In a famous midrash we are told that the original Torah was a scroll made of white fire and its writing was black fire. It was itself fire, hewn out of fire, completely formed in fire and given through fire (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:15).
For me, the fact that Torah is fire and not iron, which is formed and finished in fire, says everything about how we are called to relate to sacred wisdom and to ourselves. This midrash highlights the belief that Torah is both a Divine gift and inherently broken. There is perhaps no greater visual for this than that of Moses actually smashing the tablets with the ten commandments upon learning about the Golden Calf. Of course we learn that Moses goes back up the mountain and returns with a new set. And without skipping a beat, the rabbi's explain in another midrash that the Israelites carried both the whole and the broken tablets in the mishkan as they wandered in the wilderness. I can almost imagine the rabbi's excitement when Moses breaks the first set of tablets. Because for them, this makes manifest what they already believed, Torah is inherently, intentionally broken.
Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, one of the great living Talmud scholars, writes of the maculate nature of Torah. That Torah is intentionally full of ambiguity and contradiction. And it is calling us to wrestle with it, interpret it, make meaning from it. This is precisely why it is called Torat Hayyim, a living tradition. Because our engagement with it makes it relevant; quite literally, gives it life.
The maculate conception of Torah is at the heart of the Talmud, which values the proliferation of ideas and the process of debate over clarity and correctness. The value of debate (makhloket) is part of what defines Judaism's relationship to sacred text. In fact, the entire rabbinic project is built upon the indefinite nature of Torah; and perhaps more profoundly, Torah's imperfections.
There are two reasons why these ideas are so present for me this week. About two months ago while teaching a class on Torah Trope, it came to Rabbi Michelle's attention that our Torah's were in need of repair. Many letters had smudged and the parchment was damaged. With the help of Ariana Katz, we were able to connect to Soferet Linda Coppleson, who is part of a movement of Jewish female scribal artists. She was able to repair our Torah and we will be reading from it for the first time tomorrow morning. Here a few images of the repair process, including a before/after shot of the same columns. I am excited for us to gather close tomorrow and let the light of the parchment shine through the light of the letters.
Secondly, for the past 6 weeks a brave group of us have been studying Talmud on Tuesdays nights. And tomorrow, two students who have been study pairs, Beth and Gabby, will be sharing reflections on the text we have been learning about verbal exploitation.
For so many painful and hopeful reasons, I am looking forward to being together tomorrow. May we all have the courage, humility and freedom to see ourselves through the light of Torah, as both imperfect and holy all at once.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Lunar New Year to those that celebrate,
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.