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Friday, 20 November 2020

A Drug of Life or Death - Tol'dot Sermon 2020


The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, meaning that even though the specific details may be different, there are recurring themes throughout the history of humanity. One theme, which in our world is hard to appreciate, but is getting much easier to appreciate with every passing day, is that we are entirely dependent on the accessibility of water. The ability to control water to the point that clean, running water, sometimes heated, is available “on tap” is nothing short of miraculous. Our planet is covered in water, although most of it is completely undrinkable, either because it is too salty, or too polluted.

In this week’s sidrah, we read of the ever-human need to dig for water, and the tensions that finding water can create. Just as around the world governments are wising up to the fact that the great number of military conflicts in the future will be simply fought over water, so too in our sidrah there is strife as soon as water is found.

Water, it should be noted, is one of the most prominent metaphors for Torah. Water immediately flows to the lowest place, just as Torah flows toward those who are low of spirit, that is, those who are humble. Water refreshes and nourishes, just as Torah refreshes and nourishes. Life is impossible without water, and life for a Jew is impossible without Torah. But if we read this sidrah metaphorically, then, there is a very challenging message for us all. As we dig for Torah, as we explore the depths of Torah, we’re going to come into conflict. We’re going to struggle over the Torah that others have found. So, can Torah ever be destructive? Can Torah damage us?

Interestingly, there is a text in the Talmud that suggests that it is possible. It takes the quotation that is sung as we lift the Torah scroll before or after reading it (depending on your custom) – vezot hatorah asher sam moshe lifnei b’nei yisrael, which means, “this is the Torah that Moses placed before Israel.” Now the Rabbis enjoyed a good play on words whenever they could to try to explore new meanings of the text. They noticed that the word for “placed”, which is Hebrew is sam, is also the word for drug. As a result…

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of that which is written: and this is the torah that moses placed (sam) (Deut. 4:44)? If one is deserving, it becomes a drug (sam) of life to him. If one is not deserving, it becomes a drug of death to him. And this is similar to that which Rava said: Where one uses it skillfully, it is a drug of life, where one uses it unskillfully; it is a drug of death.” (Talmud Bavli: Yoma 72b)

This is really quite a remarkable passage. It’s not that studying too much Torah is bad for you socially, but that if one is undeserving, or if one uses it unskillfully, then it is a drug of death. What does this mean? Is it an immediate poison that kills on the spot? Dramatic as that may be, it’s clearly not that. So in what way could Torah be a drug of death? This question is made even harder when we think about the first point, that if one is deserving, or if one uses Torah skillfully, then it becomes a drug of life. What is a drug of life?

It’s possible that it’s talking about intoxication. Intoxication can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing. Intoxication is a mitzvah on Purim, for example, because it lifts the heart and helps us enjoy the world. Intoxication can go too far, however, and can lead us to a very dark place, wherein we lose ourselves. But as nice as that interpretation might be, why not just say that? Why instead talk of life and death?

Perhaps it’s talking about addiction, in this case, the addiction of burying oneself in books to the exclusion of all else. In one famous narrative, the Dubner Maggid believes he is totally righteous, until his teacher takes him outside into the marketplace away from the protection of his books. His teacher then challenges him to be just as pious as he was when he was addicted to his books. In that reading, Torah could be a drug of life when it helps us and others live fully but becomes a drug of death when it leads us to arrogance or to isolation.

Perhaps this commentary is a warning to Jewish leaders – when Moses put Torah in front of the Israelites, how he put it was more important than what he put in front of them. Perhaps it’s all about presentation. Jewish leaders can put Torah over to their communities in a way that forms an enjoyable habit for them, or they can put it over in such a way that it dulls their senses and their only addiction is to stay away from it, therefore dying spiritually. Maybe this, like much of Talmud, is a text from rabbis to other rabbis. Maybe it’s saying, “Present the Torah well and you’ll get people hooked, and their spiritual life will grow. BUT, if you put Torah in front of the community and don’t do it well, then you will turn people away, and they will die spiritually.”

There is another text which supports this theory. Pirke Avot tells teachers to watch their words lest their students swallow them up and die. The similarity in these two texts between a “pill” and “swallowing” can’t be avoided. These two texts seem to be telling Jewish leaders that the spiritual life or spiritual death of their community might heavily depend on their interpretation and particularly their mode of presentation of Torah. For a Rabbi, that is rather terrifying. Will the next words I utter cause the spiritual death of the community? As if I needed more pressure in my work!

It was our sidrah that gave me some comfort, and helped me connect this thought to my opening theme. We dig for water because everyone is thirsty. Some people like sparkling water, some still. Similarly, we all need Torah, but we need it presented to us in a way that is palatable. There is no one way to present Torah that will be palatable to everyone. One person’s drug of life is potentially another’s drug of death. What’s important is to create a community where everyone digs for water. It’s not the words themselves, but the way we sustain people. Rabbis need to keep serving up water in differing forms, some of which people will like, some of which they won’t. But what is important is to create a community where everyone digs for water together. Today’s Rabbi isn’t a firehose that sprays people with as much Torah as possible – they’re a map to water reserves.

The healthiest Jewish community is one which continually explores God’s Word and sips it and struggles with it in a mutually affectionate way. We can disagree, but those disagreements don’t need to damage us because those disagreements are just the same as preferring still or sparkling water. Actually, such disagreements help us grow as a community as we learn to see the world from differing perspectives. May our learning come to be a drug of life, may it sustain us and bring us sustenance and joy, and let us say, Amen.

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