This week, I write to you for the last time sitting in my kitchen in Jerusalem. Or at least this particular kitchen in Jerusalem! Two years of blissful study and personal growth are finally coming to a close, as this is my last Shabbat in Jerusalem for some time. I know that I will be back and hopefully it will be soon. But still, I am sad to go. To say goodbye to Pardes’ bet midrash (house of study), difficult news reports, inspiring Shabbat meals, crazy taxi drivers, the crowded marketplace on Friday afternoon, Mediterranean beach days, Israeli ice coffee, the plethora of minyanim, and SO much more!
As I read the parsha this week, I am struck by a comment of the Tosafot that I came across in the Etz Hayim Chumash. This week, as we read Parshat Chukat, the Torah presents one of its most challenging mitzvot: the rituals surrounding the Red Heifer (parah adumah). In fact, the Torah uses the entirety of the first chapter of the parsha to explain the step-by-step process of preparing and using the ashes of the Red Heifer to ritually purifying those who have come into contact with the dead. (Numbers 19:1-22) Naturally, one is puzzled by these verses as the Torah does not share the rationale behind this commandment at all. As readers, we wonder: what is the goal behind this ritual? what is the “takeaway” of this mitzvah?
Here is where the Tosafot’s answer comes in. (The Tosafot, also known as Baalei HaTosafot, were a school of medieval rabbis who commented on the Talmud, primarily connecting disparate passages throughout Talmud and thus presenting it as a coherent, cohesive and unified document.) According to the Etz Hayim Chumash, the Tosafot compared the mitzvah of parah adumah (the Red Heifer) to that of a lover’s kiss: just as it cannot be explained but only experienced, so too the ritual use of the Red Heifer cannot be explained. It can only be experienced. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zara 35a)
What exactly does Tosafot mean to teach us by making this comparison?
I imagine there are many ways to interpret this comment, so I will offer one that resonates with me. It seems to me that Tosafot wants to remind us that while we can explore and analyze the infinite number of Jewish customs and laws, biblical narratives, Hasidic stories and Talmudic debates, they can only take us so far. Even with a tremendous amount of knowledge under our belt, Tosafot is calling upon us to jump in and get our feet wet! We are charged to concretely investigate these texts with ALL of our senses. Only once we have done so can we fully evaluate its merits and deficiencies.
Engagement in the Jewish Tradition cannot merely be intellectual; it must be hands-on.
To be perfectly honest, while I know this maxim to be true, I feel greatly challenged by it. And yet, what a timely message as I complete my two years of intense study and preparation to teach Jewish text. It is not enough to know the translation, manuscript differences, exegetical comments on a particular passage. The most powerful tool in my educational toolkit is, and I don’t mean this arrogantly, myself. I must live the Torah that I am teaching – whatever that might look like – in order to demonstrate that Torah can be woven into one’s life and to suggest possible ways of doing so.
As for my Jewish self outside the classroom, I am equally charged to embody the texts that I have learned. I cannot carry these texts to North America through discourse alone. I must wear them on my sleeve and incorporate them into my diet. (Here I am not referring specifically or exclusively to dress and eating habits.) After learning about justice, I must pursue justice. Having studied the sanctity of time, I must sanctify my time.
Of course, there are texts which I am still grappling with and unsure about their import. But that uncertainty can and definitely should be brought our actions as well. Inconsistency in Jewish practice is a sign that it’s alive! So while that inconsistency may frustrate us, let it be a reminder that our Judaism, like ourselves, is dynamic and fluid.
I bless us all that we have the courage to step outside the study hall and carry our learning into the streets.
May we each find ways to THINK A LITTLE LESS about own our Judaism, and DO A LOT MORE with it!