Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat B'shallah 5763
January 18, 2003 15 Shevat 5763
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary
We tend to think of revelation as a highly restrictive term. The fate of a revealed text is to be immutable. We humans have no right to alter what God has given. But in Judaism precisely because the Torah is revered as divine, it becomes susceptible to unending interpretation. It would be a denigration of God's word to saddle it with just a single meaning. In contrast to human speech, which carries a finite range of meanings, the language of God was deemed to be endowed with an infinity of meanings. This theology freed the Rabbis to do midrash, creating the anomaly of a canon without closure. The vessels kept changing their contents. New challenges elicited new insights into a text inviolable only on the surface.
In this week's parasha we have an instance of a metaphoric reading that takes us in a single move from the physical world to the realm of the spiritual. I focus on this piece of midrash not only because it reflects brilliantly how the Rabbis transcended the literal confines of the Torah, but also because it sheds light on the mystery of Jewish survival.
After crossing the Sea of Reeds with God's unforgettable help, the Israelites continued on into the wilderness of Shur. Three days into their journey without water, their mood turned ugly. The water at Marah was too bitter to drink. They groused and God instructed Moses to sweeten the water with a piece of wood, which he did successfully (15:22-25). The incident is noteworthy only as a harbinger of uprisings to come. Miracles failed to change the Israelites into long-term believers.
It is the midrash that lifts the episode out of the ordinary. On the verse, "They traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water" (22), some mystically inclined Rabbis opined: "Water actually stands for Torah, as it is said (by Isaiah, 55:1), 'Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water.' Having gone for three days without Torah, the prophets among them stepped forth and legislated that the Torah should be read on the second and fifth days of the week as well as on Shabbat so that they would not let three days pass without Torah"(BT Bava Kama 82a).
The analogy drives home the point that Torah to Jews is as vital as water to humans. They are both indispensable sources of life. In exploring other planets for life, space scientists look first for signs of water. Without Torah, Jewish life would face extinction. That is why R. Akiva defied the Roman prohibition to teach Torah after the defeat of the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Jews would perish like fish out of water. Even after his arrest, he continued to teach his students from prison. His martyrdom served as an indelible tribute to the primacy of Torah (BT Berakhot 61b; PT, Yevamot 12:5). Thus an inspired midrash transformed a prosaic narrative into a poetic symbol of enduring power. Water as a metaphor for Torah became a staple of rabbinic literature.
No less important, the midrash justified making the foundation text of Judaism the centerpiece of the synagogue service. Reading it publicly every three days assured that its contents would become common knowledge. The ritual marked a total departure from ancient Near Eastern practice (or that of the medieval church) which consigned sacred texts to temple precincts as esoteric literature for priests. Like the original revelation at Sinai witnessed by all the people, reading the Torah in the synagogue was intended as a reenactment for public consumption. Jews became what the Quran called "people of the book."
As the world's first book-based religion, Judaism gained three advantages. First, the move from sacred land to sacred text made it portable. Had Judaism not effected that radical shift, it is unlikely that it would have survived the fate of exile. Our midrash may have in mind the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.. At that time it is not inconceivable that religious leaders encouraged the public reading of sacred texts to fortify the faith and memory of their deported flock. The portability of a sacred book raised Judaism to a universal religion. God' presence was no longer restricted to the sanctity of a single sanctuary. Through the portal of Torah, Jews could access God everywhere. This is the force of R. Shimon ben Yohai's famous second-century affirmation "that wherever Israel wandered in exile, God's presence (the Shekhinah) went with them" (BT Megillah 29a).
Second, a book is far less vulnerable than a temple. By taking refuge in a book, Judaism greatly enhanced its chances of survival. To be sure, books could be burned, as they often were by the church in the Middle Ages, but that destroyed only the medium not its message. As. R. Hananyah ben Teradyon expired on a Roman pyre wrapped in a Torah scroll for mock effect, he comforted his students that "the parchment burns but the letters ascend" (BT Avodah Zarah 8a). Books could always be reproduced. The format was more impregnable then a fortress.
Third, Judaism in book form became democratic. While the Temple was off limits for many Jews and sacrifices the preserve of the priests, the synagogue expected of each Jew to approach God individually and directly. The primacy of the Torah required literacy and learning of everyone. Henceforth, leadership would be determined by study rather than birth.
But these advantages came at a price. The effects of Torah worked only as long as people could read it. If its language became as impenetrable as hieroglyphics, it risked turning the synagogue into a museum and its rabbis into intermediaries. Serious education and lifelong study are what vivify inert letters into life giving water. The greatest danger to Judaism has always been illiteracy, which is why the Rabbis insisted that "The world itself rests on the breath of children in school" (BT Shabbat 119b).