Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Matot-Mas’ei
“Life is a journey and death … a destination.” This poem is one of my favorites to share at funerals. We journey through life and find our way moving from experience to experience, garnering stories, memories, blessings, and challenges along the way. Tradition teaches that we are each supposed to write a Torah over the course of our life. For some, this literally means sitting down with a quill and parchment to copy from the beginning of Genesis through the end of Deuteronomy. Those who read the command thusly see themselves perpetuating the tradition, making sure that the Torah scroll continues to find presence in Jewish life.
I think that there is another way to read the text. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that we did not need more Torah books; we need more Torah people. Our tradition also requires that we never “finish” the Torah. On Simchat Torah, we read the final words of Deuteronomy and the beginning words of Genesis in the same breath. The reading cycles unbroken. So, it seems that the concept of writing a Torah must transcend the boundary of the book. Even the word “Torah” is unbridled. The word means to enlighten. Enlightenment is a “BIG” word.
In essence, writing one’s Torah requires one to chronicle his or her life, to recount the journeys traveled and the lessons/blessings gleaned from each stop and each interaction along the way. Life is a journey; every day that we wake, we possess an opportunity to change the world, to provide deeper value for those who journey alongside. We find life’s most profound value in the telling and retelling of life’s journeying.
In the midst of our Parsha we find a recounting of the 42 segments of Israel’s journey across the wilderness. Each stop reflects part of our heritage and the relationships fostered or destroyed in each of these venues informs our people’s life story. As Moses details the starting place and resting place from each segment of the trek, we relive the stories tied to the events of each. We look back on the Exodus itself, and each stop thereafter, all the way to place in time as they are about to cross into the land. Within this week’s Torah portion, is the biblical Israel’s Torah: the story of its national life.
The purpose of Torah is to create meaningful conversations. Retelling the stories of our trek across the wilderness allows us to reflect on, retell, and even rethink the experience. In each generation, these same stories teach different lessons. We know from Chapter One of Pirke Avot (Mishnah) that each generation inherited Torah from the previous one and learned different meanings (culled different values) from it than did those who passed it to them. No differently, as we recount the Torah of our own lives, we retell the same stories, and yet they take on new meanings every time we do so. My takeaway from the miracle I felt becoming a parent resonates differently today, than it did as I held my first child, 30 years ago. I see the world differently; I see parenting differently now than I did then. What I knew then is no less profound, but as I reflect on my Torah, it keeps teaching me new things, spawning new avenues of understanding for me to pursue.
This dynamic is the reason why “Been there … done that” can never lead us to holiness. In Pirke Avot, Ben Bag Bag (a sage of the ancient world) taught that for us to get anything from a spiritual engagement with tradition, we had to be willing to turn it over and over, continuing to renew each text and each story … as if it were brand new. For thousands of years, Moses has told us to remember the 42 stages of our journey across the wilderness. For thousands of years, Torah has continued to teach and motivate us to journey anew, as each successive generation retells and takes new ownership of tradition in its own footsteps forward. Rav Kook taught us that the old must be made new and the new, must be made holy. It seems that herein lies the value of religious study. We are tied to a story thousands of years old that helps ground and focus our attention, so that we can continue to rethink it and evolve it … to keep it relevant to help us thrive tomorrow. Shabbat Shalom.