How is Torah like Fire?

Image: A bonfire at night. (pixabay)

A teaching metaphor from the Talmud:

Rabba bar bar Ḥana said: Why are matters of Torah compared to fire, as it is stated: “Is not My word like fire, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29)? To tell you: Just as fire does not ignite in a lone stick of wood but in a pile of kindling, so too, matters of Torah are not retained and understood properly by a lone scholar who studies by himself, but by a group of Sages. — Ta’anit 7a

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Depression and Jewish Tradition

Image: A somber landscape with rocks, trees, and ponds. (FrankWinkler/Pixabay)

Although there is a beneficial aspect to sadness it prevents people from becoming overly joyous over the pleasures of this world. Nevertheless one should not pursue the state of sadness, since it is a physical disease. When a person is despondent, he is not able to serve his Creator properly. – Yonah ben Avraham Girondi (1200-1263)

Jews have known for centuries that depression is an illness, not a moral flaw. In the 13th century, this great Jewish ethical teacher was unequivocal: “it is a physical disease.” He understood that it interferes with one’s most basic functioning. (I am talking about clinical depression, as I suspect the rabbi was, more than a mere “bad day.”)

One of the things that often happens when a person is depressed is that they fall behind on tasks. It is difficult to focus, and they miss deadlines. Then, having fallen behind, shame enters the picture: “Not only am I depressed, I am a rotten person.” Thus the pain of depression snowballs into an avalanche of the spirit.

It is miserable to grow depressed over one’s depression.

The first thing to know is that science has proven Rabbi Yonah right: Depression is a physical disease. When we are depressed, connections are not being made properly in our nervous system. This is no more a moral failure than any other illness.

When I have struggled with depression, I have not been able to “snap out of it” or pray my way out of it. What does help is understanding that my brain does this sometimes, and it is not the end of the world. What helps is taking my meds, talking to a therapist, and knowing that this, too, will pass.

If you are reading this because you are currently suffering, or because someone you love is currently suffering from depression, know that the situation is not hopeless. Know, too, that you are not alone. This is an illness that has plagued humanity since ancient times. Fortunately help is available! Reach out, or ask someone to reach out on your behalf. You are not bad, you are suffering, and you deserve care.

What is a Prophet?

Image: A portion of the Great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls (via Wikimedia)

Jews and Christians understand the word “prophet” differently.

This can cause misunderstanding. We’ll be going along talking and thinking we’re communicating, and then it will turn out that we use the same English word for two completely different meanings. It’s as if I were walking along talking to a UK citizen about something “in my boot.” I am referring to something in my shoe. The British listener believes I’m referring to the cabinet at the back of my car! We are both right, but we aren’t communicating.

Jews understand prophets to be spokespersons for God. (Yes, there were women prophets.) Sometimes they heard God’s voice giving them personal instruction (Genesis 12:1), and sometimes they were messengers to a specific person (2 Samuel 12: 1-25).  The prophets spoke to our entire nation about matters of national concern, including idolatry, foreign entanglements, and the need to keep the spirit as well as the law of the Torah (e.g. Isaiah 1). When they talked about the future, they were talking about the immediate future, or speaking in general terms. They were not looking centuries ahead, they were talking about the specific geopolitical and theological realities of the time. To get a really good understanding of the Jewish prophets, there’s no better book that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets.

The prophets were limited to a particular time in our history. Jewish prophets occupied an historical period from the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) to the time of the restoration of the Second Temple in 516 BCE.   Prophets guided the People of Israel and our leaders. Not long after we returned to the Land of Israel from Babylon, though, the time of the Prophets was over. Our last prophet was Malachi, who is believed to have lived during the time of Ezra.

Today Jews revere the words of the prophets and read them every Shabbat because their comments and rebukes are timeless. They call us to observe the spirit of the Torah, and to remember that ritual observance alone is not enough to fulfill the commandments.

For Christians, the same figures have a different role. While many Christians read the Jewish prophets for their ethical commentary, they also read them as fortellers of the arrival of Jesus as messiah. Christians speak of events in the New Testament “fulfilling the words of the prophets.”

In the 19th and 20th centuries in some Protestant circles, there’s been an upsurge of interest in using Jewish prophetic and eschatological writings to “foretell” political events in the future, something called Dispensationalism. Not all Christians are Dispensationalists. The Dispensationalists have gotten a lot of press in recent years because (1) they have sought to publicize their messages and (2) it makes great copy for people who want to sell “clicks” in the media.

The two different ways of understanding prophecy are mostly incompatible. While Jews and Christians can agree on the ethical teachings of the prophets (don’t abuse the poor, etc.), we disagree fundamentally about the role of the prophet, both religiously and historically. Christian attempts to use the writings of 7th century BCE prophets plus astronomical events to “foretell the future” seem pointless and disrespectful from a Jewish point of view. The Jewish insistence that nothing in Isaiah has anything to do with the 1st century carpenter from Nazareth seems stubborn and blind to Christians.

The truth is, we share some books of scripture, but we read them and use them quite differently.  Knowing about those differences can improve our communication and foster mutual respect – and that is a worthwhile goal.

Resources for Torah Study

Image: A study with books and computer. (Pexels/Pixabay)

I strongly recommend to my students that they find a Torah Study group and attend, at least for a while. It’s a great way to get to know a synagogue or other Jewish institution. It’s also one of the quintessential Jewish activities: there is no better way to learn how to think as Jews think. Torah is not just about the Bible; Torah is a worldview.

Here are some resources I highly recommend for beginners:

Sefaria.org – This online library of Jewish texts is a miracle of technology. “Sefaria” is a play on sefer, Hebrew for “book.” Seforim (suh-FOR-eem) are Jewish holy books. Sefaria.org offers a growing selection of Jewish holy texts for study along with other resources. It has a full Tanakh, with English translation, as well as all the major works of rabbinic literature and more. Some books are only partly translated, but don’t despair – scholars are working on them all the time! Click on the horizontal lines in the upper left hand corner of the screen to reach the Table of Contents. Give yourself time to click and explore. If you prefer to learn in more directed ways, scroll to the bottom of the screen and under “About,” click “Help,” which will take you to a series of videos illustrating ways to use the site.

Mechon-Mamre.org is an older, less complicated website offering resources for Torah study and other Jewish texts. I particularly like the Hebrew font they use; it’s very simple and clear.

Maps of Biblical Israel – One unique thing about Torah study is that our sacred text is rooted in the geography of Israel. This website was assembled by Christians (as you can see from all the mentions of “Old Testament” but the maps are very handy.

hebcal.com – For “Parashat haShavua” (weekly Torah readings) this website is a wonderful tool. This is the Swiss Army knife of Jewish calendars: you can click on the weekly portion and get the readings, with links to commentary and sermons online. It will also do date conversion (want to know what day in the Jewish calendar was your birthday?) It’s wonderful.

And finally, a wonderful book:

What’s In It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives by Stephen Lewis Fuchs – This little book (less than 100 pages) is a series of short essays in which Rabbi Fuchs offers insights for modern readers on the ancient stories in Torah. While they are written primarily for beginners, they bring depth as well as simplicity to the project of learning Torah as an adult.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and look forward to requiring it for my Intro students during the Winter “Israel & Texts” sessions of the course. Rabbi Fuchs makes a case for a living, vibrant Torah that helps us to understand our lives today.

 

“And Yitro heard” – Midrash

Image: Postage Stamp, Israel, 1060: The Tomb of Yitro, WikimediaIsraeli postage stamp catalog, Catalog Number: 219

Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt. – Exodus 18:1

This is one of my favorite Torah portions, because there is midrash on it that I love.  One set of midrash begins with two little words (in Hebrew):

וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ

And Yitro heard

The rabbis explode into speculation: What did Yitro hear? How did he hear it?  The verse appears to tell us, but on inspection it is impossibly vague. We want details!

The Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, a collection of midrash, offers us some of the rabbis’ thoughts about this in what I can only describe as a rather excited-sounding jumble:

Rabbi Yehoshua thought he heard about how Israel won the battle with Amalek!

Maybe he heard the thunder at the giving of the Torah!

Maybe he heard about it, because the kings of the world went to Bilaam and said, Is this like the Flood? Is the God of Israel going to kill us all?

Rabbi Eliezer said Yitro heard the splitting of the [Red] Sea, which was heard from one end of the world to the other (!)  – Even a harlot in Jericho heard it!

The above is my paraphrase of the passage from the Mekhilta, 18:1:1. I love the interplay of rabbinic voices, the speculation on the possibilities, scouring out the possibilities from the the Torah, the book of Joshua, and even the Psalms.

The point is, Yitro was described in chapter 2 of Exodus as a “priest of Midian.” (Exodus 2:16) He was a desert chieftain. While we moderns may think of him as a minor player in the story of Exodus, the rabbis saw him differently. To the rabbis, this verse in Exodus is the moment when the rest of the world comes to admire Israel. This verse in Exodus is recognition.

Keep in mind that the rabbis of 3rd century Roman Palestine, from which this collection dates, were living in a time and place in which Jews were despised. The Temple was gone, and they were beginning to realize that it would be a long time before it would be rebuilt. Jerusalem was gone, replaced by a Roman city dedicated to Zeus. Many of their compatriots were gone, either slain in the revolts or hauled away as slaves.

For them, Yitro, the “Priest of Midian,” is a grand figure, a representative of the outside world. Yitro has heard of the exploits of Israel, of her battles, of her miracles, and he has come to see for himself! The rabbis of the 3rd century CE reassure themselves that Israel has been the wonder of the world, and it will be the wonder of the world again someday.

It is human to fear that lost glories are lost forever, or to fear that we only imagined the good things in the past. What I love about the rabbis in this situation is that they take three little words – And Yitro heard! – and from them they spin a net of reassurance for themselves: Israel is beloved of God. Israel was, and is, and will be great.

I am grateful to Rabbi Lewis M. Barth for introducing me to the Mekhilta and its joys. Any mistakes here are mine and mine alone.

Scholars Engage with “Torah of Truth”

Image: Study partners examine a Torah together. Photo by Linda Burnett.

I learned tonight about a marvelous study resource online that I’d like to share with you. Torah.com has organized a symposium of 25 major Torah scholars to write meditations on “Torat Emet” [Torah of Truth].  Their articles on the subject are available online for all of us to read.

I have only begun to delve into the articles myself, but the introduction is well worth your time. I decided to rush ahead and share it because this is a time of year when many Jews are looking for serious reading as we prepare for the High Holy Days.

The scholars grapple with the notion of truth, of being a “Torah true Jew,” and of the problems an ancient text can present to a modern reader. There are many ways to read Torah, and it is difficult for all of us. Still, the rewards are mighty.

Enjoy.