Bringing Torah into our lives can give us a sense of wholeness

Ki Tissa (Shabbat Parah)
Exodus 30:11-34:35,
Numbers 19:1-22
Ezekiel 36:16-38

Take a rectangular strip of paper, about 6 or 8 inches long, tape the two edges together and make a ring. Now take another strip of paper, give it a half twist, and then tape the edges together — voila, you’ve made a Mobius Strip.

If you were to compare the ring with the Mobius Strip you’d discover that the ring has two surfaces, an outside and an inside. The Mobius Strip has only one surface. Its inside and outside are the same! (If you need proof of this, draw a line down the center of the strip, all the way around until you come back to your starting point.)

The discovery of the Mobius Strip in the 19th century created a whole new field of mathematics called topology. Interestingly, a 3rd century Babylonian sage, Rav Hisda, had already discovered and utilized the idea.

In this week’s parashah we read: “Moses turned and came down from the mountain carrying the two tablets of the Pact, tablets inscribed on both their surfaces; they were inscribed on the one side and on the other” (Exodus 32:15).

Commenting on this verse in the Talmud, Rav Hisda offers a provocative interpretation, pointing to the miraculous nature of the tablets: “The tablets were carved completely through, readable from both inside and outside.” The Talmud suggests that the letters of the commandments, especially the completely square or round letters (like the final mem), were floating in air, unconnected to the stone tablets. More to the point, unlike other written documents, the tablets of the Ten Commandments could be read from front or back.

Living as we do in the physical world, we rarely have difficulty discerning the difference between inside and outside. Edges and boundaries abound, and we often ignore or give no awareness to them. But in the psycho-spiritual world, it is precisely the moment when our inside experience and our outside presentation are dissonant that we experience alienation, confusion, even despair.

The people who seek counsel in my office often say that they feel like strangers in their own bodies: They are not themselves, they are not living their lives. They want to become whole, holy, to be healed.

Where can healing wholeness come from? Rav Hisda offers us a clue.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe, a Chassidic master known for his profound psychological intuition, interprets Rav Hisda to mean that “the words of Torah have the power to turn a person’s heart from one opposite to the other.” Desire can become gratitude. Anger can become repose. The fact that the words of Torah are carved through and through offers us the hope that inside and outside can be one, and that what plagues us can be transformed into goodness.

This is, as well, the deeper message of Purim, which we celebrated this past Tuesday, March 14. Behind the masks are our true selves. We put on a fake mask so that we might learn to look behind the mask we hide behind to ourselves. We put on costumes in order to learn that if we can only rip away the costume and see past the garb of our experience, we will find the presence of the Holy One.

Poignantly, the same idea is expressed in the additional Torah reading about the red heifer. In the contact with death it is the ashes of the dead red heifer that bring purification, yet the priest who burns the heifer himself becomes impure. The encounter with death, as with any intense suffering or despair, paradoxically carries within it the seeds of redemption and wholeness.

In the search for wholeness and healing, the Mobius Strip and the inside out carved letters of Torah can remind us that there is oneness in what appears to be two-sided. Our inside and our outside can be whole. And our Torah can guide us to that wholeness.

Rabbi Lavey Derby teaches Kabbalah and Chassidic thought at Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.