Given the pressures of my impending move (the movers come on Monday) I thought about just once again sharing my (regularly updated and revised) musing from 5758, The Promise (which I have shared at least a half dozen times over the years.) It’s still worth a read, but this week I wanted to re-explore another of my personal favorites from 10 years ago.
Hafakh ba, v’hafakh ba, Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught. Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it, and through it you will perceive clearly, grow old and gray in it and do not depart from it, for there is no better pursuit for you than it. (Avot 5:25)
It is, indeed, a practice I engage in, encountering the text over and over, seeking each time to gain a better understanding of its meaning. However, there are different ways of going about this, and not all of them are as productive as others. Sometimes, it might even be an impediment.
In writing this musing, I had trouble just getting past the first word of our parasha, Va’etkhanan.
This open word is an odd verb form. It’s an reflexive form of the verb root khet, nun, nun-sofit,
to show favor or be gracious, in the imperfect masculine singular, with the initial vav reversing the tense. (There will be a short test on all this later.)
In any case, it’s a tricky idea to translate. “I favored myself.” “I was gracious to myself.” There are many possible ways to interpret this one word. I found myself pondering on this for hours on end. I consulted all my reference books, lexicons, grammar references, assorted commentaries, et al in an attempt to understand the concept that was trying to be conveyed with the use of the verb in this particular form. I spent so much time on it, that I didn’t get to study the parasha much beyond that first word.
While there can be great reward from the effort of focusing narrowing on a single letter, or word, or pasuk (verse,) have we any chance of perceiving the whole of Torah if we spend so much time on one small part?
Of course, maybe that’s the whole point. If we revere Torah as G”d’s teaching, then surely we must come to understand that, unlike G”d, perhaps we can never know Torah in its entirety. It may be beyond human capability.
This idea, of course, seems to conflict with what the torah itself teaches later in the book of D’varim, “lo bashamayim hi,” the Torah is not in heaven. The rabbis teach us that this means that, with the giving of the Torah to Israel, G”d is through issuing commandments. We’ll speak more about this when we reach Nitzavim again this year. (If you’ve been reading my musings for any length of time, you already know my take on the usurpation of individual interpretative authority by the rabbis, by extending the idea of the Torah not being in heaven by tacking on the idea that they, the rabbis, are now the [only] authoritative interpreters.)
Yet we are not taught that you WILL understand, we are taught that we CAN understand. The implication is that we therefore must make the effort to try and understand.
So we’re left with the struggle between methodologies. I hesitate to simplify them in terms like “quantity” versus “quality” as I’d like to think that all study of Torah is a matter of quality, and not of quantity. Yet there is a lot of Torah to learn.
While there is certainly reward in the effort I have put in to understanding this one word, I also realized that, in this particular case, maybe there was little need to re-invent the wheel. After all, the scholars who assembled the JPS and other translations basically seem to agree on a simple and plain meaning (though as we know, often the Torah hides layers and layers of meaning underneath the surface ones.) One primary reference source matter-of-factly states that some times this verb form, known as hitpael, can simply indicate “an active meaning.” (BHRG)
Nevertheless, somehow, the scholars push and tug at the form and render it, most often, as “I pleaded.” (Just to give it some content, this is Moses yet AGAIN pleading with G”d to let him enter the promised land, and G”d cutting him off with a quick “enough already.” Need I comment further? And yes, there is double-entendre here.)
So, the question I am asking myself is (and how appropriate that all this is centered around a verb in reflexive form,) should I simply say that this cigar is just a cigar, so that I might press on and glean yet even more from this parasha-which, as I have often complained, is almost too rich. I think perhaps they could have divided things up a bit differently, and not put so much “good stuff” in parashat Va’etchanan,” which includes the sh’ma, and the restatement of the Aseret HaDibrot, the ten things, words, commandments, (choose your translation.) Is it OK, even if I don’t really believe this cigar is just a cigar, to just accept that it is for the moment so that I might press on? Or has the exercise of focusing on trying to decipher meaning from this one word been worthy enough that I should stick with it, and consider in the future using the same technique, even at the risk of ignoring other worthy words of text in the same parasha?
In the past few months, something inside me has been rebelling against our constant tendency to dig deeper and deeper into the Torah and her layers. While I do not doubt that there is insight to be gained from exploring the pardes, the garden that is Torah– the p’shat, remez, drash, and sod (plain meaning, allegorical, comparative, and secret – though these are simplistic translations lacking the many nuances of interpretation) – I am truly wondering if, in our scientific age, we are rebelling a bit too much against the plain side, preferring to find our meaning in the allegories, comparative midrashim, and mystic understandings. I am beginning to think of starting a movement encouraging greater encounter with and emphasis upon the p’shat. The “Sometimes a cigar…” school of modern Torah interpretation. Wonder how many fans I could attract to the cause? I wouldn’t be advocating for abandoning the remez, drash,or sod – simply that we allow ourselves to give the p’shat its due rather than the short shrift I think that we, in rebelling against our scientific age. I’m as guilty as the next. I’m a believing, practicing, religious Jew, but I’m also a scholar and a fan of science and the scientific method. I went to the same high school as Neil Degrasse Tyson (he was a few years behind me) and share his penchant for the scientific approach, though I am not the agnostic he is. I do share his basic belief that “The issue there is not religion versus non-religion, or religion versus science,” Tyson said. “The issue is ideas that are different versus dogma.” I also agree with him that “enlightened religious people” don’t try to “use the Bible as a textbook…” So, while I’m not using the bible as a textbook in the sense about which Neil is speaking, I am expressing a preference for biblical analysis that is perhaps less exegetical (or, as is often the case, eisegetical) and more basic. It can be legitimately argued that the Torah is not meant to be explored only by its plain meaning – and I do not disagree with this – I just feel that we’ve given plain meaning short shrift of late.
Just to be sure we’ve looked at more than one side of this topic, I do want to point out that it is often in the remez or drash components of biblical interpretation that we find interpretations that allow us to reconcile the biblical text with scientific truth. Recognizing that the accounts of creation in Genesis are allegory can go a long way in helping us to see that our ancestors’ views of the universe may not have been as far off the mark as it seems. The comparative and connective aspects of exploring the drash can be equally useful to those seeking to reconcile their faith and reason-though often as not, drash introduce all sorts of further fabrications and speculations with little or no underlying basis – despite the claims of the creators of the drashot.
(The concept of the drash component tends to be popularized simply as “stories to fill in the holes and missing information in the text” but this is a very incomplete understanding, lacking a lot of the nuance. Not surprisingly, there is debate in even the frumest of communities these days as to the validity of literalist interpretations of the aggada. Remember, too, that midrash is both concerned with halakha and aggada)
As to the sod, I’ll also be honest enough to admit that, for me, the sod, the mystic, is often a stumbling block. I can believe that human creators and redactors of the text did attempt to work in some word play, mathematical play, even deliberate gematria encoding in the text, but I struggle to go further and deeper and believe that the existence of these “codes” are evidence of hidden Divine meanings. On the other hand, I am a person who is, at times, willing to suspend disbelief – as are we all, though most often when it comes to forms of entertainment (and, lately, what pretends to be news and journalism. Too many of us are willing to take at face value supposed statements of facts that are nothing of the kind, and we often fail to do the due diligence of researching the facts. How many of us have unwittingly passed along a hoax?) At the same time, however, while I believe there may be things as yet beyond our understanding (and there may always be things beyond our understanding, despite what some advocates of the scientific method claim) I will still generally err on the side of rejecting that for which the scientific method provides no evidence. However (and you knew that was coming) in general, science and religion can co-exist, so long as neither is used outside of its own realm. The mystic can, to me, sometimes be an attempt to force science and religion together, and thus I worry about it and perhaps even fear it a bit.
In these very musings, I have speculated that science and religion may all eventually connect – that perhaps G”d and Universal Field Theorem are One and the same thing. So I am not without my mystic leanings. I admit that I sometimes wear my faith and science hats concurrently. Sigh. I need to just revel in my inconsistency.
So, do I continue to spend more time on just this one opening word of the parasha? The point may not be worth further discussion, since I’ve already written this musing. But Shabbat awaits, and more Torah study will happen. I’m not a gambling man, but, if I were, I’m not sure what odds I might give on whether I’ll read on or stay stuck on this first word. If you’re interested in the outcome, just ask me after Shabbat, and I’ll let you know.
So how do we know when a cigar is just a cigar, and when it is something else? Freud never figured it out. (Then again, we’re speaking of someone who has a real odd theory about who Moses really was.)
So, is this musing a cigar, or isn’t it?
©2014 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Va’etkhanan 5773-The Promise (Redux & Revised 5759ff)
Va’etkhanan 5772 – Redux & Revised 5758 – The Promise
Va’etkhanan/Shabbat Nakhamu 5771 – Comfort
Va’etkhanan 5769-This Man’s Art, That Man’s Scope
Va’etchanan 5764–Sometimes A Cigar…
Va’etchanan 5758-63-66-67-The promise