Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Our Journey "in the Wilderness"

It is entirely coincidental, and at the same time absolutely perfect, that this blog goes online in the week of Parsha B’midbar. Richard Elliot Friedman observes that the book of Numbers is “entirely about movement. The journey as a literary theme has been a recurring component of world literature from . . . Gilgamesh . . . and the Odyssey to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It reflects real experience, it is a ready metaphor for human lives, and it is a connector between the world of literature and the world of dreams, in which experiences of journeys are common.” And so we begin our journey. And like the children of Israel, we begin “b’midbar” – “in the wilderness.”

Ancient and contemporary traditional commentators have taught that the wilderness in which the Torah is ultimately delivered to the Jewish people is symbolic of the inner state required to receive the wisdom of Torah. Chasidic Rabbi Yossy Goldman puts it this way:

[A] student of Torah need[s] to know that he is but an "empty vessel." Humility is a vital prerequisite if we are to successfully absorb divine wisdom. As long as we are full of ourselves and our preconceived notions, we will not be able to assimilate and integrate Torah into our being. . . .

Then there is the idea that an ownerless wilderness is there for anyone to stake his claim. No person or group of people has a monopoly on Torah. It belongs to each and every single Jew, not just the rabbis or the yeshiva students, or the religiously observant.

Of course, consistent with the Orthodox position, Rabbi Goldman also admonishes that “while Torah may be ‘free for all’ as a desert wilderness, we must surrender ourselves to it, emptying ourselves of our ego and our preconceptions, rather than attempting to adjust it to our own circumstances and lifestyles.”

But the very concept of the wilderness – a natural landscape untouched by human endeavor – is inextricably linked to the contrasting world of human culture and civilization. Similarly, I believe that the wisdom of the Torah is necessarily bound up in our conceptions of self and society. Our journey not only reflects, but is indeed infused, with “real experience” and, yes, with “our own circumstances and lifestyles.”

Thus, Torah study is for me not so much a matter of surrender as one of integration and internalization. Put another way, the most remarkable aspects of the Torah are not its mystery and impenetrability, but rather its uncannily timeless practicality and common sense. Once again quoting Richard Friedman, “[B’midbar] is the story of a people coming to terms with having a constitution of laws, and coming to terms with their relationship of holiness with [God].” This does not mean that the Torah is as malleable as we want it to be; but it does mean that we are far more than empty vessels in receiving and interpreting its wisdom.

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