Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, April 21, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
When we study Torah how much of our time should be spent studying Torah and what should be the nature of that study?
In the Talmud Rabbi Nehorai taught do not assume Torah study will come after you, rather exile yourself to a place of Torah. Exile yourself to a place of Torah is a statement of total commitment. Think of what the imagery he is imagining means. Exile means to leave the boundaries of community, to leave comfort and ease for a life of constant pursuit and dislocation. Rabbi Nehorai responded to a verse in Proverbs: “If you seek ( wisdom) as you do silver and search for it as for treasures, Then you will understand reverence for the Lord and attain knowledge of God.”
Wisdom in the book of Proverbs is synonymous with Torah for the rabbis. Their message was that one could not be complacent when it comes to the commitment to study Torah, rather one must be active in pursuit of this enlightenment.
However should that be one’s model regarding love of Torah, to disrupt one’s life so thoroughly that must cut off the world to give it proper attention? It is ironic that exile is usually seen as a punishment. The remedy to exile is to bring people into community.
This morning’s Torah portion may have a response. The majority of our double parasha this morning concerned the disease known as Tzara’at. The rabbis understood this disease as a punishment from God for the sin of malicious speech. Modern science is unfamiliar with the symptomology of this disease as it is described in the Torah. According to the Torah there are two forms of this disease, acute and transitory. The transitory causes a discoloration of the skin and hair that disappears after 7 or 14 days. When a person has such an affliction he is kept outside the camp in a separate area for lepers. The priest goes to visit him and checks his symptoms and returns the healed leper when his illness is over.
If it is acute Tzara’at, more then 2 weeks long, the individual is banished from the community possibly forever. Nevertheless the priest continues to visit and check him. The second half of our double Parasha explains the elaborate ritual the leper undergoes when he is cured so that he may enter the community once again.
But the whole dynamic in this section is devoted to returning the victim to the community. Exile is the opposite of what is desired. According to the Kli Yakar, Rabbi Ephraim of Lunshitz, it is Torah that brings the afflicted individual back to the community. He employs a play on words to express this. After the description of the disease, the Torah defines the healing or atoning ritual – Zot tihiyeh torat hametzorah “This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed.” But Rabbi Ephraim reads it this way - It is the Torah of the metzora - his Torah study expresses his sincere commitment to repentance. In this way he is cleansed of the disease by God and the priest purifies him through this ritual.
This dichotomy between the need to exile oneself from the community in order to study Torah with no distractions and the value of Torah study in creating community or returning one to community is found throughout the history of Jewish thought.
According to Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a rabbi from 1st century, The Torah was only given for study to those who eat manna. What did he mean by this cryptic comment? Torah study is for those who sit and learn without knowing where there next meal is coming from or where there clothes will come from, that is those who exile themselves from daily concerns, who are so truly committed to Torah that they live by faith alone.
This Rabbi Shimon has an interesting history. Upon hearing someone extol the Roman government for their cultural achievements he castigated the rulers publicly. This was a dangerous thing to do in Roman occupied Israel. A death sentence was announced and he and his son hid in a cave for 13 long years. All they ate were carob and they became afflicted with skin sores all over their bodies. In their years of hiding they had become powerful through their purity and Torah study. According to legend they had super powers. And when they finally left the caves after so much suffering and perseverance and saw Jews farming the land and life going on as normal, they were furious: “We suffered for Torah yet these people give up the world to come in favor of the world of the moment!” Their eyes blazed fire and everywhere they looked they scorched the earth. A voice came out from the heavens and cried “Did you leave the cave only to destroy My world?” And God forced to return to the cave.
This midrash while honoring Rabbi Shimon for his great sacrifice of personal pleasure in order to remain steadfast in his integrity, also is a critique. For his recognition of the excess in Roman culture also led him to criticize common laborers attempting to build up the land.
The difference in outlook can also be heard in a disagreement between the great rabbis Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael. The Torah teaches “You shall observe my ordinances, statutes and laws that a person should do them and live by them”. Rabbi Akiva understood this prescription “to live by them” meant that observing the mitzvot in this world would give access to the world to come. He based this on the reality that observance of mitzvot did not always provide benefits in this world. But Rabbi Ishmael’s take was different the meaning of the verse - You shall observe my ordinances, statutes and laws that a person should do them and live by them – was live by the laws don’t die because of them. Except for a few extreme cases, mitzvot could be broken to save lives.
In another Talmudic passage, the Talmudic scholar Samuel said to Rav Judah, ‘hurry on and eat, hurry on and drink,(do not postpone any enjoyments or pleasures) since the world from which we must depart is like a wedding feast’. The world we live in Shmuel understood comes to an end for most of us too soon, therefore don’t refrain from the healthy pleasures that come before us, the pleasures that God has made possible for us in our beautiful world. Or as Rashi puts it- Im yesh lekha mammon l’hanot, (If you have the funds to enjoy) al tamtin atzmekha ad l’machar, (don’t wait until tomorrow to use them) shema tamut v’shuv ayn lekha hana’ah (lest you die and lose out on your enjoyment). It may not be the advice we want to give to our teenagers, but taken modestly all of us can benefit from that.
At times it can make sense to leave this world and exile ourselves to a place with quiet and peace and all the time in the world to study and read. But the other pull on us is to engage in the world, and not denigrate the world we live in. The goal of Torah and Torah study should be to seek to improve our world through our study of it.