Friday, February 22, 2008

Ki Tisa: The Incompatibility of Luchot and Eigel

My Israeli chavrusas in yeshiva had a style all their own. They would scream and yell at me while we were learning together, and then in shiur they would scream and yell at the rabbi teaching the shiur. Of course, they would always preface their remarks with an honorific, “HaRav,” “Master,” but they would go on to declare, “HaRav, you don’t know what you’re talking about!” For their own part, the rebbeim responded in kind; some of them even punched us if the debate got hot enough.
The style left a lasting impression on me, aside from the bruises. It was total absorption in the topic at hand; we forgot everything else.

That total absorption came to mind this week when I read a comment by Rav Naftali Kohler in his sefer חומר לדרוש on our parshah. He noted that when Moshe descended from the mountain with the luchos, he met Yehoshua, and the Torah says, “וישמע יהושע את קול העם ברעה, Yehoshua heard the nation in its celebration. ” Rav Kohler asked: Why didn’t Moshe hear the singing?
He explained: כל מי שיש בידו לוחות העדות והתורה אינו שומע קולות אחרים - One who has the tablets and the Torah in his hands will not hear any other voices. Someone who is truly immersed in Torah is deaf to the world, and hears nothing else.

Why is this the approach of learning Torah? Why isn’t Torah study more sedate, more refined, more classroom and lecturer and sober exchange? Why is Talmud Torah, as it is practiced in yeshivot in America, Europe, the Middle East, Australia and the former Soviet Union, such an all-consuming enterprise?
Part of it is practical, of course; the discipline itself is demanding. And part of it is pure passion. But more than that, the very nature of Talmud Torah, Torah scholarship, demands that we enter a different domain.
• In Talmud Torah, History is not a list of dates and names and accomplishments; rather, we live in the age of our ancestors, experiencing the world and Judaism through their eyes, envisioning ourselves in a dialogue with those scholars as part of the same masorah they inhabit. Rav Soloveitchik famously described himself witnessing the sages entering the room when their names and opinions were invoked - such is the feel of serious Torah study.
• In Talmud Torah, the ladder of honor is structured upon excellence in piety, and our role models are those who have achieved expertise in the texts of the Torah.
• In Talmud Torah, our allegiance is to text and to ancient interpretation and to communal standards of belief as well as behavior. We are expected to work at developing our own logical understanding, but we are also expected to surrender to the collective interpretation and practice.
This is why Torah education requires absorption. If we were to anchor our feet in this world while holding ancient texts open in front of us, if we were to think about dinner or a meeting or a dream we had last night or a song we once heard or a book we once read, we would be as outsiders looking in, like people watching a movie but thinking about the movie theater they’re in, or the babysitter at home, instead of what’s transpiring on the screen or coming from the speakers.
כל מי שיש בידו לוחות העדות והתורה אינו שומע קולות אחרים - One who has the tablets and the Torah in his hands will not hear other voices.

Of course, learning alone is not complete and is not the total goal of our experience; we are taught, “גדול תלמוד המביא לידי מעשה, study is great for it brings about action.” We must still become actors - but transported study is what makes us able to do so. How can a Jew live a powerful Jewish life if he has never left this world and spent time in the pure realm of Torah, with its Masorah and its role models and its allegiance to text and belief and behavior? We need to spend time in that other realm first.

Which brings us back to Moshe, descending with the luchos. Moshe has just acquired these tablets, these representatives of HaShem’s Torah, in forty days on a mountaintop, separated from this world and its concerns on every level. No food, no water, just Moshe and Gd inside a cloud. This is life in the beis medrash, at its fullest. Moshe hears no voices outside that of the Torah.
Moshe was meant to come back to this world and interact here, bringing the lessons of the Divine Beis Medrash to a world empty of Torah - but he couldn’t do it, because what he found in the Golden Calf was not a world simply devoid of Torah, but a world that was the antithesis of Torah.
Where did the Jews get the idea of creating a calf, specifically? Historians note that ancient Egyptians worshipped a bull called Apis - and Apis would have had special significance for the Jews in the desert. Apis, the most important sacred animal in Egypt, symbolized death and re-birth. His breath was supposed to cure disease, and his presence would aid men in virility. Apis, the template for the Golden Calf, provided life in this world for people - where Moshe’s luchos experience was about living outside this world.
The two were incompatible - and so Moshe smashed the luchos.

Realistically, we all have our own distracting Eigel. Even as we sit here in shul, during davening or the Torah reading or a speech, thoughts of family and livelihood and health and entertainment clamor for our attention, drawing us into this world - which is why Judaism summons us to be קובע עתים לתורה, to set up fixed times for learning Torah.
The Gemara says that when we will stand on posthumous trial before HaShem, we will first be asked whether we dealt honestly with others, and we will then be asked whether we established fixed times for Torah study.
We will not be asked, “How much time did you set aside for Torah?” We will not be asked, “Did you complete all of Torah in your studies?” No one will question us, “Did you really understand the classes you attended?” Rather, we will be asked, “Did you set aside fixed times for Torah study?”
“Fixed times” means time that doesn’t change, that isn’t subject to the vicissitudes of vacation or work or appointments - time that is ironclad.
• Time that is like Moshe on the mountain, undisturbed.
• Time that is like the debate in the beis medrash.
• Time in which we hold the luchos, unable to hear the noise coming from the camp.
This is the expectation - that all of us, men and women and aged and young, will set up fixed time, even half an hour per week, and say, “This is my time to become part of the masorah, to accept a new set of role models, to pledge allegiance to an ancient text and to its living interpretations.”

Our embrace of another world is the heart of Torah study, and it is what makes our learning more real, and therefore more effective in shaping our lives.
The NEA Higher Education Journal published an article a few years back on the classic Beis Medrash experience; it was written by a Dr. Henry Abramson. Dr. Abramson observed, “Walk into the beis medresh and you will be confronted with a cacophony—some 300 students sitting opposite each other and arguing passionately, defending their delicately nuanced readings of the Talmudic text that lies before each of them.”
This is learning Torah. This is what Moshe was doing, so that he was unable to hear the noise coming from the camp. And this is a goal toward which we must strive, to transport ourselves to another realm, so that we might return here prepared to live powerful Jewish lives.

Some afterthoughts
1. I'm not sure I organized this derashah well; I keep re-thinking it and wondering if I shouldn't have started with Moshe coming down the mountain, then asked why he had to smash the luchos, then discussed the transport to another realm that is Talmud Torah and developed the opposition to the this-worldly immersion of the Eigel, etc. But it's now two and a half hours to Shabbos, so I think I'll run with this.

2. The idea of transport to another realm in studying Torah may be the idea behind advice I once heard in the name of Rav Mendel Blachman, a rebbe of mine in Yeshivat Kerem b’Yavneh: If you have a big, difficult decision to make, stop and learn a page of gemara before making the decision. I’ve tried this, and it works; studying that page takes you completely out of this world, completely clearing your head of preconceived notions and distractions, allowing you to approach the decision anew.

3. For more on Apis, go here.

4. For Dr. Henry Abramson's great article, go here.

5. I quoted the line קול העם ברעה toward the beginning of the derashah, and translated the last word as "in its celebration." There are several approaches to translating that word; see the standard mefarshim.


  1. Very interesting insight. BTW, I heard R Blachman speak at a tish about 10 years ago at an NCSY National Convention and he said over the idea about learning a page of Gemora...he was also quoting R Hutner like no one's business. Gut Voch!

  2. We are expected to work at developing our own logical understanding, but we are also expected to surrender to the collective interpretation and practice.

    See, this is where I run into problems. It's not so much that I think I know better, or am smarter, than the sages or my teachers or anything. It's simply that I lay a burden of proof on everything, and every argument. So I guess I will always be a bit of an outsider to these discussions - but they are fascinating. :)

  3. Tzipporah-
    Laying a burden of proof on everything is fine, as I see it - but I also believe that one must recognize communal tradition as a kind of proof.

  4. Glad you liked my article. Yasher koah, Hillel (Henry) Abramson.

  5. Thank you, Dr. Abramson. I have used that article in classes several times, because it does such a good job of conveying important aspects of beis medrash learning and rebbe-talmid roles.