Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How Wandering in a Field can Lead to (Lessons in) Remption

After a discussion about the weekly Torah reading, one in which we'd looked at what a number of different rabbis had said about what a passage means, I once had a congregant ask with exasperation, "but what is the right answer about what it means?" It's a good question, in that it points out something that I think confuses a lot of people about the Bible, and about how to understand it. The Torah and all the Bible, while they contain a lot history, and history might be something where you can sometimes find the answer (after all it's not December 5th, or 6th, or Something Around There a Date Which Will Live in Infamy!), that is not the only thing the Torah is going for. There is always meant to be a more important, more important and more varied set of lessons that the Torah tells us in any passage. This week's portion gives a great example. One of my favorite scenes in the Torah is that of Joseph, having been told to go to his brothers by Jacob, wandering around in a field, presumably having run out of energy to fulfill his father's request; a real depiction of just how much teenagers haven't changed in three thousand years. Then a man appears and tells Joseph where to go and that of course sets into motion the entirety of the rest of the Torah! But for such an important scene, the Torah is very quiet about who this stranger is. Now if this were history, it would be one of those mysteries like who fired first at Lexington or what happened to the Roanoke colony - but it's not that. By being vague, the Torah forces us to consider a bunch of possibilities. Our rabbis lay these out - it was an angel, it was just some guy, it was some guy, but he was acting on orders from God, and etc. By considering each of these we in fact consider all sorts of things about how God reveals himself in this world, about how we should interact with strangers, about how significant the little things we might do to help others (like giving directions) can actually be quite momentous in the lives of those we help (ultimately becoming viceroy of Egypt). We would be sorely lacking if we did not consider all at once these and many more lessons just this one incident teaches. And that is the beauty of Torah. It must be read for what it is, a book of religious guidance and inspiration for living a holy life. While some of its lessons draw on historical events or events that read as being true to real-life, to only look for "just the facts, ma'am" would miss the whole point. We must wrestle with the Torah's meaning so as to be worthy of our title of The People of the Book. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah, Rabbi Benson

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