Celebrating Wholeness with the Torahby Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.
This is a day to celebrate the gift of Torah, whether one believes the Israelites actually received the Torah from God through Moses at Sinai, or whether one believes the Torah is a record of sacred myths, both oral and written, that come to us most firmly through the writing, editing, and redacting of the Prophet Jeremiah, his scribe Baruch and their colleagues somewhere around what would be reckoned as the Jewish year 3074 (the early sixth century before the common era.) This is the day to celebrate the gift of Torah, whether one believes we Jews descended from patriarchal roots, leading to over two million of us wandering in the desert for 40 years; or we believe that we evolved from the slow merger of a dozen unrelated tribes joined by thousands of refugees who had lost favor in Egypt and suffered terribly there before making their exit and heading for nearby Canaan.
I embrace modern biblical scholarship. I also affirm, without the slightest hesitation, that Torah holds in its lines countless truths of the greatest importance. In passage after passage I find God. I don’t mean to say that that God revealed the Torah as much as Torah reveals God. It is not so much that Torah is the word of God, but rather that Torah is the word to God. In every line I find wisdom, insight, guidance, inspiration, and instruction. Torah is to me beyond sacred, it reaches the realm of the mystical, it may take us to logos. it is a most precious gift indeed. It is for me, as Rabbi Feshbach mentioned last week, a primary guide towards wholeness—which I see as the essential point of religion, any religion. Perhaps I will have a chance to chat about our involuntary pursuit of wholeness at some other gathering. But this morning, this Simchat Torah morning, I rejoice that my primary earthly guide towards wholeness, shleimut, is Torah, starting with the creation tale in Genesis Chapter One, and continuing through the story of the death and mourning of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy. Torah is a story the value and relevance of which are simply inexhaustible. It is truly a gift that never stops giving—and by the way, there is no bad bar or bat mitzvah portion in the entirety of the text. Not one, including Taz’ri’ah and Metsorah. Torah is a gift, the possession of which should lead all of us to rejoice each day we consider it, and especially on this day.
On each Simchat Torah I am reminded of an unforgettable experience I had in the spring of 1965. I had just finished my second year of studies in a pre-rabbinic undergraduate program run jointly by the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion and the University of Cincinnati. Upon my return home to Baltimore, my revered rabbi, Morris Lieberman, Senior Rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, invited me to join him at a meeting of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. He said there was going to be a guest speaker there that I should hear. The speaker’s name: Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel.
All the famous rabbis of Baltimore were there including the three nationally renowned Reform rabbis of the time: Abraham Shusterman, Abraham Shaw, and Morris Lieberman. To me each was a larger than life figure, and Dr. Heschel, of course, even more so.
A session of Q & A began. Then it happened. I could not believe my eyes and ears. I almost fell off my chair. The normally steady-as-a-rock, consistently confident, gladiator for noble causes, congregational rabbi and weekly TV personality, Abraham Shusterman, stood before Dr. Heschel. Rabbi Shusterman’s body and voice quivered, there were tears in his usually fiery, piercing eyes. Humbly, bent over, he meekly asked the master in our midst: “Dr. Heschel, why have we rabbis failed?” I was stunned. Failed? Shusterman had failed? Lieberman, Shaw, and the others had failed? It became hard for me to breathe.
Rabbi Heschel paused but a moment and then said these words:
“Torah is a gold mine. Nuggets of gold lie on every page of Torah. They are just waiting there for our people to bend down, take the nuggets at will and use them to enrich their lives. You have not told your members adequately and shown them sufficiently so that they might discover this truth. The nuggets are just lying there,” he said, “waiting for us Jews to take them, to use them.”