Worlds within words: Torah study reveals deeper meaning of law

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22
Isaiah 1:1-27

Deuteronomy, the English name of the last book of the Torah, means “second law” and is a recapitulation of previously stated commandments and narratives. However, its Hebrew, Devarim, also the name of this week’s Torah portion, means “words.” Understanding Judaism’s focus on “words” is essential for appreciating its transformation from a homegrown indigenous religion to a global faith.

After the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, Judaism no longer had a central shrine and holy address. The sacred word contained in the Torah, rather than an edifice, icon or ornament, became the venerated focal point of Jewish life. Not to be treated frivolously, it was lovingly carried into exile and transported to every place in which Jews established communities. This shift in emphasis from a physical location to a highly portable written text is highlighted by Emmanuel Levinas in his essay, “Reflections of Jewish Education”: “In a world in which nothing is Jewish, only the text reverberates and echoes a teaching that no cathedral, no plastic form, no specific social structure can free from its abstract nature.”

Jews have been called the “people of the book” ever since the destruction of the Temple, an event that resulted in the shift in importance from venerating at sites where sacrifices were offered to studying a holy book. The word, printed or committed to memory, became the Jewish new sanctuary. The admonition, “If you wish to know God, study” (Sifre Deut. 49) became the essential rabbinic message.

Recognizing that the Torah is sacred and the study of it is the equivalent of prayer, Chananya ben Teradion taught: “When two people sit and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them.” (Mishnah Avot 3.3) Thus, Jews parse every word in order to find hidden and deeper meanings that draw them closer to God. In such textual exegesis, each word has significance and is a lightning rod that encourages the search for concealed nuance and unique significance, as Gaston Bachelard explicates with this elegant metaphor:

“Words, as I imagine them often, are little houses with cellars and attics. Common sense lives on the ground floor. To climb the stairs of a word is gradually to become abstract. To descend to the cellar is to dream, to lose oneself in the distant corridors of an uncertain etymology, to seek unfindable treasures in words. To go up and down in words is the life of the poet. To climb too high, to descend too low is permitted to the poet who joins the terrestrial with the ethereal.”

The Torah explicates the importance of each word by focusing on the divine command to Noah: “Go into the tevah [the ark] with your household.” (Gen 7:1) The Hebrew word tevah not only means “ark,” but it also means “word.” Thus a student of the Torah is prompted to “go into the word,” the sacred task of discovering hidden meanings enfolded into each tevah. To further expand this notion, the rabbis taught that “those who carried the ark that contained the holy words were actually carried by the ark.” (Ex. Rabbah 36.4)

Thus, a student of Torah who is able to lift up what appears to be, but is not, an ordinary word, will be uplifted by discovering the splendor of such extraordinary words. That is why the Kotzker Rebbe once reflected, “It is not enough to pass through the Talmud, the Talmud must pass through us.” To demonstrate that the sacred word is more than just a plain word, rabbinic texts were fashioned to provide metaphors that describe the mystery and power invested in them:

“God gave The Torah to Moses in a white fire engraved with black fire.” (Sotah 37a)

“Is not My word like a fire and a hammer that shatters the rock into pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29)

“Just as the hammer splits the rock into many splinters, so will a scriptural verse yield many meanings.” (Sanhedrin 34a)

It is the responsibility of every Jew, be he a rabbi, teacher or student, to discover the 70 faces and the hidden labyrinths of the sacred word, prompted by the admonition: “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.” (Mishnah Avot 2.17)

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