Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Numbers 19:1 - 22:1
June 30, 2001 9 Tammuz 5761
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
For the Rabbis, the words of Torah are infinitely plastic because they are infinitely meaningful. If God be infinite, so is God's language. Via creative interpretation, midrash, the Rabbis dismantle and reassemble individual words, phrases and verses to pour new meanings into old vessels, turning a static text into one that is ever in formation.
This week's parasha gives us a luminous example. A radical reading lifts a short verse out of its dense and dated ritual context to imbue it with lasting religious significance. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the regulations protecting its purity became academic. The ashes of a red heifer, without blemish and never yoked, were no longer needed to cleanse a member of the community who had been rendered impure by contact with a corpse but wished to bring a sacrifice. Within a closed space, proximity to the corpse alone was enough to contaminate one. Impurity was contagious when confined. Our parasha states: "This is the ritual (zot ha–torah): When a person dies in a tent, whoever enters the tent and whoever is in the tent shall be unclean seven days (19:14)."
By the third century, rabbinic exegesis began to erode the specificity of that verse. In an inspired move, the Palestinian Amora, Resh Laqish, seizes the introductory phrase, "zot ha–torah," and takes the verse in a totally different direction: "How do we know that the words of Torah endure only with someone who kills himself studying them? Because it is written: 'This is the Torah: when a person is (willing) to die in the tent (of Torah)'" By ripping the verse out of its setting, Resh Laqish can transform its meaning without changing a word. Ingenuity capitalizes on the plasticity of language. The word "Torah" is generalized and "tent" becomes the Rabbinic metaphor for its study.
In the process, the root value of rabbinic Judaism receives a memorable formulation. Deprived of political sovereignty and a cultic center, the Rabbis took refuge in a culture of books. What matters can be carried in one's head. The Torah as a portable homeland fills the void. But it requires daily and lifelong attention to remain effective. Hence, the supreme importance of study, individually and communally. To weary ourselves in plumbing its depths and expanding its meaning is the only way to keep the Torah invigorating.
Rabbi Yonatan, a generation earlier, had used the same prosaic verse to stress the ideal of uninterrupted study till the very end of life. "One should never desist from the study of Torah, even at the moment of death, because it is written: 'This is the Torah: when a person is [about to] die in a tent." That is, even on the day of death one should be occupied with the Torah (B.T. Shabbat 83b for both midrashim)." Again, a deconstructed reading turns an inconspicuous verse into an emblem of rabbinic Judaism. Old age does not relieve us of the obligation to study Torah. Even on our deathbed, Torah, a touch of eternity in the midst of a passing and imperfect world, serves as a bridge to the world beyond. To study at death is to affirm the reality of life eternal.
In other words, we die as we lived, with words of Torah on our lips. In old age, we continue to seek wisdom and comfort in study. I fondly remember visiting Dr. Louis Finkelstein, the Seminary's fourth chancellor, in his final years. By then he was long confined to his apartment by Parkinson's. Each time, I found him sitting at his dining room table with a folio volume of Talmud open before him. He often quipped that he was grateful to God for letting him go from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. And when he died in his nineties, it was mainly because his infirmities had finally severed him from the elixir of his life. I loved his ever–radiant eyes. He personified for me the conviction of the Mishnah that as students of Torah age, their minds do not unravel (Kinnim 3:6). A life of the mind sustains our engagement and growth.
But the ultimate expression of the centrality of Torah study in Judaism is to be found in reference to the young rather than the old. Again it is a third–century Palestinian Amora, the grandson of the editor of the Mishnah, who, in that century of instability, gives voice to a touching sentiment of universal significance: "The world endures solely by virtue of the breath of children in school (B.T. Shabbat 119b)." What a contrast to the Greek image of Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders! Not brute strength but education of the young will determine the fate of a civilization. The weight of the world rests on nothing more substantial than the recitation by children of their lessons.
At the same time in Babylonia, Rav Hamnuna held the view that Jerusalem had fallen to the Romans not because of superior arms but because Jewish leadership saw fit to shut down the schools. The import of his observation is that our ancestors defeated themselves. Teachers are the true guardians of the city.
Finally, in this talmudic debate on communal priorities, Resh Laqish declares that he knows of an old policy that any city which fails to create a school system deserves to be destroyed (Ibid.). Divested of its harshness, the comment seems to mean that such a city would inevitably self–destruct. Without a vehicle for the transmission of Torah, a city would fall prey to the law of the jungle.
In sum, the study of Torah is the bedrock of Judaism and the ballast of a Jewish life. It should start early, be serious and never lapse. It is this value which made Jews the people of the book and enabled them to overcome the powerlessness that comes with exile. Living largely in their heads, homes and synagogues, they proved time and again that the pen is mightier than the sword.