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Catskill Mountains

{Originally posted to Rabbi Weinberg’s website, The Foundation Stone}

Hiking the Catskill Mountains, some prose, and a short comment from my father shape the way I study Halacha. A good friend invited me to, “hike the Catskill Mountains with James Fenimore Cooper.” We stopped at each landmark and read selections from “The Pioneers,” describing the scenes, including Katerskill Falls pictured above, as they were more than a century earlier. It was a magnificent hike and a powerful journey through time.

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Reading the prose of Edward Thomas transforms any walk into an even more special form of time travel: “There are many places which nobody can look upon without being consciously influenced by their sense of history. In some places history has wrought like an earthquake, in others like an ant or mole; everywhere, permanently; so that if we but knew or cared, every swelling of the grass, every wavering line of hedge or path or road were an inscription (The South Country).”

Although many study Jewish law as list of rules and instructions, Halacha invites us to hike its trail through time with the eyes of contemporary observers as we had hiked with Cooper, and, eventually, with a Thomas like appreciation of its development through the shattering earthquakes and slow moving ants of history. The journey back through time with a law tells a story of people struggling to apply the law as they made their way through this complicated world.

Although I am enthralled with Thomas’ prose, he is better known as a poet who was encouraged by Robert Frost to transform into poetry his reflections on country life. I recently read that, years later, Frost said, “All he ever got from me, was admiration for the poet in him before he had written a word of poetry.” Frost’s words triggered the memory of my father’s comment. Long before I knew any law, my father saw the lover of the story of law in me.

My father was putting me to sleep and, when I requested a story from Responsa literature rather than a bible tale, he commented, “As long as you can hear the story of a responsum underneath all the law, you will become a great Poseik, Halachic authority.” My father took my journey into the past, my love of the story, and planted a seed for the future, a seed that continues to grow as I journey with Halacha beyond time, exploring its path and applying its lessons to the future.

When God commanded Moses to teach the laws of the Kohanim serving in the Temple, He instructed Moses to teach from two perspectives, exploring the journey of the law from inception till the present and planting seeds for the future even before the student has learned a single law. “God said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them’ (Vayikra 21:1).” Rashi comments on the apparent redundancy of, “speak and say,” “to encourage the older generations to address the unshaped young,” by teaching both the “old,” traveling through time with the laws, and the “unshaped young,” by planting seeds, seeing and believing in their potential before they know any law.

Halacha means, “Journey.” Scholars study the journey of the law from the Torah through the Mishna and Talmud continuing on through creative applications of the law in Responsa so they, in turn, can apply its principles to new situations. We immobilize her journey when we present Halacha as a list of rules. Even when we time travel with a law we pinion the minds of future generations if we do not plant a seed of greatness in their unformed minds. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the teacher of the Zohar who we honor on Lag B’Omer, plants seeds of infinite growth in our minds so each of us can begin our time travel with Torah with a taste of her eternally expanding wisdom embedded in our souls, soaring, reaching to grasp higher as we climb up the ladder to heaven he lay before us. No wonder when Jacob woke from his dream of the ladder said, “This can be no other than the House of God.”

We can time travel with Torah back to Jacob’s ladder, and with properly seeded potential planted by our parents and teachers, climb up high, beyond time.

Shabbat Shalom!

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