teaches is of equal authenticity and authority as the Written Torah, it begins to expand over time into something approaching the Infinite as more and more words and thoughts are added to it each moment.
The Torah has been defined as the interface between the Infinite and the Finite. Perhaps a better image is the penetration of the Infinite into the Finite. Rabbi Shabbtai Sheftel Horowitz zt”l wrote about four hundred years ago in his masterpiece, Shefa Tal, itself a commentary on the kabbalah of of the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero zt”l, the sixteenth century mystic who was the primary teacher of the Ari (the sixteenth century leader of the Kabbalah flowering in Tzfat)) that the soul, which is exactly equivalent with what we call אין סוף, Ein Sof, sort of a nickname of God, except that it is a fragment and spark rather than the whole of it, is comprised of an array of six hundred and thirteen wholly abstract, non-material, spiritual “lights”. These “lights”, of course, being number 613, are the spiritual basis for what will, when it coalesces and materials, eventually into our physical world, become the 613 mitzvot, badly translated as “commandments”.
Examining the word, מצוה, mitzva, we see it contains the root צו, tzav, which means to bind or join together. Now the idea begins to come together and we can see the Torah as expressing, and providing a means to fulfill, the Ratzon Elyon, Divine Will, of joining together humanity, as we exist in the physical and temporal world, with God in the infinite, eternal realm.
How we fulfill the mitzvot has changed over time. There was an era of bringing קרבנות, Karbonot, sacrifices (karbon is based on the root, קרב, karav, which means to come closer) which ended with the destruction of the Temple, nearly two thousand years ago. In every era and in every place, as the Pele Yoetz, Rabbi Mordechai Dov Twerski zt”l of Hornisteipel, regularly reminds us, the Torah teaches us how to serve in order to unite with the Almighty. His grandson, Rabbi Shloime Twerski, zt”l, of Denver, writing about Jacob’s dream of the ladder, teaches that each individual, as well as each generation, has unique paths through the mitzvot.
So what we now see is eternal about the Torah is not specific, historical/geographic modalities of fulfilling specific mitzvot, but rather that it expresses, and provides eternally unique paths for us to fulfill, the Eternal Divine Will that we engage, intimately and fully, with the loving Creator. We say that each of God’s “names” reflect a quality of how He relates to us (we’re constantly reminded that God’s intrinsic nature is wholly outside our understanding or even imagining, but we are allowed glimpses of certain qualities through how He relates to us). יקוק, the Tetragrammaton, expresses love and pure energy, אלוקים, Elokim, structure, organization and discipline. Perhaps the name made out of all 600,000 letters of the Torah, representing all 600,000 root souls of the Jewish people, expresses the Ratzon Elyon that we each fully connect to His Divine Essence. This, indeed, is the eternal dream of the Jewish people, that we be fully integrated, each in our own way, into complete, whole and perfect harmony.
And perhaps this is what Zechariah (14:9) the prophet means in his eternal lesson to us, which we repeat three times daily at the end of the Alenu prayer, ביום ההוא יהיה ה” אחד ושמו אחד, “and on that day God will be One and His Name One”.