Parashat Va’ethanan 5782

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Studying Torah 101
A D’var Torah for Parashat Va’ethanan
By Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

I first began to study Talmud in 7th grade in the Jewish day school I attended as a child. Those first months of Talmud were intensely frustrating. The Talmud, as a work of law, is supposed to be logical. And much of the content of the Talmud is, in fact, a series of logical arguments about different rabbis’ statements on various matters in Jewish law. But there were also a number of statements in the Talmud that, to my classmates and to me, just didn’t seem to make any sense. These rabbinic statements purported to be logical but just didn’t seem logical to us. Being seventh graders, my classmates and I expressed this frustration in a typical seventh grade manner, opining “This is stupid,” or “This is a waste of time,” or in rare moments of slightly greater respect, “This doesn’t make any sense.”

Thankfully, we had a Talmud teacher who was extremely patient with the natural belligerence of middle school students. I still remember one of the things he told us in those early weeks: “There ARE, in fact, parts of the Talmud which may not seem logical to us. And it’s okay for you to identify the parts of the Talmud that you think are illogical. But there’s a particularly Jewish way to express that: use the Hebrew expression “kasheh li,” which means, “this is hard for me to understand.”

In other words, our teacher was telling us, we shouldn’t rush to say that the TEXT is stupid, or it doesn’t make sense. That’s too easy. Maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t with the text. Maybe, just maybe, the problem is with me. Maybe the text is logical, but I just don’t see it yet.

Decades later, when I was in Rabbinical School, I began to study, among other things, the Talmudic commentaries called Tosafot (which we had hardly touched in my Jewish day school classes). Those commentaries include numerous disagreements, with the Tosafists pointing out inconsistencies in the arguments of the Talmudic rabbis, and in the interpretations of Rashi and other commentators. And I saw these commentaries introduce their challenges just as my teacher had counseled. Kasheh le-R”i — “This is hard for Rabbi Yitzhak to understand.” Kasheh le-Rabbenu Tam — “This is hard for Rabbenu Tam to understand.” Finally I understood that so many years earlier, my teacher was inviting us, despite our youth and immaturity, to borrow the language and worldview of the Tosafists when we encountered passages in the Talmud that didn’t make sense to us.

These medieval Talmudic commentators were adopting a more respectful tone, as well as a posture of humility. If I assert that something “doesn’t make sense,” that implies that I have thoroughly mastered it in all its nuances but that there’s something faulty about it, and I have nothing more to learn about it. If I assert, though, that something is “difficult for me to understand,” I leave open the possibility that I have not thoroughly mastered it in all its nuances, and perhaps I still have a lot to learn.

A striking interpretation of one of the opening verses from this week’s Torah portion of Va’ethanan echoes this message. Moses recalls having a conversation with God and saying to God, “You have begun to let me, your servant, see your greatness and your mighty hand.” (Deuteronomy 3:24)

The 19th century scholar Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein offers a comment about this verse in his Arukh Ha-Shulhan (Y.D. 246:4): “One who aspires to know the greatness of the Torah should learn from Moses, our teacher, who was the greatest of all prophets and sages, whose understanding was so much greater than a regular human mind, and about whom the Torah says, ‘No other arose in Israel like Moses, who knew God face to face.’ Certainly he continued to grow in wisdom until his death. And what did he say at the end of his life? — “You have only just begun to let me, your servant, see your greatness…”

Epstein makes the startling claim that, despite all of Moses’ great achievements, he considered himself to be only a beginner. We can only wonder what it meant to Moses, at age 120 after concluding a fabled leadership career, to think of himself as a beginner in the knowledge of Torah, despite the fact that he was the one who delivered the Torah to the people of Israel. Moses’ posture in this story can be a model for us, at whatever our level of learning: no matter how much we have learned, we know that in some ways, we remain beginners. This attitude can be edifying in part because it reminds us to render our judgments and reactions to our study with humility, because there is so much of it that we have not yet mastered. And just as much, this attitude can be energizing, filling us with excitement at how much more learning there is left to discover.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.