The Art of Understanding Torah

If you begin, as I do, with the assumption that the Torah is, indeed, divine, that it is a manifestation of the Infinite into our finite world, the questions are no longer “are these words true?” nor “what did they mean in their past, contemporary context?” nor “doesn’t this prove that our ancestors were ignorant savages?”.  In fact, the only question is “What is the Torah telling me, as a unique Jew, at this specific moment of my life?”

This isn’t such an easy question to answer.  For one thing, it takes many years of training to even begin to decode the meaning in words that have been repeated so many times by so many people in so many situations. Much of that training comes from Talmud study, not because of facts or even background the Talmud provides, but because of the years of practice and skill developing to think as fully as we can, transcending the merely empirical without, at the same time, getting lost in the purely speculative.  We also develop these skills by “building our other Jewish muscles” through the often hard-to-rationalize/understand Mitzvot (commandments).

One of the hardest to understand passages of the entire Torah is presented in this week’s parsha, Ki Tetze.  It’s call בן סורר ומורה, Ben Sorer u’Moreh, An Unmanageable Son.  In short, this passage commands parents, when a son is literally impossible to civilize, to bring that son in front of the judges to be condemned to death!  This is just the sort of passage that embarrasses many “modern” liberal Jews who see this, at best, as a remnant of an earlier, uncivilized period in our history.  But, assuming again that the Torah is eternal and has a vital message for every time and place, at best, again, that approach only generates the trivial and superflous lesson, “Aren’t you glad that we’ve evolved and become more civilized than our shameful ancestors?”  We need to look deeper.

Our classical commentators looked in a much different direction and derived a very different lesson.  They talked about this mitzva, if taken and practiced literally, is actually a radical example of חסד, Chesed, loving-kindness.  At first thought, that’s going to be a pretty hard stretch to explain, but the idea is that in some, absolutely extreme situations, it’s better to intervene early in order to prevent a person from creating even more evil and destruction as they become more capable.  Although such finality would only take place in a situation so rare that the Talmud assures us that it never has AND never will occur, the principle of pro-active intervention (while certainly not to this extreme), is one of the most difficult challenges of parenthood and is, really, based on a deeper love.

However, that lesson has already been taught.  While it remains valid and important to this day, if the Torah is, indeed, infinite, there are more lessons to derive here.

In the midst of the most negative and hate-filled national political campaign I’ve witnessed in America, I see partisans of the different candidates and their different views for America’s future not merely disagreeing with each other, but viciously belittling, dehumanizing and invalidating each other.  I never seen as polarized a situation here of people so smug in their own opinions that they feel license to absolutely hate their rivals.  I worry just how far some people might become willing to go to demonstrate their arrogant certainty.

My early mentor, family friend, teacher and rabbinic inspiration, Rabbi Daniel Goldberger zt”l, has a yahrzeit this Shabbat, the 13th of Elul.  On my first go-around to attempt earning smicha, many years ago, he cautioned me that while, like all men, he wasn’t immune to luxury, the one luxury he never afforded himself was 100% certainty.  While confidence is absolutely required, arrogance is absolutely to be shunned.

Our parsha, rather than instructing us to actually kill our own offspring, chas v’Shalom, if they stray too far from our foundation, forces us to confront ourselves and ask if disagreement, even total disagreement, is so unbearable to us that we would actually kill to defend our ideas.  Or, in a more home-based setting, can a child or a sibling or a spouse or a parent ever become so despised that we really think the world would be better without them?

These days, after reliving the national destruction and exile of Tisha B’Av, leading up through tshuvah, resetting our aims and values, to the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe, are days in which we, always working from the inner core outward, need to dissolve our anger and animosity first to those closest to us, then, spreading outward, first to our Jewish people, and then to our greater communities and nations.  If there is no other resort, yes we must decisively confront evil.  But when it’s merely a matter of disagreement, even profound disagreement, we need to remind ourselves with the Torah’s lesson, that our need for each other far exceeds our differences.

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