This week we read Parashat Yitro, in which the Holy One reveals the Torah through Moses at Mt. Sinai. As you can imagine, many stories are told about this mythic moment, and even more about the nature of Torah itself. One of my favorite midrashim creates an unexpected portal in time.
Rabbi Yehudah taught in the name of Rav:
When Moses went up Mt. Sinai he saw the Holy Blessed One sitting and putting small crowns on the letters of Torah. Moses inquires: Why are you spending so much time doing this tedious work? To which the Holy Blessed One explains, in a future generation there will come a person by the name of Rabbi Akiva who will interpret each and every one of these crowns and create piles and piles of Jewish practices based on them. With a bit of incredulity, Moses demands that God reveal such a person. Wayne's World-style, The Holy One turns Moses around and he is all of a sudden sitting in the back row of Rabbi Akiva's Beit Midrash. Rabbi Akiva is teaching Torah but Moses doesn't recognize the teachings. Moses is very upset. And then at one point, a student asks Rabbi Akiva: "Teacher, how do you know it is so?" To which he replies: "It is halacha that was given to Moses at Mount Sinai." And Moses was comforted. (B.T. Menachot 29b)
Here the rabbis foreground their deep belief that Torah is expansive and ever-changing. And their insistence that there is a thread of continuity between that which Moses received at Mt. Sinai and that which we come to understand as the meaning of Torah in our time. This is what my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe refers to as an unrecognizable future. We are inheritors of a tradition whose resilience is based on reinterpretation in every generation. The rabbis are saying, that is what The Holy One intended, which is why there are so many little beautiful details awaiting your meaning-making.
If any of you have ever studied a passage of Talmud, you will know that one of the first challenges is pronouncing any series of names that precedes many teachings. Often these attributions come as linguistic stumbling blocks and patriarchal reminders. And yet they also allow us to place ourselves in an ancient lineage.
I like imagining Moses sitting in the Kol Tzedek Beit Midrash (newly catalogued!), utterly perplexed and also completely at home as we transmit Torah from Sinai, as we claim and reclaim our roots and our reasoning. If Rabbi Akiva represented an unrecognizable future for Moses, you can only imagine what we represent. Another Torah, another world, is not only possible, she is on her way.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.