What's in It?

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
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 28, 2013
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

In the coming days, we read both the end and the beginning. On Simhat Torah (which is combined with Shmini Atzeret for those in Israel, where only one day of hag is celebrated), we hear the very end of the book of Deuteronomy, also known as Parashat V'zot haberacha, followed by Chapter 1 and the first 3 verses of Chapter 2 of Genesis. On the next day (at least here in the diaspora), the weekly parashah is Bereshit, as we begin once again the yearly cycle of Torah readings. Who doesn't love that moment when the gabbai says, "Our Torah reading this week begins on page 1!" (except that in Etz Hayim it's page 3, but hey...)

I've been reading V'zot haberacha on Simhat Torah for many years but for many of them, I hadn't thought about it that much. I'd never heard anyone give a drash on it. So I thought, I'll write a drash based on V'zot haberacha. But as you'll see (spoiler alert?), it has connections to Bereshit as well...

Wow. This short parasha is so very rich in poetry, and images, and interesting questions. But I didn't have to go very far into it all to find an intriguing phrase that was not only intriguing, but that also seemed to me appropriate to both the holiday and the Shabbat that follows.

Deuteronomy 33:2 reads: 

Adonai m'Sinai ba... 
God came from Sinai...

Because of the mention of Sinai, and other clues in the verse, the rabbis read this as a description of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. But if that's what we're talking about, why is God coming from Sinai? Shouldn't God be described as going to Sinai? For that matter, what do Seir and Mount Paran and Ribeboth-Kodesh, which are also mentioned in the verse, have to do with the giving of Torah?

So the rabbis imagine where God might be going before the giving of Torah that isn't Sinai, that is, away from Sinai. They create a story, told in both the midrash to Deuteronomy (Sifrei Devarim 343) and in the midrash to the original telling of Revelation in Exodus (Mekhilta d'Rebbe Yishmael, Yitro, Bahodesh 5). There are some subtle differences between the accounts that might make for an interesting drash some other time. But the essence of both versions is that before God gave Torah to Israel, God went to other peoples and offered it to them.

First, God went to the children of Esau, and asked them, "Will you accept the Torah?" They replied, "What's written in it?" So God quotes to them from the 10 commandments: "You shall not murder." But this is a problem for the children of Esau. Our inheritance, the essence of who we are, they say, is violence and warfare, and they quote Genesis 27:40, Isaac's "blessing" of his elder son, back to God: "By your sword you shall live."

Next God goes to the Ammonites and the Moabites, and something very similar happens. God asks, "Will you accept the Torah," and they respond, "What's written in it?" This time God says "You shall not commit adultery." But this is a problem for the Ammonites and Moabites - if you know your Genesis (and if you don't, pay attention for the next few weeks), you'll recall that Ammon and Moab are supposed to be the descendants of the incestuous connection between Lot and his two daughters (see Genesis 19:36).

And now God tries the Ishmaelites. The same initial exchange takes place, and this time God tells the people that what is written in the Torah is "You shall not steal." No good for the Ishmaelites: theft is their heritage and ancestral legacy. The Ishmaelites cite Genesis 16:12: "He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand shall be on everything." The Mekhilta version of the midrash helpfully adds Joseph's comment in Genesis 40:15, "I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews," and you may recall that the Ishmaelites had a part in that.

But when God goes to the Israelites, the Mekhilta version tells us, things are very different. "Na'aseh v'nishmah," they say, "we will do and we will listen/understand" (quoting Exodus 24:7). The rabbis put great significance into the order of the words here: first, we will do. Then we will seek to understand this law we have accepted.

We often think that Judaism is a religion of action rather than faith, and in one way the rabbinic emphasis on "na'aseh" before "nishmah" supports that view. But seen in a different way, I think it also says almost exactly the opposite. When someone comes to you with an offer, it seems reasonable to ask, "what's in it?" But when it's God who is offering you Torah, that is a dangerous question. The midrash suggests that if you ask "What's in it?" then God will find for you - or you will find for yourself - that thing in it that seems to be antithetical to who you are and what you think is your essence and inheritance. You have to make the leap of faith and acceptance first: we will do. You can question and explore and challenge - we will listen and seek to understand - but only after, only from inside.

So it seems to me no accident that V'zot haberacha and Simhat Torah and Parashat Bereshit - that is, an annual celebration in which we complete the reading of the entire Torah, and then the process of starting over at the beginning - should be linked. This is a moment of awesome transition, what anthropologists call a "liminal" moment. According to the midrash, the other nations of the world were once - and only once - presented with the choice, "Will you accept the Torah?" But they did not make the leap of faith necessary to do so. And us? We get the choice annually. What better moment than the one in which we come to the end of the Torah to stop, to hesitate instead of beginning again, to ask "What's written in it," or even to claim, "I know what's in it, and I know what feels problematic, wrong, contrary to who I am. How can I accept this Torah, accept its demands without questioning it first?" Maybe this is why we dance and sing and make sure everyone has an aliyah (and maybe even why some of us enjoy a little "l'hayim" during the proceedings) - so that we will all be in a joyous and celebratory and accepting mood, one that will carry us over our doubts and challenges and questions until we've already begun again, until we're already committed to another year, postponing "nishmah" until we're over the hump of "na'aseh." By the time we enter Shabbat Bereshit, we've already embarked on the journey - again.

And I'll go one step further. Maybe part of what we need to be able to do is to re-enter Torah as if we do not know what is in it, and to accept it anyway. The rabbis say of Torah, "Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." If we are sure that we already know what is in Torah, we risk that we will not be open to seeing something new in it, that we will not be open to seeing everything in it. This Simhat Torah and all throughout the new cycle of annual readings that we enter into this Shabbat, may we all merit to do - na'aseh - God's will with faith, and to explore Torah's meanings for us, old and new - nishmah - with true simhah.

Chag Sameah and Shabbat shalom!