Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.

Actual, Embodied, & Subversive: Rashi’s Coded Message For Progress

One of the ways a master artist highlights particular messages within a larger work of art is by strategic placement. Choosing what launches and what concludes a larger compilation frames the meaning that the entire work is meant to carry. By locating a key insight where no reader will overlook it,the artist can make sure that the entire work is read or experienced in the light of those strategically situated verses. Beginnings and endings are such memorable placements.

Jewish tradition recognizes that selection in multiple occasions: the Torah begins with creation and ends with Moses looking into the Land of Israel (without himself entering it). We see from that placement that our story as a people is about continuing that creation in harmony with God’s vision and getting ourselves to the place of promise. All that transpires in between is read in the light of that beginning and end, including all the commandments scattered throughout the core. Jewish mystical tradition goes so far as to highlight the last and first letters of the Torah, a lamed and a bet, reading them as the word Lev/heart, a coded hint of what revelation really conveys.

Other examples of that highlighting by framing the beginning and the conclusion would include Hebrew Scriptures as a whole (beginning full of possibility, ending by being banished yet again to Egypt), the Mishnah (beginning with our role in sanctifying and blessing, and ending with Shalom, peace). Several of our great sages have noted that the Amidah, the standing prayer  recited three times each day begins with roots and ends with shalom.

Recently, our attention was drawn to Rashi’s epic commentary on the Torah, a collection that is rarely considered for its own literary and spiritual integrity, and more often is read as a key to understanding the language and ideas of the Torah. But if we honor Rashi as more than a portal to Scripture (which he most assuredly is!), if we see him also as a creative genius in his own right, then we can ask this framing question of him as well.

What is Rashi signaling by how he opens and closes his famous commentary to the Torah?

Rashi’s commentary begins by explaining why the Torah begins as it does, “When God began creating heaven and earth (Genesis 1:1)”:

Rabbi Isaac said, there was no need to begin the Torah other than (Exodus 12:2) “From this month, it shall be to you…” because this is the first commandment commanded to Israel. What is the reason to begin with “In the beginning?” To fortify God’s deed, telling the people of the gift of the inheritance of the nations (Psalm 111:6). For if the nations of the world were to say to Israel, “you are thieves, for you conquered the lands of the seven nations,” they can respond to them, “All the earth is the Holy Blessing One’s,” who created it and who gave it to the one seemly in God’s eyes. God chose to give it to them, and God chose to take it from them to give to us.

Rashi’s opens with a good rabbinic question: why not begin with the first mitzvah, the first behavioral implication, rather than open with a story about the cosmos and its beginning? Why would a Jewish book begin with the universe? And Rashi’s answer is particularly striking because it isn’t the simplest and most direct answer. One would expect him to respond that Jews live in the universe, or that we need some background before we get to our story. But no, Rashi goes out of his way to give a different answer. He demonstrates that the Torah is not a book of abstraction, or universal timeless principles (like many ancient and medieval philosophies were). The Torah doesn’t deal with abstract ideals, but with specific relationships, because all meaning emerges from particular relations between actual embodied creatures — sharing identity, belonging, and purpose. So the Torah starts by affirming that God enters into particular relations with particular peoples, and that God’s relationship with the People Israel is such that the gift of land grounds us, and through us, teaches all people to be so grounded.

The Torah begins, says Rashi, by affirming the specific, the actual, and the possibility for relationship that is only possible between flesh-and-blood creatures.

And the conclusion? Again, Rashi takes the paragraphs that detail the death of Moses and his uniqueness, and offers an unexpected interpretation to Dev. 34:10-12, “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders that God sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land, or all the strong hand (mighty power) or the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”:

In the eyes of all Israel, that his heart inspired him [Moses] to break the tablets before their eyes, as it says (9:17), “he broke them before your eyes,” and the opinion of Moses accorded with God’s opinion, as it says, “which you broke (Exodus 34:1),” it is seemly that you shattered them.

Here too, the conclusion is directed by the Torah’s focus on Moses’ death. But Rashi doesn’t give the expected answer. What does “in the eyes of all Israel” mean? Most simply that everyone witnessed the many miracles Moses had performed during their wanderings. But Rashi doesn’t offer this reading, which indicates that he is reading for an answer  that teaches a lesson he feels we need. Rashi says that this verse praises Moses for having the courage to shatter the Tablets on his own initiative, adding that his unauthorized destruction accorded with God’s choice as well.

Two aspects make this unique:  1) The story of Moses shattering the tablets appears twice before in the Torah. Why didn’t Rashi choose one of those prior locations to cite this particular piece of Talmud? Why save it for the very end, and manufacture a connection with Dev. 9:17 in order to assert this message now?  2) The connection with Deuteronomy 9:17 is a rabbinic interpretive method (called “Gezeira Shava”) of his own devising (rather than one he heard from his teachers), something the rabbinic tradition essentially prohibited centuries earlier. Rashi is being doubly subversive. We sometimes need to break God’s written words, as well as boldly redefine others through creativity, interpretation, or moral insight.

Regardless how you read Rashi, God is pleased that Moses shattered God’s Tablets with the Ten Commandments!

Why? Perhaps to tell us that faithfulness to a tradition cannot be equated to clinging to indiscriminate precedent or habitually holding to the ways something has always been conceived.

There are times when honoring the values undergirding tradition requires us to break with a particular practice, to shatter an outdated convention. And when we perform that act of constructive dismantling in loyalty to the larger values which animate the tradition — values of relationship, honoring the dignity and reality of the actual, the embodied, and the specific rather than subsuming the real to some theoretical ideal — then (Rashi asserts) God is pleased with our initiative. God sees our shattering as building, our breaking as affirmation: constructive dismantling. Which is just as the midrash that Rashi cites in his last comment: “Resh Lakish says: There are times when the nullification of Torah is [actually] its foundation, as it is written: “asher shibarta (which you shattered)”. God said to Moses, “Yasher Koach Sheshibarta.” (Menachot 99a-b)

May we also, learning from Rashi’s bold and shattering interpretation, read Torah not as a desperate clinging to bygone practice, nor as despotic resistance to new insights, but as a living insistence to act on behalf of the relational values of love and justice. As Scripture itself insists, “It is a time to act for God, for they have violated Your Torah (Psalm119:126)” which the Talmud elucidates to mean, “It is time to act for God, nullify your Torah (Berakhot 54a).”  Rashi comments to one rendering of this verse, “At times one abolishes the words of Torah in order to act for God …”

In other words, sometimes the words of the Torah actualized literally would subvert its divine imperative of love and justice, such that the specific words ought give way for God’s timely vision for the world. Coming to the end of a holy book, we are tempted to turn Scripture into  a God, to read and apply it as an end in itself, rather than a portal to connect with the divine. Rashi may be remind us that our goal remains implementing God’s vision of the world, through the steady pursuit of emet (truth), hesed (love), and tzedek (justice).

This post was co-authored by Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Associate Dean of the Ziegler School and Lecturer in Rabbinics and Jewish Law

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.
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