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Approaching Torah

This week's parashah, Mishpatim, is the continuation of the events that occurred at Mount Sinai. As you may remember from last week's d'var Torah, many classic interpretations are based on the principle that there is no real chronological order to the Torah. An interpretation written by Rashi (12th century France) on this week's parashah again uses this device to interpret the narrative. For Rashi claims that Exodus 24:1-12, which appears to occur after the giving of the 10 commandments, is actually a "flashback" to the events that occurred in the days prior to the revelation at Sinai. In these verses Moses recounts to the people all the words of God and the people ratify the covenant by stating "all that God has spoken we will do" (v. 3). Moses then writes down the "words of God" and reads "the account of the covenant ... in the ears of the people [and the people then respond] 'all that God has spoken, we will do and we will hear'." After this section Moses is then told by God to "go up to the mountain and remain there, that I may give you tablets of stone with the instructions and the command."

It seems plausible to read the text using Rashi's chronology. But the question that must then be asked is "what are the words that Moses wrote down and then read to the people if the Ten Commandments had not yet been given?"

According to Rashi, Moses writes down the narrative of the Torah "from the Creation to the Giving of the Torah." In other words, before receiving the Torah the people hear Moses recount to them the "history of the world" from Creation up until that very moment. Upon hearing this they then respond not only "all that God has spoken we will do," as in v. 3, but "we will do AND we will hear" (24:7).

In her discussion of this commentary Aviva Zornberg ("The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus") discusses various commentaries that emphasize the importance of narrative and narration. Something occurs when we hear a story told to us as opposed to simply reading it ourselves. Upon hearing the words from Moses the people are then "committing themselves to a rearticulated relationship with the world of the past, and declaring themselves ready for the new laws of Sinai." In this way "we will do and we will hear" is interpreted as 'we will do all that has been told to us already (the limited laws and rituals prescribed in the Torah prior to Sinai) and now we are prepared to hear the new covenant that you are about to give us that is the culmination of all that has come before it' (my interpretation of Zornberg's interpretation of Rashi's interpretation - and so the chain of interpretation continues!). Rashi also cites an interpretation of Shemot 19:1 "On this day, they came to the wilderness of Sinai" which states that "on this day" is meant to remind us "that the words of Torah should be new in your eyes each day."

Rashi's interpretation implies that the narrative of Torah from Creation to the arrival at Sinai was known to the people, and yet the reading of the narrative aloud helps to renew and refresh the narrative for the people. They are then able to reaffirm their commitment to God and their readiness to receive Torah "this day."

I believe that we are all aware of the power of narrative and that we are also aware that narrative gains new power and new meaning when transformed into speech. Parents and children know that no matter how many times you may read a book yourself there is still something special about it being read to you. That is one reason why books on tape have become so popular. They are not only meant for those of us who spend most of our lives driving in our cars. I know that my children (and I) are now enjoying listening to the Harry Potter books on tape even though we've read them all. We enjoy listening not simply because it refreshes our memory, but because we experience the books differently. The narrative comes alive when read aloud and we can then respond to it as the living text that it truly is.

Each week we read aloud from the Torah scrolls and precisely because it brings the text alive. Of course, most of us cannot understand the Hebrew, but there is still great power in hearing the text read aloud in the original language. But just as powerful, if not more so, is reading and studying the text aloud as we do every Shabbat morning in our Torah study class or every Friday night as we discuss the parashah at services. In both of these venues the reading and discussion of the text creates a new narrative that allows us to personally connect with the text. In this way we can then experience the Torah "this day" and commit ourselves to the world of the past as we use our commitment and our knowledge to move forward into the world of the future - the creation of a new narrative.

In her reading of Rashi's interpretation Zornberg claims that the people hearing the narrative and recognizing that they need to move beyond the old story made the Revelation at Sinai possible. The people realize that their under- standing of the law is limited and they need a new concept. They have a spontaneous desire to receive more from God and to renew and expand their relationship with God and the law. They have a desire "to imbue the old forms with new meanings, as the expression of God's will" (Zornberg, p. 296).

For me, this describes how we should all feel as we approach Torah each week. We know what we know and are at the same time aware that we want more. We want a new understanding. We want to continue to make the text our own. That is what you and I are doing as I write and you read (and then hopefully react to) these words. That is what we do when I reread these words aloud and then discuss them on Friday night and when we read and discuss the text on Shabbat morning.

Let us all continue this process begun at Sinai of encountering and renewing our relationship to the text and to the Divine. Let us join together to make each day "this day;" a day in which we re-encounter Revelation and hear the voice of God anew in the Torah and in the interpretations that we draw from it and share with one another.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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