Use the Torah wisely, for it brings healing and helps us act responsibly

Exodus 18:1-20:23
Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6

Letters that arrive too early or late, or that are intercepted or lost, or that carry a message that harms or helps the messenger frequently recur in literature. Employing this technique, Isak Dinesen’s story “The King’s Letter” provides a richer understanding of Yitro — this week’s Torah portion — as well as the role Torah can play in people’s lives.

Set in Kenya, the protagonist happens upon a lion that she thinks bears a striking resemblance to one of the three lions on the blue royal Danish coat of arms. Thinking its skin would make a wonderful gift to the Danish king, she shoots the lion and cures its skin. Although ridiculed by her friends for thinking that the lion’s skin might matter to the king, nevertheless, she sends the skin to the king.

Some months later, she receives a regal envelope containing a gracious, meticulously handwritten thank-you letter from the king. She puts the letter in her pocket and forgets about it until an unfortunate accident occurs; a falling tree limb crushes a young worker’s leg. He pleads with her for some pain relief. At a loss of what to, she reaches into her pocket, feels the king’s letter and says to the wounded man, “I have something that all people know will take away pain, a handwritten letter from the king.” She places it on his chest, the man closes his eyes and the pain evaporates.

“It is very excellent,” he exclaims.

The remedy buys enough time to get him to the hospital for treatment. Soon thereafter, people begin to borrow the king’s letter for all who suffer ailments — both real and imagined.

Rabbi Richard J. Israel suggested a parallel between the Torah and the king’s letter:

“The Torah is a living application of stories and laws, traditions and exhortations through which we become aware that we have been touched, however lightly, by the King. But it is more than just a nostrum because the Torah that gives us the power to transform all the actions and choices of our lives into mitzvot, into deeds that make the world holy and bring redemption to it. That is our letter and we can use it to bring us healing and help us act responsibly and choose wisely.”

Indeed, the Torah must be more than just a talisman, a letter from a king or a collection of 304,805 meticulously copied letters, because if that is all the Torah is, then it is only an object, antique or artifact — something that belongs in a museum.

When a child becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, the act of holding the Torah cannot confer adult responsibilities upon the child; the Torah must get inside him by his opening, reading, studying and commenting on its contents. In so doing, he becomes part of a timeworn tradition best seen in the format of a rabbinic Bible, not the usual Bible, but one surrounded by commentaries in all the margins.

The rabbinic Bible was created because the scholars continually added just one more hiddush — one more “creative reading” to the text; they could never confine their scholarship to just reading the Torah, and neither should any Jew.

That is why a bar mitzvah must be more than a holder or reader of the Torah, because he represents the tradition of getting inside the text in order to gain greater understanding about life. Either he becomes, in effect, the Torah, or the Torah becomes something alien to him.

When a rabbi blesses a bar mitzvah child, he prays that the child-becoming-an-adult will have long years of getting inside of the Torah, of rolling and unrolling it to provide his life with a deeper meaning, both at moments of joy or when he is searching for comfort and meaning during life’s storms.

Indeed, Pirke Avot, 5:22 (Ethics of the Fathers) teaches that the Torah is more than a nostrum because a Jew is never done getting into this sacred text that, in turn, infuses his life with meaning:

“Turn it again and again, for everything is in it; contemplate it, grow gray and old over it, and swerve not from it, for there is no greater good.”

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.