Torah Within Reach, Part 3: From Empty to Energized
By the Torah’s account, Ha’azinu is a song meant to testify against our wrongdoing. But the Rabbis reinterpret this song as a model for the powerful and dynamic nature of Torah as a whole, Torah that can be harsh like a storm or gentle like dew. Most importantly, we learn that there is nothing automatic about Torah’s goodness. The impact of Torah depends on the work we are willing to do as we learn it, share it, and interpret it.
As Moshe delivers his final discourse to the people, he invokes the imagery of water in the natural world:
יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי
תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass.
This imagery becomes the basis of an extensive exploration of the pursuit of Torah in an early midrash on Devarim (Sifrei, Parashah 306). While the midrash begins with the premise that Torah is synonymous with goodness,1 in the continuation it becomes clear that Torah can actually be damaging, or at least not good for everyone all the time:
ספרי דברים שג
כמטר - מה מטר חיים לעולם - אף דברי תורה חיים לעולם. אי מה מטר, מקצת עולם שמחים ומקצת עולם עצבים בו; מי שבורו וגתו מלא יין וגתו וגרנו לפניו מצירים לו, אף דברי תורה כן?
Sifrei Devarim 306
“As the rain”: Just as rain is life for the world, so, words of Torah. But then (why not say:) Just as with rain, part of the world is happy (with it) and part, sad (e.g., One whose pit and vat is full of wine, and his vat and threshing floor is exposed to the rain, is grieved by it) so, words of Torah?
At first, the midrash associates rain with the life-giving quality of Torah. But upon further reflection, we know that rain is not unilaterally good for all people. Someone’s hard-earned stored wine or grain might be ruined by rain. By implication, Torah might also actually cause harm to some people. Indeed, in our own reflection on how people experience Torah in their lives, we might fairly arrive at the conclusion that while Torah is good for some, it is actually damaging for others. The midrash, however, rejects this possibility by bringing in the second water metaphor, dew:
ת"ל תזל כטל אמרתי. מה טל, כל העולם כולו שמחים בו - אף דברי תורה, כל העולם כולו שמחים בו…
It is, therefore, written: “My word shall flow as the dew”—Just as with dew, all the world is happy with it, so, words of Torah.
Torah is not functioning as Torah, this interpretation tells us, unless every single person is touched by Torah for the better. There is no such thing as a Torah that is “good” for some but not all. Although we might see parts of Torah that people experience as painful or harmful rather than a source of joy, the midrash apparently cannot fathom this possibility. It inspires us to set our sights on a Torah that makes everyone happy.
Although it is apparently suppressed here, the idea of harmful Torah surfaces in other parts of the midrash as well. Moshe recalls the pain involved when he learned Torah, and shares with the people that they will inevitably also find their pursuit of Torah painful (though interestingly, the act of teaching Torah is not meant to instill pain).2 In its most extreme articulation, the midrash speaks of Torah that can bring life or can kill:
ד"א יערוף כמטר לקחי - היה ר' בנאה אומר: אם עשית דברי תורה לשמם - דברי תורה חיים הם לך, שנאמר (משלי ד) כי חיים הם למוצאיהם ולכל בשרו מרפא; ואם לא עשית דברי תורה לשמן - דברי תורה ממיתים אותך, שנא' יערף כמטר לקחי. ואין עריפה אלא הריגה, שנא' וערפו את העגלה בנחל, ואומר (משלי ז) כי רבים חללים הפילה ועצומים הרוגיה.
Another Explanation: “Let my taking (i.e., Torah) break (ya’arof) as the rain”: R. Bana’ah says: If you learn words of Torah for their own sake, they are “life” for you, as it is written “For they are life to him who finds them, and to all of his flesh healing” (Mishlei 4:22) and if not, they kill you, as it is written, “My taking (i.e., Torah) ya’arof as the rain,” arifah being killing, “And they shall break (ve’arfu) there the neck of the heifer in the river-bed” (Devarim 21:4). And it is written, “For she (Torah) has taken many lives; the number of its victims is legion” (Mishlei 7:26).
It is not easy to swallow the idea that a sacred text we have held dearly for hundreds of years has the capacity to cause so much harm. What makes the difference between harsh Torah that kills and Torah that can nourish us? Our own intentions and actions make the difference. If we are approaching Torah for a noble purpose it will bring life. But if we do not approach Torah for this sake, it can be very dangerous. It all depends on us.
We find a similar sentiment based on the end of Parashat Haazinu, in a passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi. After he has imparted this song, Moshe tells the people that Torah is not “empty” for them, but is their lives (כִּי לֹא־דָבָר רֵק הוּא מִכֶּם כִּי־הוּא חַיֵּיכֶם) (Devarim 32:47). And on this verse the sages teach:
תלמוד ירושלמי פאה א:א
…דמר רבי מנא כי לא דבר רק הוא מכם. ואם הוא רק מכם למה שאין אתם יגיעין בו. כי הוא חייכם. אימתי הוא חייכם בשעה שאתם יגעין בו.
Talmud Yerushalmi Pe’ah 1:1
As R. Manna said: It is not empty for you—if it is empty, that is because of you. Why? Because you are not working hard at it. For it is your lives—when is it your lives? At the time that you work hard at it.
Sometimes when we see a piece of Torah, we might find that it is empty for us. It feels meaningless, or worse. At that point, we could just walk away. Or we could take a deep dive in. R. Manna promises that if we work hard Torah will not be empty. Instead, a sense of emptiness, or even embarrassment, in Torah can be a catalyst for soul-searching and creativity.
Confronting “empty” Torah means accepting our role as workers in Torah. Encapsulating this mode, Pirkei Avot speaks of us as day laborers in Torah, פועלים.3 A day laborer doesnʼt always know what the next task is, and is sometimes not even sure that there will be work tomorrow. But the day laborer needs each dayʼs work very badly, to provide basic sustenance. So, too, we donʼt always know how or whether we will find the next part of our work in Torah. But we need each dayʼs work in Torah in order to nourish us. And Torah needs our work, to actualize its full potential as a life-giving source for all, day in day out.
Our embarrassment in an apparently “empty” Torah can induce engagement that bears precious fruit; it can fuel our work and participation in the unfolding of Torah. Harry Fox, professor of Jewish studies and my father-in-law, describes how embarrassment can be a catalyst in religious growth, calling it an “incentive” rather than a deterrent to ongoing religious engagement.4 Indeed, the great medieval scholar Maimonides, who authored foundational works in Jewish philosophy and Jewish law, seems to have been motivated not only by “perplexity”5 but also by embarrassment at a Torah that appeared empty and even misleading at face value. As an epigraph to his seminal legal work the Mishneh Torah, he brings a verse from Psalms about embarrassment:
הקדמה ליד החזקה לרמב''ם
אז לא אבוש בהביטי אל כל מצותיך (תהלים קיט:ו)
Rambam, Epigraph for Mishneh Torah
Then I will not be embarrassed when I gaze upon all of your commandments (Psalms 119:6)
Embarrassment could mean multiple things in this context.6 But perhaps Maimonides means to invoke the embarrassment he feels as a philosopher when he encounters many aspects of Torah and mitzvot that do not conform to “reason.” For Maimonides the philosopher, if the Torah is based on false pretenses, it may seem “empty,” and thus a source of embarrassment rather than pride. So he organizes all of Jewish law in a way that rests upon foundational principles that align with the philosophical approach he finds compelling. He structures this code in a style similar to collections of Islamic law in his time, which organize law based on this kind of foundational principles. Now he is able to gaze upon all of the mitzvot without any lingering embarrassment. Looked at this way, the Mishneh Torah is a product of hard work to respond to embarrassment that stems from Torah feeling “empty.”
When Torah comes down as a storm—Torah that feels deeply false, Torah that suppresses human dignity, Torah that even kills—and when we see the casualties of Torah gone wrong, we may want to disengage. But if we recognize embarrassment as a powerful religious tool, we have an opportunity to work within and through Torah itself. It can be hard work to cultivate the Torah that is rich and full, rather than dangerous or empty, but this is work that ultimately sustains us and our communities.
As we set about determining where we will dig in and get to work on Torah, we are investing in improving Torah and our lives simultaneously. Wrestling with the challenges of Torah becomes an opportunity to wrestle with the challenges of our time. We confront the storms bringing harm to people today, in Torah and in the world around us, and insist on creating dew. A passage of Torah that seems to pose a threat to human dignity invites us to linger on how our own culture fails to fully honor human dignity and beckons us to probe more deeply. Our hard work on Torah becomes intertwined with work on difficult realities. Our encounter with Torah motivates us to do better in our world, and, by integrating our experience in our world into Torah, we can leave behind a Torah that is more gentle and nourishing for the next generation.
Throughout this cycle of divrei Torah, I have tried to demonstrate that when the difficulties of Torah surface it can be a blessing—an opportunity to sink into the real work of the moment and to cultivate the Torah that will bring blessing far beyond us. May our endeavors in Torah never end until we can be confident that it is a source of joy for all.
1 יערף כמטר לקחי - אין לקחי אלא דברי תורה שנאמר (משלי ד) כי לקח טוב נתתי לכם [תורתי אל תעזבו]...
2 ד"א יערף כמטר - חכמים אומרים: אמר להם משה לישראל, שמא אתם יודעים כמה צער נצטערתי על התורה, וכמה עמל עמלתי בה, ומה יגיעה יגעתי בה, כענין שנא' (שמות לד) ויהי שם עם ה' ארבעים יום וארבעים לילה. ונכנסתי לבין המלאכים, ונכנסתי לבין החיות, ונכנסתי לבין השרפים שאחד מהם יכול לשרוף את כל העולם כולו, שנאמ' (ישעיה ו) שרפים עומדים ממעל לו! נתתי נפשי עליה, דמי נתתי עליה, כשם שלמדתי אותה בצער - כך תהיו אתם למדים אותה בצער. או כדרך שאתם למדים אותה בצער, כך תהיו מלמדים אותם בצער? ת"ל תזל כטל אמרתי…
3 As in 2:15-16.
:ַרִבּי ַטְרפוֹןאוֵֹמר, ַהיּוֹם ָקָצרְוַהְמָּלאָכה ְמֻרָבּה,ְוַהפּוֲֹעִלים ֲעֵצִלים,ְוַהָשָּׂכר ַהְרֵבּה,וַּבַעל ַהַבִּיתדּוֵֹחק
הוּא ָהָיה אוֹ ֵמר, לֹא ָעֶלי ַה ְמָּלא ָכה ִל ְג ֹמר, ְולֹא ַא ָתּה ֶבן חוִֹרין ִל ָבּ ֵטל ִמ ֶמָּנּה. ִאם ָל ַמְד ָתּ תוָֹרה ַהְר ֵבּה, נוֹ ְת ִנים ְל ָשׂ ָכר ַהְר ֵבּה.
:ְוֶנֱא ָמן הוּא ַב ַעל ְמַלא ְכ ְתּ ֶשְׁיּ ַשֵׁלּם ְל ְשׂ ַכר ְפֻּעָלּ ֶת. ְוַדע ַמ ַתּן ְשׂ ָכָרן ֶשׁל ַצִדּי ִקים ֶל ָע ִתיד ָ
4 Harry Fox, Vixens Disturbing Vineyards, 2010, pg. 10
5 As in the famous title of his philosophical work, Guide to the Perplexed.
6 Perhaps Maimonides means to invoke the embarrassment of feeling daunted by the vast array of mitzvot, not knowing how to learn or practice them. His concise summary of Jewish law is an intervention responding to an embarrassment that stems from ignorance.