Reading It Backwards

Thu, 08/18/2016 - 2:54pm -- Rabbi Noah Farkas

The Torah can certainly be a confusing text. One can even say that entire project of Judaism is staked on this claim. It is up to the king, the prophet, or rabbi in their generation to disentangle the many threads of the Torah's wisdom and make them intelligible to their community.

For the king, the process of enlightenment is found in the rule of law. One imagines the king sitting on his throne and listening to the plaints of the offended who are looking for equanimity and justice. As it says, "When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this Torah" (Deuteronomy 17:18). He must, according to the law, consult the Torah to find the answer (1 Kings 2:3). But we have no more kings.

Then there is the prophet, who makes the ancient ways known through the rule of morality. Most notably in the words of Amos and Isaiah, who excoriates the people for being particular in their ritual practice while ignoring the needs of the poor. Who can forget Isaiah's words, "Is this not the fast I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?" (Isaiah 58:6). But we have no more prophets.

Finally there are the rabbis. These we have. Rabbis, though, are no kings, nor are we prophets. We are teachers. We are an ancient and sacred order of teachers. We are not born into our position as a king, nor called prophetically. We have Master's Degrees, (the word 'rabbi' means 'master'), not crowns or mantles. Rabbis can play the role of adjudicator and prophet, but our primary purpose is to bring Jews closer to Torah and to God through teaching. As the final chapter of Pirke Avot teaches, "Torah is greater than the priesthood or sovereignty," for it is acquired through many virtues like, study, listening, verbalizing, comprehension of the heart, awe, fear, humility, joy, purity, serving the sages, companionship with one's contemporaries, debating with one's students, tranquility, study of the scriptures - just to name a few. (Avon 6:6). The way we make Torah accessible are through these great virtues. Through studying the texts, through listening to our teachers and our students. Through humility. These values have opened up new worlds of interpretation and meaning. It means that everything can be at our disposal to make the Torah closer to the heart.

One such maxim says, "There is no beginning or end in the Torah." That is, you don't need to read the Torah strictly chronologically. For one, there are few texts in the Torah that seems to be out of place. More broadly, it means that we can delve into the depths of the Torah so that it give us more meaning. Let's take this week's Torah portion, V'etchanan, arguably the most important parsha in the Book of Deuteronomy. In the this week's portion we find both the Shema and the Ten Commandments! Amazing stuff! Except to many modern readers, the theology of these two passages can seem a little heavy handed. It might be all the God-first language. To many of us, including me at times, theological notions of "one-ness" or "I am the LORD" seem distant from my personal experience of everyday life. Yet these are precisely how both of these texts begin. I know the idea that you are supposed to play your strongest card first, but in our modern times, God doesn't always appear to be the strongest card. So as a teacher, when I see this in my students I ask them about their struggle. They find it difficult because it's too jarring, too big and idea that seems plopped down on them from someplace else. In a world that prides itself on sovereign of the individual, getting a command from "The Sovereign" seems a little much. Instead, I'd argue to use the maxim, "There is no beginning or end in the Torah" as key to open the door that is keeping you outside the beautiful palace of connection. I would suggest to read both the Shema and the Ten Commandments backwards. If you do so, you can see the God-Idea emerge in each of us. Let me give you just one example of each.

In the Shema, the end of the V'ahavta paragraph focuses on Jewish behavioralism. Don't think about God. Do God. Write the words of the Shema on your doorposts. Make a Mezuzah. Put your home in the camp that says, "I'm Jewish." Only then, can you really create your Jewish identity that includes learning and teaching, sacred moments, and eventually loving with all your heart, the core of your being. Read the Shema backwards and you can find God there because God is already there. In the Ten Commandments, our central rules of morality begin at the end. The last commandment basically teaches us to stop looking over our shoulders at what other's have. Whether its a material good, or people's vacations, don't let the FOMO get you down. Concentrate on your own life. You'll find piece of mind. Then, if you do, it won't be hard to lie, cheat, steal, or kill, because you won't experience the murderous jealously that comes along with acts of violence. And once you clear that space for yourself, you can look at your familial relationships, your spiritual practices, and eventually you will come to know the ONE from whom all this flows.

For both the Shema and the Ten Commandments, if they are confusing or difficult for you, then take a page of out of the rabbinic book. Read them backwards. Then you will find the words of the Torah close to you. In your heart, in your mind, and in your soul.

Shabbat Shalom.