D’var Torah

For the past couple of months, I have been praying with a minyan. A minyan is a quorum of at least ten Jewish men and women who get together every weekday to pray one or more of the day’s three services. Having at least ten means that certain prayers can be recited, most notably the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. In a way, we’re all doing this for the mourners, who need the minyan to fulfill the commandment; they now have help. But the minyan helps me, too. I have family and friends who are sick, and there are prayers I can recite to their benefit. I have seven on my list, from my brother, who is working hard to recover from a serious stroke, to a little, smiling, energetic girl — think Shirley Temple — who has a line sticking out of her dress that will accept 15 months of chemo.

The weekday afternoon and evening services are all business; the first one starts at 6 and ends at 6:15; the second one goes from then until 6:30. Only the basics, recited at a speed that would cause the Federal Express Guy to break a sweat. In between, someone will give a D’var Torah, a little observation on the weekly Torah portion, this one known by its first words as Ki Tetzei. I tried for the first time on Thursday night, and here is what I came up with:

Hi, Minyan!

Today I read the late Rabbi Steinsaltz’s essay on Ki Tetzei. As usual, it was far more erudite and eloquent than I could ever hope to be. But it raised an interesting point. Rabbi Steinsaltz notes Ki Tetzei consists of a bunch of mitzvot that are in no particular order, from scaring off a mother bird so you can take its chicks, to stoning your disobedient son. The first shows tenderness; the latter shows mercilessness. Rabbi Steinsaltz describes how he tried several hermeneutic strategies, all of which are found in the Talmud, to figure out the order of the mitzvot in Ki Tetzei. None of them worked, including examining the context of individual words next to other and the context of individual mitzvot alongside another. These methods ordinarily are very productive, but not here. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s conclusion is that “the Torah that can be understood is not the real Torah.”

But then the question is, “What happens if you inject this kind of doubt into the system?” How do we know what is the real Torah, what is an allegory, and what is simply incomprehensible? If we can understand it, how can it be the real Torah? “Lo tirtzach” [Thou shalt not kill], comprehensible or incomprehensible? That’s pretty heady. Let’s go back to the literal level. Ki Tetzei, to me, is as about as comprehensible as Torah can get. It is an instruction manual for a hyper-patriarchal desert society, and as all of us know, instruction manuals are not always in the best order. Moshe, in addition to being our teacher, also had to be a technical writer. He had to get information from his Subject Matter Expert, HaShem, and turn it into something that the Israelites could use. He had a serious deadline – the day of his death. And so he did the best he could, completing the chapters that he could, as clearly as he could. What Rabbi Steinsaltz sees as a serious epistemological gap might be just a production problem, and you never blame the Subject Matter Expert for a production problem.

The product shipped, and by now, there are now 100,000 minutely inscribed copies in the world, all of them containing the original version of Ki Tetzei. Hashem says in Devarim [Deuteronomy] 4:2, “You shall not add to that which I command you and you shall not subtract from it, to keep the commandments of the Lord your God…” No revision is possible, and Moshe knew it. But by the time of the Olam Ha’Ba [the post-messianic age], we will in no sense be the society Devarim assumed, and its literal instructions will be as useful to us as the manual for an Atari 2600. All its literality will pass into allegory and its allegory into anagogy. What is “Thou shalt not kill” when there is no longer the idea of killing? So, Rabbi Steinsaltz is right after all. Allegory as a starting place and anagogy as a stopping place are not today accessible to even our most profound mystics.  Yet they will be the context in which Ki Tetzei will be understood.

4 thoughts on “D’var Torah

    • Our minyan is egalitarian and nonsectarian. We have people of every sort and denomination. It’s only by all coming together that we are able to make a minyan day after day.

    • Dear Haun: What we have in the minyan is unusual. Ordinarily, religiously, it wouldn’t go this way at all. The Orthodox would ordinarily not pray with women under the auspices of a female rabbi. The Orthodox service is a little different, in that there is a section of the service that focuses on the ceremonies of the Temple. The Conservatives (such as the Rabbi and I) would insist that women be counted toward the quorum. and that we use the alternate prayers invoking Matriarchs as well as Patriarchs. The Reform people might feel intimidated by an all-Hebrew service and would insist on certain wording changes to reflect their expansive view of Judaism in the world. Whether it’s because COVID-19 makes strange bedfellows or because other organizations are not fielding online minyans, we seem to suffer from none of this. Everyone comes and gets what they can out of the services. I have never heard an unkind religious or political word in our minyan. It just works.

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