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If Judaism Is Immutable, How Can It Be Relevant?

A Tale of Two Torah's: The Timeless and the Timely

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    2547 views
  • August 16, 2023
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  • 29 Av 5783
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Class Summary:

In this week’s portion, Shoftim, the Torah teaches us a fascinating mitzvah concerning every Jewish King: He must write not one but two Torah scrolls. One travels with him wherever he goes, and one remains permanently at home, in his private chamber, unmoved.

But why? What’s the point of the king having two Sifrei Torah?

There is, perhaps, a profound message here. The Leader must hold on to two Torah’s, as it were. One remains in his treasure chest; the other travels with him to wherever he goes, in the words of the Mishnah: “He goes to battle, and it goes with him; he enters the palace and it enters with him; he sits in judgement, and it sits with him. He sits down to eat, and the Torah is there with him.” There are two distinct elements to Torah. The unchangeable and the relevant.

The story of the Kilogram in Paris, the metaphor of the Dubner Maggid, the New York Times interview with the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Israel Shenker, all express the two dimensions of Torah we must teach to the world.

Dedicated by Reb Naftali and Rachelli Marrus, and family.

The King’s Torah’s

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, the Torah teaches us a fascinating mitzvah concerning every Jewish King:

18 And it will be, when he sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll from [that Torah which is] before the Levitic kohanim.

 

יח וְהָיָ֣ה כְשִׁבְתּ֔וֹ עַ֖ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַמְלַכְתּ֑וֹ וְכָ֨תַב ל֜וֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵ֨ה הַתּוֹרָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ עַל־סֵ֔פֶר מִלִּפְנֵ֖י הַכֹּֽהֲנִ֥ים הַֽלְוִיִּֽם:

19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord, his G-d, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them.

 

יט וְהָֽיְתָ֣ה עִמּ֔וֹ וְקָ֥רָא ב֖וֹ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֑יו לְמַ֣עַן יִלְמַ֗ד לְיִרְאָה֙ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֔יו לִ֠שְׁמֹ֠ר אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֞י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את וְאֶת־הַֽחֻקִּ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לַֽעֲשׂתָֽם:

Asks the Talmud:[1]

סנהדרין כא, ב: מלך אין, הדיוט לא? לא צריכא לשתי תורות וכדתניא וכתב לו את משנה וגו' כותב לשמו שתי תורות, אחת שהיא יוצאה ונכנסת עמו ואחת שמונחת לו בבית גנזיו.

Every Jew is obligated to write a Torah Scroll (Sefer Torah), as the Torah states explicitly[2] ("And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel." The Talmud5[3] understands it as an obligation to write the entire Torah).[4] If so, why does the Torah give a separate mitzvah for the king to do this? 

The Talmud explains that the Torah is instructing the Jewish leader to write not one, but two Torah Scrolls. One travels with him wherever he goes, and one remains permanently at home, in his private treasury.

But why? What’s the point of the king having two Sifrei Torah?[5]

Timeless and Timely

There is, perhaps, a profound message here.[6] The Leader must hold on to two Torah’s, as it were. One remains in his treasure chest; the other travels with him wherever he goes, in the words of the Mishnah:[7] “He goes to battle, and it goes with him; he enters the palace and it enters with him; he sits in judgement, and it sits with him. He sits down to eat, and the Torah is there with him.”

There are two elements to Torah: On one hand Torah represents the unwavering truth that remains unchangeable, unbendable, un-phased by the flux of time, space and history. Shabbos never changes. Tefilin, matzah, shofar, sukkah, mikvah, mezuzah, the text of Torah, the bris milah—these are eternal, unchangeable, Divine laws and truths. The same delicious or horrible “stale” matzah we ate 3300 years ago in the desert we still eat in the 21st century in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. The same ram’s horn we blew two millennia ago is still blown today the world over. The same tzitzis, the same Shabbos, the same Yom Kippur, the same kosher laws, the same conversion laws, the same Torah.

But there is another element to Torah—its ability to give perspective and guidance to each generation according to its unique needs, challenges, struggles and experiences. Each generation is different. The issues that plagued us a half-century ago are not the issues we confront today, and conversely: today we have dilemmas never experienced before in history. Our bodies, psyches, souls, sensitivities, and environments are different. Our world has changed in significant ways. Torah must also be a blueprint and luminary to the unique journeys of each milieu, to the climate of each generation, to the ambiance of every era, to the sensitivities of each age, to the yearnings of every epoch.

The prophet Isaiah says:

ישעיה נ, ד: אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, נָתַן לִי לְשׁוֹן לִמּוּדִים, לָדַעַת לָעוּת אֶת-יָעֵף דָּבָר...

My Lord has granted me a tongue for teaching, to understand the need of the times, to give knowledge to those who thirst for knowledge.

A Jewish leader—and every one of us is a leader in our own individual way—must have two Torah’s. One Torah remains immune to change. One pristine Torah Scroll never leaves the ivory tower of the king’s treasury house. It speaks of truths of life and of G-d that are timeless. It transcends borders of time, geography, and people.

The Kilogram

There was a recent report concerning 'The Kilogram' in Paris. 'The Kilogram' is a calibrated weight by which all other kilograms in the entire world are measured. It is kept in triple layered glass casing, to ensure that it is in no way influenced by the elements. Unfortunately, scientists are afraid that this standard kilogram has been losing some mass over the years. This, at least theoretically, ­has ramifications for all types of commerce throughout the world. The pure kilogram standard must never become corrupted!

The famous Maggid of Dubno once told the story of a country boy whose fame as an archer had spread far and wide. A delegation of the finest archers traveled to his farm estate in order to see for themselves if the rumors were true. As they approached the estate, they observed hundreds upon hundreds of trees, each one painted with a target, and in the center of each bullseye there was a single arrow. Amazed at the sight, they asked the lad how it was that he had become such a fine shooter. He replied plainly that he would shoot the arrow first and then paint the target around it.

This is the error some make with Torah. You can’t just keep on adjusting Torah to your predefined positions and desires. If Torah is truth, it is true in all times and in all places. If it is not true, who needs it all together?

But it is not enough to just teach a timeless Torah. A leader must also find in Torah the language of G-d to this particular generation, to this individual person, to this unique situation, to this singular struggle, to this mindset and weltanschauung. Torah has the capacity to speak to the timely as much as to the timeless, to the modern as much as to the ancient, to the future as much as to the past, to the things that are always in flux as much as to those that remain unchangeable. 

To Find Your Bio in Torah

This is also the deeper meaning of the Torah’s words: "And it shall be with him and he should read it all the days of his life in order that he learn to fear G-d, to observe all the words of this Torah..."  

The Torah is telling us more than just the fact that the king has to read the Torah throughout the days of his life. The actual literal translation reads: “He should read in it all the days of his life.” This means that the Jewish leader must be able to see in Torah a perspective for “all the days of his life,” for everything that transpires in his life and in the life of his people. He has to read in it (v'kara bo) his entire biography (kol yemei chayav), all the events of his life. Every new situation has a perspective from Torah, guidance from G-d’s blueprint for life.[8]

The Balance

It is not always an easy balance. How can the same Torah address both the timeless and the timely? If it was relevant 3000 years ago how can it still be relevant today?

The answer is: Since the Torah comes from the Creator of the world, He embedded into the Torah all the changes, developments and fluctuations of history. The Torah is the Divine blueprint not only for timeless truths, but also for timely issues and questions—it speaks to each generation addressing its dilemmas and concerns.

The late Israel Shenker, a New York Times reporter, interviewed the Lubavitcher Rebbe for his 70th birthday. Here are his words published in April 1972, in The Times:

“To the suggestion that his orthodoxy marks him as a conservative he [the Rebbe] objected, saying: ‘I don't believe that Reform Judaism is liberal and Orthodox is conservative. My explanation of conservative is someone who is so petrified, he cannot accept something new. For me, Judaism, or halacha [Jewish religious law], or Torah, encompasses all the universe, and it encompasses every new invention, every new theory, every new piece of knowledge or thought or action.

"Everything that happens in 1972 has a place in the Torah, and it must be interpreted, it must be explained, it must be evaluated from the point of view of Torah even if it happened for the first time in March of 1972."

These are the “Two Torah’s” a Jewish king—and by extension every Jewish teacher and leader—must possess.

___________

[1] Sanhedrin 21b

[2] Deuteronomy 31:19

[3] Nedarim 38a

[4] The Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, c.1250-1328) writes (Laws of Sefer Torah 7:1) that in previous eras, the Torah scroll was the only text that Jews could use for study, since it was forbidden to write down the Oral Law. Nowadays, however, when it is permissible to write down the Oral Law, and the Torah scroll is stored in the synagogue for public readings rather than used as a study text, the obligation to write a Torah scroll encompasses the obligation to purchase other holy books (seforim) which can be used for study.
Some halachic authorities understand this to mean that there is no longer an obligation to own or write a Torah scroll and that the obligation is fulfilled in its entirety by owning other holy books, e.g., a Chumash, Mishnah, Talmud, Code of Jewish Law, etc. Other authorities say that the Rosh meant that the obligation to write a Torah scroll still exists, but that in addition to this, one must also purchase other holy books.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe once explained a fascinating insight. We don't find any record that upon receiving this mitzvah the Jews en masse wrote hundreds of thousands of Torah scrolls! Nor do we find historically that many people commissioned the writing of their own scrolls. Why not? The Rebbe concluded, that since the main purpose of the Torah Scroll is to read from it, one can fulfill one's obligation through the Torah scroll that is owned by the community.
In addition to the fact that as a member of the community, he owns a part of the Torah scroll, the Rebbe proved from various sources that he can also can be considered a full owner during the time that he actually reads from it – that is, when he receives an Aliya. It is an unspoken agreement that whenever anybody is called to the Torah, all of the community members temporarily give that person full ownership of the Torah for the duration of that aliyah. When the Aliya is over, he then “returns” the ownership to the entire community.
Although ownership of a Torah scroll is not enough to fulfill the mitzvah, but rather the person must commission a scribe to write it for him or write it himself, in the case of scrolls written for the community, we consider the scribe an agent of the entire community. In addition, if the Torah needs to be corrected – something which is a frequent occurrence – the scribe who does the corrections is seen as an agent of the entire community. Thus, even those who were not yet born when the Torah was written have a part in the writing.
This answers the above questions and also explains how we can all fulfill this mitzvah today—even according to the opinions that one must actually write one's own Torah scroll and not simply be a partner. (For all the sources, see Likkutei Sichos vol. 23, p. 24, and all references noted there.)
In addition, the Lubavitcher Rebbe initiated campaigns to unite all of Jewry in this mitzvah by having as many Jews as possible purchase letters in Torah scrolls. Separate scrolls are written specifically to unite Jewish children.

[5] Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (1785-1869), the famed chief Rabbi of Brody, Galicia, and other Rabbis, offer the following insight into these two Sefer Torahs. The Torah describing the appointment of the King uses the double language of “Som Ta'sim,” You shall surely place upon yourselves. The Rabbis infer from here that the fear of the King must be upon the people.
On the other hand, at the end of the section dealing with the monarchy, the Torah emphasizes concern "That his heart not become haughty over his brethren and that he does not turn from the commandment right or left" (Deut. 17:20). This almost seems to contradict the earlier language. Should the king be humble or powerful?
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Jewish Monarch must act like a king when he is in front of the people, but he is not allowed to let his heart get carried away. He must remember who he is and remember who the Only real King is.
Rabbi Shlomo Kluger says that this is what is meant by the fact that the King writes two Torah scrolls for himself - one with which he goes out and one which remains at home. When he goes out, he must wear the Torah of "You shall surely place upon yourselves a King," he must act like a King and instill awe like a King. But when he returns home and settles down into the privacy of his own abode, he must be aware of the Torah that is hidden away at home. That is the Torah of "Lest his heart be lifted above that of his brethren."

[6] The following explanation is based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s explanation on the difference between the Torah of Moshe and the Torah of Aaron, between “Emes” and “Chesed,” Sichas 13 Nissan, Parshas Shmini, 5748 (1988), published in Sefer Hasichos 5748 vol. 2, and in Likkutei Sichos Parshiyos Shmini.

[7] Sanhedrin 21b

[8] This is the interpretation of the Chasam Sofer Parshas Shoftim.

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    Essay Shoftim

    Rabbi YY Jacobson
    • August 16, 2023
    • |
    • 29 Av 5783
    • |
    • 2547 views
    • Comment

    Dedicated by Reb Naftali and Rachelli Marrus, and family.

    Class Summary:

    In this week’s portion, Shoftim, the Torah teaches us a fascinating mitzvah concerning every Jewish King: He must write not one but two Torah scrolls. One travels with him wherever he goes, and one remains permanently at home, in his private chamber, unmoved.

    But why? What’s the point of the king having two Sifrei Torah?

    There is, perhaps, a profound message here. The Leader must hold on to two Torah’s, as it were. One remains in his treasure chest; the other travels with him to wherever he goes, in the words of the Mishnah: “He goes to battle, and it goes with him; he enters the palace and it enters with him; he sits in judgement, and it sits with him. He sits down to eat, and the Torah is there with him.” There are two distinct elements to Torah. The unchangeable and the relevant.

    The story of the Kilogram in Paris, the metaphor of the Dubner Maggid, the New York Times interview with the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Israel Shenker, all express the two dimensions of Torah we must teach to the world.

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