The Beginning and End of Torah
Parashat VeZot HaBerakhah
In just a few days, on Simhat Torah, we will conclude our annual reading of the Torah, and, like young lovers who have just received a letter from our beloved, we will turn hurriedly back to the beginning and start reading again. Strikingly, say the Talmudic Sages, the Torah begins and ends in precisely the same way; this crucial fact, I would suggest, teaches us what Torah is really about and what it is ultimately for.
As the Torah comes to an end, Israel’s great leader dies; we learn that “God buried [Moses] in the valley” in a burial place fated to remain forever unknown (Deuteronomy 34:6). As the Torah begins, Adam and Eve eat from the tree and become aware of their nakedness; we are told that “the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). The Sage R. Simlai notes: “The Torah begins with an act of lovingkindness1 (gemilut hasadim) and ends with an act of lovingkindness.” As support he brings these two divine actions—burying Moses and clothing Adam and Eve (BT, Sotah 14a).
R. Simlai offers an interpretive lens, a way of understanding what lies at the heart of Torah—a God who cares deeply about human beings and acts with love and kindness towards them. But the Sages are not content to describe God as compassionate and generous; they characterize God in this way not only so that God may be worshiped but also, critically, so that God may be emulated. As a midrash puts it, “When Moses instructed Israel, ‘Walk after the Lord your God,’ and then reiterated, ‘to walk in God’s ways,’ they said to him, ‘Who could walk in God’s ways? Does it not say, God travels in whirlwind and storm, and clouds are the dust on God’s feet (Nahum 1:3)?!’... Moses said to Israel, ‘God’s ways are graciousness and truth and acts of lovingkindness’” (Tanhuma, YaYishlah 10).
Just how fundamental are acts of hesed (lovingkindness) to what characterizes God and Torah? The midrash continues, “The beginning of the Torah is lovingkindness, the middle of the Torah is lovingkindness, and the end of the Torah is lovingkindness.” At the beginning, as we have seen, God clothes Adam and Eve; at the end God buries Moses. In the “middle” God visits Abraham while he is in need of healing (Genesis 18:1) (Tanhuma, Vayishlah 10). When we say that the beginning, middle, and end of x is y, we are really saying that y is the very core of what x is. The very essence of Torah, the Sages thus insist, is a God of love and kindness who calls Israel to love and kindness.
At some deep level, then, what Torah is about is “walking in God’s ways,” which the Sages understand to mean living a life of lovingkindness.2 “Walking in God’s ways” is a two-pronged obligation: We are obligated to cultivate certain character traits, like compassion and mercy (Midrash Sifrei, Eikev 49) and to engage in concrete acts of kindness, like clothing the naked, visiting the sick, comforting the mourners, and burying the dead (BT, Sotah 14a).3
Just how central is hesed to a life genuinely committed to Torah? “Expounders of narrative say: ‘Is it your desire to know the One who spoke and the world came into being? Study narrative (Aggadah, that is, narrative or non-legal dimensions of Torah), for, through doing so, you will come to know the One who spoke and the world came into being, and will cleave to God’s ways’” (Midrash Sifrei, Eikev 49). Note what has happened here: The text asks whether one wants to know God and suggests that if so, one should study a curriculum broader than law (halakha) alone. The midrash could have simply stopped there, but instead it adds what it hopes will happen ineluctably to one who studies Torah in the hopes of knowing God (the purpose of learning Torah is not to know about God; it is to know God): such a person will “cleave to God’s ways,” that is, she will live a life of lovingkindness, of presence with people enduring moments of deep suffering and vulnerability. Implicit in this remarkable statement is a spiritual litmus test: If we study Torah and it does not make us kinder and more able to be present in the face of sorrow and loss, then it is not Torah that we have learned. Perhaps it is Jewish culture, or academic Jewish studies; but it is not Torah. Torah leads to love, the midrash implies, or it is not Torah at all.4
In a similar vein, a midrash explains the relationship between two consecutive verses in Deuteronomy (familiar to many as part of the first paragraph of the recitation of the Shema). The Torah commands: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might,” and then adds: “These words, which I command you today, are to be upon your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5-6). If I have already been charged to love God, asks R. Judah the Patriarch, why do I then need to be instructed to take the Torah’s words to heart? He explains that although in the first verse I have already been commanded to love, I have not yet been told how to do so. So the Torah tells me: Take these words to heart, “for through this you will come to know the One who spoke and the world came into being, and will cleave to God’s ways” (Midrash Sifrei, Va-Ethanan 33). If we want to love God, we should study Torah. But the study of Torah does not merely lead to cognitive knowledge, or to bare emotional experience. Real, deep study of Torah brings us to knowledge of God and—again, the crucial phrase—to cleaving to God’s ways. What the previous midrash claims for aggadah this one claims for Torah as a whole—to study Torah is to come to know God and to be transformed in the process: A student of Torah comes to participate in God’s own love and kindness. Love and knowledge of God are manifested in acts of love and kindness for people in vulnerable situations. We cannot know God without becoming kinder in the process.
R. Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) argues that to be created in the image of God is to have the capacity, like God, to be compassionate and to give generously. We are constantly pulled, he writes, between the impulse to give and the urge to take, between stubborn selfishness and deep kindness. Being created in God’s image implies that we truly can become givers-- more, that we are intended from creation to be givers.5 What the midrashim we have seen implicitly suggest is that a life of Torah is intended to help us become more fully what we are intended to be: Creatures who manifest love and kindness and generosity to others.
The book of Proverbs portrays a woman of valor as having “a Torah of lovingkindness upon her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26). The Talmudic Sage R. Elazar is disturbed by the implication: “Is there then a Torah of lovingkindness and a Torah which is not of lovingkindness?” (BT, Sukkah 49b). Painful as it is to say, we know all too well that there is a Torah which is not of lovingkindness. Torah can elicit staggering degrees of goodness and generosity of spirit; it can motivate us to love when hate seems much easier, to care for the pain of others when indifference seems the surer path. But Torah can also be made to serve the opposite ends: It can serve to deepen selfishness and self-involvement; it can be cited to bolster chauvinism and cultivate hate. In inheriting Torah, in studying and teaching it, we could do no better than to keep the simple challenge posed by these midrashim firmly in mind and at heart: The Torah we learn and teach should help us become kinder, more generous, more empathic and willing to give; if it merely buttresses our biases and hardens our hearts, then it is simply not Torah.
As we end one cycle of Torah reading and commence another, let us recall: Torah is about a God of love who calls us to a life of love. May we merit that a Torah of lovingkindness always be upon our lips.
1 The word “lovingkindness” strikes many modern readers as archaic. Some may find it helpful to think of hesed as “love manifested as kindness”—that is, as an integration of caring concern and concrete deed. Along these lines, some may also find it visually helpful to insert a space between the two components: loving kindness.
2 As it appears in the Torah, the phrase “walking in God’s ways” is ambiguous. Does it refer to walking in the ways God has laid out for us—that is, observing the commandments—or does it refer instead to walking in the ways that God walks? Most (but not all) academic Bible scholars argue that the Torah means the former; Rabbinic tradition, in contrast assumes the latter.
3 Cf. what I have written about these two Rabbinic sources, and about the importance of both actions and character traits in Jewish ethics and spirituality, in “The Importance of Character, Or: Why Stubbornness is Worse than Idolatry,” Parashat Ki Tissa 5774, available here.
4 This is a theological claim, not a social-scientific one. I do not mean to open the door to evasions of responsibility, as when people say that those who act violently or cruelly in the name of a religious tradition are not really practitioners of that tradition, I am putting forward a normative challenge, not an absolute principle. My goal in articulating this principle, which I believe is implicit in the midrash, is to make life harder for believers, not easier.
5 R. Eliyahu Dessler, Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. 1, pp. 32-51, esp. p. 32.