If you grew up watching late-night TV before the dawn of shopping networks, you will remember being bombarded with endless ads to purchase a Veg-O-Matic, Pocket Fisherman, turkey fryers, the Rotisserie BBQ Recipe Collection, dust mop slippers, and so forth. After demonstrating why the product was something that a viewer absolutely could not live without, the TV huckster would announce: “But wait! There's more!” In addition to the advertised product, viewers also would be offered “at no additional cost” a duplicate, handy, travel-size product, supplementary instruction book, and storage unit — all for the price of one, “but only if you act now.”
The admonition, “But wait! There’s more!” provides a springboard for study of the tension between the dictate to change nothing in the immutable sacred Torah and the need to transform the Torah by uncovering mysteries in its ancient words in order to speak to succeeding generations. Consider the following:
- And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe…. You shall not add anything to what I command you nor take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you (Deuteronomy 4:1-2).
- Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you; neither add to it nor take away from it (Deuteronomy 13:1).
- Gather the people — men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities — that they may hear and so learn to revere the Eternal your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching (Deuteronomy 31:12).
The Rabbis’ ingenious innovation that made the Torah, "The Written Torah,” the servant of their newly created Oral Torah, allowed them to seamlessly slip new interpretations in under the guise of being as legitimate as the Torah, even if at times the reinterpretation was contrary to Torah law. In so doing, the Rabbis took control of the Holy Writ, and made law mutable and their teachings as credible as those in the Torah, forever moving the locus of Jewish law and lore from Torah to Rabbinical writings. The Rabbinites did not view themselves as “usurpers” or “revolutionaries,” but rather as “inheritors” of a rich and deep tradition. Thus, the Torah came to be viewed as the outer covering of the inner world of Torah, leading the Rabbis to focus on King David’s admonition, "Open my eyes, that I may perceive the wonders of Your teaching" (Psalms 119:18). Consider this:
- Moses received a Torah from Sinai and delivered it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets delivered it to the Men of the Great Synagogue (Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers” 1:1). When the text says Moshe kibeil Torah miSinai, “Moses received a Torah from Sinai,” it does not say haTorah, “the Torah,” indicating that the law is not fixed but fluid and subject to change in every generation.
- Turn it again and again, for everything is in it; contemplate it, grow gray and old over it, and swerve not from it, for there is no greater good (Pirkei Avot, "Ethics of the Fathers” 5.22).
- Behold, My word is like fire — declares the Lord — and like a hammer that shatters rock! (Jeremiah 23:29). The Talmud concludes, As the hammer splits the rock into many splinters, so will a scriptural verse yield many meanings as the sparks from struck stone fly off in all directions (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 34a).
- God gave the Torah to Moses in a white fire engraved with black fire (Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 37a).
- One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard (Psalms 62:12).
- The Torah has seventy faces (B’midbar Rabbah 13:15).
- When Moses received the law at Mt. Sinai, he was also shown 49 possible ways that each law could be forbidden and 49 possible ways that each law could be permitted (B’midbar Rabbah 19.2).
- Y’hudah HaNasi, the great second-century Sage who codified the Mishnah, was questioned about why he would record the opposing positions of Hillel and Shammai. He pointed out that we all live on both sides of the ledger by saying — eilu v’eilu, “These and these are both the word of the living God” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b).
Reform Movement Past President Alexander M. Schindler provides an example in his 1995 farewell retirement address of the expanded use of this week’s portion, Vayetzei, to reveal new and deeper meaning. Rabbi Schindler, a master of elegant language and fine-tuned metaphor utilized this text to describe his accomplishments and failures by focusing on Jacob’s dream of a ladder reaching into the heavens:“and lo — angels of God [were] going up and coming down on it” (Genesis 28:12). When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he declared, “Truly the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16). Rabbi Schindler said:
Jacob's dream of the ladder... constitutes an appropriate if humbling metaphor for all leaders — for the ladder, as you will remember, is populated with angels. In truth, for any leader worthy of his or her mantle, the ladder of leadership will be occupied, at every rung, by angels.... angels in the way that Maimonides defined them when he wrote in the Moreih N'vuchim, his Guide to the Perplexed, that "everyone who is entrusted with a mission is an angel."
... Jewish moments...prayer, study, candle lighting or song, by a magic all their own, enable us to see God's ladder, as clear as day with a rung for every one of us.
For Jacob, the response of such a revelation was to take the stone that he had used for a pillow and make it an altar — to anoint the place as Bethel, a holy place, where the reality of God became clear.
Unbeknownst to Jacob, it was the very place where his grandfather Abraham had built an altar and "invoked the Lord by name." Unbeknownst to him, it was the very place where he would return after years of indenture, to be renamed Israel from whom would spring "an assembly of nations."
So it is with our community: We have together built this most dynamic Jewish movement atop the many levels of the Jewish past, and as a gateway into the Jewish future. We have done so by returning from our separate journeys, again and again, to our togetherness, to the place that is God. Together we have made of Jacob's stone a circle of stones ringing the world ...
My sojourn at Bethel is complete. It is my honor, now, to surrender that hard pillow of leadership. Younger heads are ready to dream their dreams upon it.
Rabbi Schindler’s words serve as a reminder that just as Jacob struggled, Jews have always struggled, and at times have prevailed. He urged his community to see ladders that ascend to the heavens, and that even more important than reaching the heights is the climb up the rungs of the heavenly ladder — even if it is against our will. Rabbi Schindler taught that angels may be discovered along the way, sometimes not easily recognizable, but other times quite apparent. Thus the ancient text inspires modern Jews to set stones and to build Bethels — sacred places in which to reach for the divine.
Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D. is senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, and a faculty member of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco, and the Beyond The Walls: Spiritual Writing Program at Kenyon College