September 2017, Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech

Dear Friends,

This week’s Parsha, Nitzavim-Vayelech, details the last days of Moshe’s life where he wrote down the entire Torah. As part of his final instructions to the people Moshe instructs the Levites to “take this Torah scroll and place it at the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your G-d and it shall be there as witness for you.”

The expression “at the side of the Ark” caused some debate between Jewish scholars of the Talmud. On one hand, the Talmudist Rabbi Meir holds that the Torah scroll was placed in the Ark next to the two Luchot (Tablets) from Sinai, while on the other hand, another Talmudist, Rabbi Yehudah understood this expression to mean that there was an extra shelf on the side of the Ark where the Torah scroll was placed.

From Rabbi Yehudah’s perspective, the instruction from Moshe to “place the Torah at the side of the Ark” was a clear direct instruction that the Torah was not to go inside the Ark itself, but rather on the shelf that protruded from it. In contrast, Rabbi Meir understood the instruction to mean that the Torah scroll should be placed “to the side of the tablets” that were already inside the Ark, not in between them.

While this disagreement may seem like a typical Talmudic disagreement that tried to understand every last detail of each word in the Torah, the disagreement is actually much deeper. The fundamental understanding of the 10 commandments is that they embody the essence of the entire Torah, including all philosophies, laws, layers, themes and ideas. Some Rabbis, such as R’ Saadya Gaon, go as far to say that all the books of the Torah are merely commentary of the Tablets which embody the fundamental principles that underpin Judaism. Any discussions regarding these Tablets, however seemingly insignificant, cannot therefore be classified as regular exegetical discussions on the Torah but something far more important.

While the simple understanding of the discussion between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah seems to centre on the location of the scroll in the Ark, it actually shows a deeper disagreement regarding the philosophies of Judaism, namely: “is Judaism able to adapt itself out of the box of the Ark that contains the Tablets which symbolize the fundamental principles of Judaism without losing the authenticity of the religion?”

This argument continues until this very day. In the century that we live in where the internet provides the answer to any question at the touch of button, how do you teach the ancient Torah in a way that is meaningful to a younger generation?

How do we ensure that we teach Torah in a way that it retains its original beauty while in the modern age? Must we take it outside the box of traditional understanding and try to adapt it to modern principles? And if we do, will it still be a true presentation of the Torah, or G-d forbid watering down the traditions and principles in order to teach a new generation?

While Rabbi Meir’s approach would suggest that only Torah “within the box” of the Ark are acceptable, Rabbi Yehudah’s approach dictates that approaches “outside the box” are acceptable too, as long as they retain the connection to the authentic/original Torah, through the plank of wood next to the Ark.

In this week’s Parsha we see that Moshe ensures the continuity of Judaism by anointing Yehoshua as his successor to go before the people as a leader that will understand their needs and ensure their continued devotion to their faith.

This is our role as rabbis, to care for our congregations and ensure that we support them with activities designed to build bridges of inclusivity.  Through such an approach we can build and foster trust of our communities while teaching the original beauty of the Torah in the modern age-in, both in, out and around the box of the Ark.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Gabi