If It Is an Empty Thing

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Shabbat Shuvah
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on September 21, 2017
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

During 5773 (aka the 2012-13 academic year), I wrote as a blogger for the journal Sh'ma. I and the other participants in this endeavor would receive the up-coming issue of the journal a bit in advance of its publication, and then write a short piece on our own thoughts and reactions to the theme and/or individual essays in the issue, which were then posted on the Sh'ma website. In October of 2012, my second outing as a Sh'ma blogger, the theme of the issue was "Communities and Synagogues." I began my response (you can see the whole thing at http://shma.com/2012/10/s-blog-if-you-build-it-they-will-come-who-are-you-vs-what-is-it/ ) to the issue with this observation:

What I noticed reading the draft of the current Sh'ma is that the issue is quite top-heavy with rabbis first and foremost, with a strong representation of academics and leaders of community organizations close behind. Who is rather noticeably missing from this conversation? Lay people, synagogue members, indie minyan members, unaffiliated Jews.

I find myself thinking of this long ago piece (when your career demands the amount of writing mine does, not quite five years is indeed a long time and a lot of writing ago…) this week because of a verse in this week's parashah, and more particularly what rabbinic tradition did with that verse.

First a little background…

This week's parahshah begins after what was something of a "cliff-hanger" from the end of last week's parashah. Moses, nearing the moment when he will die and the Israelite People will pass over into the Land without him, gathers together "all the elders of your tribes and your officials" (Deut. 31:28) in order to speak to them (and warn them against wicked behavior and disobedience of God's commandments). Thus parashat Va-Yeilekh concludes in 31:30, "Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel." Leaving aside the technical question of who exactly Moses is speaking to (if in v. 28 he's gathering leaders, how is it that he is addressing the entire nation in v. 30?), a reader is likely to immediately wonder – okay, so what did he say? Well, you'll just have to wait a week, until this week's parashah and chapter 32, to find out.

And in fact, most of our (rather short) parashah consists of 43 verses of a complex, multi-part poem that reviews the history of the relationship of God and Israel, anticipates Israel's rebelliousness in the future and the punishment the people will suffer as a consequence, and provides a vision of Israel's ultimate redemption. Its language is complex, its imagery varied and vibrant – all well worthy of extended analysis, but in a different drashah than this one…

Once the poem is concluded in v. 43, there are 9 more verses of epilogue (44-47) and set up (48-52) for the final parashah of the Torah, v'Zot haBerakhah, which we will read on Simhat Torah. The verse that is asking for my attention this week is the last of the epilogue, Deut. 32:47, and even more particularly its opening:

For this is not a trifling (literally: empty) thing for you: it is your very life…

By "this," Moses means the poem he has just recited, its warnings and its message, and more broadly all of Torah, its instructions and its warnings and its message.

Rabbinic exegetical (i.e., midrashic) tradition, it seems to me, does surprisingly little with this verse. Sifre Devarim, an early rabbinic (tannaitic) midrashic collection on the book of Deut. twice teaches:

"'For this is not a trifling thing for you' – the thing that you say is trifling [rather] ‘is your very life.'"

Just a bit later in the rabbinic (amoraic) period, one (similar) basic interpretation is repeated in multiple locations (5 in the Jerusalem Talmud and 3 in Genesis Rabbah – plus there are many repeats and adaptations of this tradition in collections from after the classical rabbinic period). In this midrash, the rabbis play creatively with the relationship of the word "reik" ("empty, trifling") and "m'kem" ("for you," but also with the possible meaning of "from you"):

"'For this is not a trifling thing' – and if it is (i.e., seems) trifling, this is ‘from (i.e., because of) you.'"

That is, this midrash asserts, if you are failing to find meaning in some part – or more! – of Torah, the failing is not Torah's failing, but yours. All of Torah is meaningful; if you cannot find that meaning, then you must not be trying hard enough. In several examples, the texts also proceed to demonstrate how even seemingly unimportant details of grammar, or of content, are in fact critical to understanding the meaning and/or the moral message of the Torah. Don't get it? Study more, study more diligently.

I do not intend to endorse this midrash and its message too whole-heartedly. I – and I'm sure many of you too – can certainly think of ways in which if Torah is not "trifling," it is nonetheless confounding, disturbing, challenging, and even off-putting, and for good and sincere reasons that are in no way because of a failing of the individual to "properly" understand them. Nor should the blame always on the one who receives, or does not receive, Torah, as if there is nothing to be said about teachers and community leaders and their responsibilities to teach, and teach in such a way that their students can learn.

And yet… I think it is not wrong at this precise moment in the year – during the Aseret Yimei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Returning/Repentance – to consider a message of personal responsibility. Human relations, including teaching and learning, are complicated and messy and multidirectional, but at this time of year, we should be focusing first and foremost on our ownresponsibilities in our relationships. It is my task examine myself and face what I may have done wrong, and how I can apologize to you – even if it may be that you have also hurt me, that we have hurt each other.

So too in our relationship with Torah, and with God (the Source of Torah), and with Judaism (e.g., Torah writ large). Torah is, or should be, our life. Here is most (though not quite all) of the conclusion of the blog post I wrote once upon a time for Sh'ma:

It occurs to me that so long as we – rabbis and founders and leaders of new organizations and initiative – are engaged in "outreach," "meeting people where they are,"…and so on, we are still assuming the responsibility is ours. If you build it, they will come – we only need to figure out what "it" is. Just to be clear, I'm not arguing for ignoring ways in which our communities are unnecessarily unwelcoming, unfriendly, and unresponsive. What I am asking is for Jews, ordinary, every-day "lay" Jews, to take responsibility for their Judaism… Here's where…the indie minyans currently convening around the country get it right. When already established institutions didn't seem to have a space for them, the people in these groups didn't (only) complain about how unwelcoming those establishments were, they did the hard work of getting together a core group, figuring out the details of how they were going to pray together, and making themselves into communities that supported each other and helped members grow in their Judaism…

Of course the sources of alienation we all sometimes feel aren't only internal, aren't only or even mostly personal failings. But this is a time of year to ask ourselves nonetheless what responsibility we can take for own relationship to our religious heritage, what steps we can take to make our connections stronger, to dig deeper, to find meanings that had previously seemed hidden from us. To take our commitments seriously, to make them full and not empty. To make Torah not trifling but central to our life and to what it means for us to live in this world. This was my challenge to the readers of Sh'majust after the High Holydays in 5773, and all the more so mine to you – and no less to myself – heading from Rosh haShanah to Yom Kippur in 5778.

Shabbat shalom, and shanah tovah u'metukah!