When Torah Entered the World

Image: A person performs hagbah, raising the Torah for all to see at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal (Canada). (2010 Photo by Geneviève Afriat, some rights reserved.)

When Torah entered the world, freedom entered it.
The whole Torah exists only to establish peace.

Its highest teaching is love and kindness.
What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.

That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.
Those who study Torah are the true guardians of civilization.

Honoring one another, doing acts of kindness,
and making peace: these are our highest duties.
But the study of Torah is equal to them all,
because it leads to them all.

Let us learn in order to teach.
Let us learn in order to do!

– “Reading the Torah on Shabbat” in Mishkan Tefilah, p 375

These lines were written by John Rayner z”l and Chaim Stern z”l, two leading scholars of 20th century liberal Judaism.

I love reading these words during the Torah service. Each line gives me something to ponder. Sometimes I think one could make a whole course of study out of it, taking one line at a time, considering its sources, and reflecting on its meaning.

Some lines in here are very familiar, like Hillel’s famous admonition:

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.
That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it. – Shabbat 31a

Others are not familiar, but thought-provoking:

When Torah entered the world, freedom entered it.

What does that mean? Was there a time before Torah? When did Torah enter the world? What does “freedom” mean in this context? (See what I mean? Lots to ponder here.)

There is also a line that makes me laugh, then feel very serious:

Those who study Torah are the true guardians of civilization.

I want to laugh, thinking about all the various Torah study groups I have attended: ordinary folks around a table, striving to understand Torah, sharing knowledge, trotting out their individual soapboxes sometimes. We’re the true guardians of civilization? Really? Then I think, uh-oh, if we are the true guardians of civilization, then the world is in a pot of trouble!  And I look at the world, and soberly I think, “Yeah, we are” and “Yeah, it is.”

We are not the only true guardians of civilization (thank goodness!) We guard it along with the Koran-study-ers, and the New Testament study-ers, and the many other sincere people who study to learn how to be good human beings, who recognize that goodness isn’t easy and we aren’t born knowing how to be good. And it is still a very big job.

At the end, Rabbis Rayner and Stern do not let us off the hook. Study for its own sake (Torah lishma) is very pleasurable, but it is not enough:

Let us learn in order to teach.
Let us learn in order to do!

So, let us learn, and teach, and do!

See you in the world!

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rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

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