Lo bashamayim hi.
It is not in the heavens, nor beyond the sea. It is close to us.
But it is not (necessarily) physical distance we are talking about. It is telling us that Torah is not beyond our reach - beyond our understanding. I think that is a very important point to remind ourselves about, for several reasons.
I know, for myself, that each time I delve into Torah, I can get more confused and baffled than I was before. And this problem is exacerbated as I strive to wear my two had as a student of religion and as a practicing believing Jew. "What does this mean, what does that mean?" It can be awfully frustrating at times. Then I remind myself - yes, it may have layer upon layer of meaning, but we are told straight out that it is within our understanding. At each level we approach it, it's meaning can become clear, but it may be very difficult to understand it at different levels all at one time. The meaning becomes clear within the context of our approach, our path to understand. I wonder, sometimes, which comes first - our level of knowledge and then our understanding -- or our understanding then determining our level?
Sometimes, I can plug away at trying to understand the text, only to have an insight come to me that is totally alien to the paradigms with which I was viewing the text. The text itself took me to another level.
It is wise to remember that Torah is accessible for all of us - we do not have to wait for great scholars and mystics to impart its wisdom to it. (Nor should we blithely ignore the teachings and traditions of our past, our great scholars, even our not so great scholars.) However, Torah imparts itself. If we do not study it for ourselves, we shall never have our own understanding of it-only someone else's.
Sometimes, analysis of the text as an academic interferes with the process, as I study the reflections of others. At other times the study helps create fresh opportunities for Torah to speak to me on a new level and gain my own new understanding.
It is also important that all of us remember, particularly in these trying times, that understanding of Torah is not the private secret of any one group of people-not just scholars, rabbis, kabbalists - that understanding is open to all Jews, be they Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, secular, et al. For, as we are told at the very beginning of Nitzavim:
"You are standing this day, ALL OF YOU, before the Lrd your Gd..." (Deut 29:9, JPS)
And that is including children, wives, and strangers dwelling among us. We are, all of us, party to the covenant to which our Torah attests. So, when later on the text says:
"Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not to baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach." (Deut 30:11, JPS)
the YOU refers to all - men, women, children, strangers, and, by extension to present times Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist Jews, et al.
There is, however, a flip side to this good news. Because Torah is within our reach we have access to some parts of the text that challenge us. God tells us, quite plainly that the text is within our understanding, yet also asks us to do things which baffle us.
"Nothing baffling about that" an Orthodox friend once told me. "Just do what it says." "Not as easy as it sounds," I reply. "My challenge is to come to understand that particular piece of text." "But you already understand it," my friend says. "You just want to ignore it." "No," I reply. "I'm waiting for the moment when the text speaks to me and raises me from my present level of understanding to the level on which it is imparting to me another meaning."
This is what the Torah means about it being reachable to all of us. Coming to our own understanding, not someone else's.
Ki karov eilecha. It is close to us. In OUR mouths, OUR hearts. But also in EACH of our mouths, EACH of our hearts. As individual as God made us.
May this Shabbat offer you peace, rest, and a chance to let Torah startle you with new insights and fresh perspectives on old insights.
© 1997, 1999 by Adrian A. Durlester
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