When we read the Torah, through what lens are we supposed to read it? Are we supposed to read it as the Jews who received it would have? Or is it actually meant to be read in a way that fits with our own understanding of the world – one that cannot possibly be the same as that of those who first received the Torah?
I believe that the rabbinic discussion in the Midrash and later in the Mishna about the wording of one of the mitzvot in this week’s pasha can take us far towards answering this important question. Rashi’s formulation of the midrash on Devarim 12:23 brings this out quite remarkably. In it, Rabbi Yehudah tells us that the reason that the Torah tells the reader that they must be strong and not eat blood is because the Jews who had lived in Egypt struggled to fulfill this mitzvah. But then Rabbi Shimon ben Azai comes along and says that the actual reason for the wording is diametrically opposite – for him, the mitzvah of not eating blood is actually something very easy for the Jews to keep. Rather, the Torah is telling us that even an easy mitzvah requires exertion, and all the more so, a hard one.
The rabbis who oppose Rabbi Yehudah (Rabban Gamliel takes a similar to position to Ben Azzai) may not disagree with him about the state of affairs in Egypt. Indeed, a careful reading of their words show that they do not actually deny it. Rather, their objection is that his reading is irrelevant to the readers of the time (and, incidentally, ours as well). For in their times, Jews did not seem to have much of a taste for blood. And once that reason became irrelevant, it could no longer be how an eternal Torah was to be read in their time. What is interesting here is that the Torah’s eternity is not understood as it needing to carry the same message for all times, but rather that the Torah can sometimes carry a variety of valid readings for different times. And so, whereas Rabbi Yehudah’s reading may have been correct for the generation at Sinai, it was no longer correct for their generation. Moreover, while this takes the form of a disagreement in the Midrash, Rebbe unequivocally adopts the latter approach in the Mishna (Makkot 3:10)
In the introduction to the first volume of my Redeeming Relevance series, I wrote as follows:
The classical search for relevance seems to be rooted in what commentators perceived to be the unique properties that emanate from the Torah’s Divine authorship. That is to say, whereas a human author’s meaning is necessarily limited by his culture, God’s intentions and meaning can span whatever possibilities the words can legitimately carry.
God’s ability to communicate two contradictory things at once is actually illustrated in a different context by a famous midrash. In Mechilta 87 we read that when delivering the Decalogue (specifically, the fourth commandment), God said two different words, shamor and zachor, at the same time. What is illustrated here about God’s ability to communicate two words simultaneously – which the Midrash points out is impossible for a human speaker – can provide a paradigm for God’s propensity to communicate simultaneous meanings of the words actually written in the Torah.
For us then, the historic or original meaning of a mitzvah – while it has great value and instructive import – is by no means its paramount message. The meaning(s) we can derive for generations that followed, and our especially for our own, holds equal validity and thus we are compelled to search for these messages with renewed vigor in each generation.Rabbi Francis Nataf