“Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea.”
Water is essential for life. It assists with flushing waste from our bodies, absorbing nutrients, digesting food, and regulating body temperature. Wells were a critical source of water at the time the Talmud was written. Today’s Daf Yomi reading continues the discussion of permissible actions of retrieving and carrying water on Shabbat. And just as water is fundamental for our physical existence, the discussion today takes a turn in a different direction and considers the vast expense of the Torah and all the knowledge contained within it, which is equally critical to our survival.
Rav Ḥisda poses a question today that is interpreted by Mari bar Mar homiletically: “I have seen a limit to every purpose; but Your commandment is exceedingly broad.” We are told that a series of prominent sages and prophets have tried to explain the breadth and reach of the Torah, but none were able to do so. This includes David, Job, and Ezekiel. David explained that the Torah was exceedingly broad, but he did not explain how broad. Job said its reach is “longer than the earth and broader than the sea.”
Ezekiel said that all of human anguish is written in the Torah with the words “lamentations and melody and woe.” The reference to lamentations refers to “the punishment of the righteous in this world” who feel pain in ways the wicked do not. Zechariah is the brave soul who tried to quantify the size of the Torah by saying he sees a “flying scroll; the length of it is twenty cubits, and the breadth of it is ten cubits.” In other words, the reach of the Torah and the learning within it is immense. We are told that the Torah is more than 3,000 times larger than the entire world.
The voice of the Gemara relates a story concerning the great Rabbi Akiva who was incarcerated before he was executed for violating Hadrian’s edict forbidding religious teaching. Rabbi Yehoshua visited him each day with a supply of water. A cruel guard dumped half the water out one day and Rabbi Akiva was left with just a portion his usual allotment. Although his quantity of water was limited, he insisted on washing his hands rather than preserving what was available for drinking. When questioned by Rabbi Yehoshua he stated that he would rather die from thirst than transgress the requirement from the sages to wash his hands before eating.
Rabbi Akiva’s backstory is a reminder of the importance of learning throughout one’s lifetime. He was a poor shepherd who did not start his rabbinic studies until he was 40 years old. He taught us that learning is as important to the nourishment of a human being as a steady supply of water. Today’s reading left me with an image of the Torah as an immense cloud that hovers above the earth. The cloud is serviced by angels who collect knowledge from each of us and fly it on the back of their wings upwards to the sky. The body of all human learning, like the Torah, is truly greater than anyone on earth can ever imagine. And today much of that knowledge is being stored in an electronic cloud that will continue to grow and deepen. Perhaps it’s not too far of a stretch to say that despite everything we are living through today and all our limitations and failings, we continue to evolve as a global society.