Yakov Nagen

Ha’azinu: We each have a unique letter

A few years ago, I spent a Shabbat at Bahad 1, the Israel Defense Force’s officers’ school. During the Friday evening meal, two non-religious soldiers delivered discourses on the weekly parasha, Haazinu. One cadet explained something that Rashi says. He asks why the eagle carries her young on her wings, and replies, “It is better that the arrow pierce me than that it should pierce my young” (Rashi on Deuteronomy 32:11). The cadet equated the eagle’s treatment of her young to the proper conduct of an officer toward the soldiers under his command. Then one of the commanders of the courses linked the nearing end of the cycle of Torah readings to the impending graduation of yet another class of officer cadets.

I am amazed by the capacity of the weekly parasha to speak to the heart of every person – wherever they may be – and provide them with the existential meanings they need. There is a kabbalistic idea that says that the soul of every Jewish person is linked to a different letter of the Torah (Zohar Ĥadash on Song of Songs 91b), and that Hebrew word for Israel, Yisrael, is an acronym for “There are 600,000 letters in the Torah” (“Yesh shishim ribo otiyot laTorah”). The number 600,000 symbolizes the Jewish people , implying that each Jew has a unique connection to the Torah. The truth is that even one’s personal letter is not fixed but rather dynamic – as one’s life changes so does one’s reading of the Torah portions. One is constantly reading them with fresh eyes and gleaning new inspiration from them.

The Face of the Torah and the Face of Humankind

The Lord’s greatness, the Mishna says, lies in His creation – out of a single person – of all of humanity, with its vast variety, in which each individual is unique:

It was for this reason that man was first created as one person…to express the grandeur of the Holy One blessed be He: for a man strikes many coins from the same die, and all the coins are alike. But the King, the King of kings, the Holy One blessed be, He strikes every man from the die of the First Man, and yet no man is quite like his friend. Therefore, every person must say, “For my sake the world was created.” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)

The above also applies in relation to the Torah. The Talmud – in commenting on the verse “God hath spoken once, twice have I heard this: that strength belongeth unto God” (Ps. 62:12) – explains: “One biblical verse may convey several teachings” (Sanhedrin 34a). The Lord’s strength is apparent in the fact that each person hears something else in each of His utterances. There are a multitude of interpretations for the Torah, and no two are alike.

The truth is that the Torah’s multifaceted nature can already be derived from the mishna in Sanhedrin, for it springs from the multifaceted nature of humanity. Because every individual is unique, each of us interprets the Torah differently, thus revealing a novel aspect of it.

Text and Interpretation

New ideas regarding the nature of hermeneutics can help us understand how a multitude of interpretations can all be authentic expressions of the text, and how each can be said to be “the words of the living God” (Eiruvin 13b). The classic understanding of interpretation sees it as an uncovering of an original meaning intended by the author. There is one truth that we must strive for, and only one correct interpretation. The postmodern philosophy of our age denies the existence of a “text” with a single meaning, and sees the reader’s subjective narrative as the be-all and end-all. Everything is a commentary, as the intellectual Stanley Fish said.

But there is a third option, and that is that meaning is generated through the encounter between the interpretation and the text. This idea is delineated by Professor Moshe Halbertal, who quotes the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer:

The reaction that the text elicits in the reader is what generates the meaning of the text, and it varies from reader to reader. That which catches the eye of the reader in one epoch will not catch the eye of the reader in a different epoch. The attempt to describe the relation within commentary as a relation between the subjective commentator and the object lying before him, waiting to be revealed, is incongruous with the phenomenology of commentary…. The meaning of the text is not dormant within it, waiting to be revealed. Rather, it is only created in the encounter between the reader and the text.

Halbertal cites Jewish sources to prove that Gadamer’s outlook is similar to the manner in which the sages conceptualized the relation between human commentary and the Torah. The Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 4:2) writes that the Torah was not given “cut and dried,” so that its interpretations could yield “forty-nine facets for [declaring] impurity and forty-nine facets for [declaring] purity.” Rather, the Torah is written in a purposely ambiguous style, so as to enable a multiplicity of interpretations. God loves the process by which commentary completes the text. In Tractate Makkot (22b), Rabba bemoans the “dull-witted” people who stand in honor of a Torah scroll, but not in honor of the sages who interpret it.

The idea that there are two Torahs – written and oral – derives from the understanding that there is both text and commentary, and that commentary has its own independent status. Rav Kook explains that the uniqueness of the written Torah lies in the fact that it is utterly divine, whereas the special quality of the oral Torah is generated by its human dimension:

With the oral Torah we descend into life…. We sense that the spirit of the nation, which is bound to the light of the true Torah like a flame to an ember, gave rise, by way of its own special quality, to the oral Torah being created in its unique form. Certainly, this human Torah is part and parcel of the Lord’s Torah; it too is the Lord’s Torah…. All was conveyed to Moses at Sinai – even the future innovations of a veteran disciple. And these two beacons generate a complete world, in which heaven and earth converge. (Shemona Kevatzim 2:57)

On one hand, the oral Torah draws upon the written Torah and is bound to it “like a flame to an ember.” On the other, it has a unique shape, formed by the singular characters of its commentators. This shape is dynamic and is “being created,” as Rav Kook writes, in the present tense. The Torah is an amalgam of the text and the commentator, of the divine and the human.

Uniting the Blessed Holy One and the Shekhina

Rav Kook’s ideas are informed by the kabbalistic outlook on the Torah, which associates the written Torah with the divine sefira of Tiferet, or splendor, and the oral tradition with the sefira of Malkhut, or kingship. Tiferet represents the aspect of divinity that is outside reality, while Malkhut is the Shekhina, or divine presence, which lies inside reality. Much of Kabbala is preoccupied with the relation between Tiferet and Malkhut and the union between them, which is referred to as “Yiĥud Kudsha Brikh Hu UShekhinte,” a joining of the blessed Holy One (Tiferet) and the Shekhina (Malkhut). Put more simply, the divine is both transcendent and immanent, with humanity being one of the expressions of immanent divinity. By interpreting the Torah, anyone can participate in the cosmological partnership between humanity and the divine, a process that brings about a union between Tiferet and Malkhut, heaven and earth.

Torah as Song

In the introduction to the song of Haazinu, God commands Moses, “Now therefore write ye this song for you” (Deut. 31:19). According to the Talmud, that statement refers not only to Parashat Haazinu, but also to the rest of the Torah (Nedarim 38a, Sanhedrin 21b). My friend Rabbi David Bigman gives two explanations for why the Torah is called “song.” According to the first, the Torah is like song in that it “is not simple and straightforward, but rather multifaceted and allusive. It includes artful gaps that invite the reader to deep investigation of its mysterious words.” According to the second explanation, the Torah is like song in that its glory lies in the harmony generated by its many voices. When I contemplate the vast scope of voices that emerge in relation to the Torah, I envision a song that encompasses the entire world, overcoming boundaries between places and people, and between the present and every moment of the past – bringing everything together in one complete symphony that yet retains every single unique voice.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is the Director of Ohr Torah Stone's Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and the Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is also a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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