With less than two weeks until Shavuot, when we celebrate and re-experience receiving the Torah, the question becomes how do we approach Torah. Rather than merely commemorating an ancient event, revering an ancient curiosity that seems so out of date, can we turn this into a worthwhile exercise, a moving and significant experience?
First we need to attempt to grasp just what Torah is and what it isn’t. It’s not an antiquated family chronicle, a compendium of curious and exotic religious mandates, a history book nor a science text. Rather, it is the entry of The Infinite into our finite world. Presented in dual form, a definite written text along with an open, gradually revealed and self-updating, ever-growing explanation, it defies comparison with any other text, not to mention any other physical object in our world. It’s a waste of time to treat it “just like any text”, not to mention a wasted unique opportunity for each of us to refine and perfect both ourselves and our world.
רמח”ל, the Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, the brilliant eighteenth century Kabbalist who provides the bridge from the earlier presentations of these insights to our post-enlightenment minds, begins his best-known book, ‘דרך ה, Derech HaShem, The Way of God, “…כל איש מישראל צריך שיאמין וידע”, Kol Ish M’Yisrael Tzarich Sh’Ya’amin V’Yedah…, Every Jew must “believe” and “know”…. I’ve written extensively about the words אמן, Amen, אמונה, Emunah, belief and אמנות, Amanut, craft, all related by sharing the three-letter שרש, shoresh, root, א-מ-נ. The main insight here is that Judaism never mandates blind faith or empty, rote belief, but rather a crafted faith, a work in progress, constantly shaped and refined. דעת, Da’at, knowledge, as mandated, contains the concept of “biblical knowing”, absolute intimate knowledge.
The secret that the Ramchal is sharing with us is that our relationship with God (and we, finite and physical beings that we are, can only interact with the Infinite God, by interacting with His Torah, the “finite” form of the Infinite) must be honest, intimate and with no barriers between us. Obviously not physically, but in terms of obstacles, pretense and artifice, we must come to Torah completely naked. We must confront ourselves in complete honesty, to bring our actual selves, stripped of self-fantasies, denials, arrogance and fear to our engagement with Torah. As we believe that the Torah (by this I mean the revelation of תנ”ך, Tanach (Torah, Ne’vi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Later Writings)) along with the Oral Torah (משנה, Mishna, גמרא, Gemara, זוהר, Zohar and their many related commentaries)) is the only “object” in our physical world which contains the property of inherent perfection, we need to make ourselves as close to “perfect” as we can in order to engage The Creator through His Torah in any depth and profundity at all. Just as the Torah describes the imperfections of all of our historical heros, from Avraham to Ya’akov to Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) to King David, we need to understand and accept (not that we complacently “recognize” as permanent, but at each point in our life we need to continuously refine ourselves) our own faults approach ourselves and the Torah, in complete honesty. Otherwise, we’ll merely misuse the Torah to validate our mistakes, prejudices and falsehoods.
We have a special opportunity facing us and it would be a terrible shame to waste it with pieties, trivialities and distractions. A truly profound experience awaits us if we have the courage to let go of our pretence and disguises and, rather, to face God just as we are.