September/October 2018 – Elul/Tishrei/Cheshvan
Rabbi Harold Schulweis, may his memory be a blessing, tells a beautiful story of a 19th century Chassidic rabbi by the name of Rabbi Mordecai.
Rabbi Mordechai was the poor rabbi of a very poor village. Before Sukkot, the Holiday of the Booths, the villagers gathered together some money for their rabbi to purchase an etrog, a ritual lemon used on Sukkot. Rabbi Mordecai set out of the village to purchase an etrog at the market in the adjacent main town.
Along the way, he came across a wagoner, who was on his knees, sobbing. “My horse is dead!” cried out the wagoner,“ I have nothing. Who will pull my wagon?” Rabbi Mordecai, without hesitation, gave the man the money his villagers had given him to purchase the etrog, turned around, and returned to his village empty-handed.
The townspeople were aghast. What shall we do? How will we fulfill the commandment of lulav (the frond of a date palm tree also used on Sukkot) and etrog on Sukkot? We have no more money to purchase one.
Rabbi Mordecai paskened a din, made a rabbinic legal decision, that the villagers would instead bench etrog (say the blessing over the etrog) over a dead horse. The etrog is a symbol for our hearts, or symbol for our compassion. Rabbi Mordecai substituted the purpose of the symbol for the symbol itself. “To do otherwise,” Rabbi Schulweis teaches, “to make the symbol an end unto itself, to replace compassion and loving kindness for an etrog, to ascribe inherent holiness to this object, would be making a ritual into a kind of idolatry. This is not the Jewish way.”
This is not the Jewish understanding of what is holy, kadosh. Our Torah teaches that holiness is available to us in every moment, in every place. It is the continuous, ongoing acts of mindfulness, consciousness, and creativity which originates in all of Creation. The opposite of holy in Hebrew is chol, which does not translate into “profane,” but rather as “empty” or better yet, “not yet filled.”
In the Talmud (Gittin 45b) we learn that a Torah scroll written by a heretic is to be burned. Imagine that. Place two identical Torah scrolls in front of yourself. One is written by a pious scribe, a sofer in Hebrew, the other by an atheist. One is to be sanctified, the other to be burned. In other words, “holiness is not a property of objects. It is a property of human acts and intentions,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “There is no such thing,” he continues, “as ontological holiness or intrinsic sanctity.”
The great 20th century Torah commentary, the Meshech Chochmah, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, Latvia, was famous for throwing a wrench into assumed understandings of even the most basic Torah text. He re-imagines the story of Moses breaking the first set of tablets, the ones written by the Hand of God, when he returns with them from the mountain and witnesses the Episode of the Golden Calf. We assume that Moses sinned, and that he lost his temper and broke the tablets.
The Meshech Chochmah flips the narrative on its back and teaches that Moses did not in fact lose his temper. He did not sin. Rather, upon seeing the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses realized that the Israelites built the Golden Calf, not as a thing to be worshipped in itself but as an object of holiness that might summon the Divine down upon it. Moses fears that they could just as easily worship the tablets, even Moses himself. The Meshech Chomah imagines Moses scolding the Israelites: “Did you think that I (Moses) had any holiness without God’s command, so that when my presence was gone, you made this calf? I am just a man like you! Do not think that the Sanctuary or the Tabernacle themselves are holy things, God forbid. These things are mere vessels. And even more so, the tablets, with the writing of God – these too have no holiness in themselves, but only for your sake.”
“Moses did not break the tablets out of mere rage, but in order to teach the people a profound spiritual lesson: that religion itself can become an object of idolatry,” writes Rabbi David Kasher. Moses broke the Torah, God’s Torah, in order to make a nuanced point about the purpose of Torah: that sometimes we have to challenge and even shatter our assumptions, our learned understandings of what is Torah, what is Judaism, and what is our purpose in life.
“You can’t make a Torah, it seems,” Rabbi Kasher concludes, “without breaking some tablets.”