One morning 1900 years ago, Rabban Gamliel, the nasi, prince of all Israel, scholarly giant and ruthless political leader, gathered an elite, secret group of sages in an attic. Their mission was to set the Jewish calendar for the coming year. It was an elite group because their calculations involved a combination of halachah, esoteric math and astronomy, as well as knowledge of agriculture and meteorology. They met in secret, in an attic, because this was a period of Jewish rebellion against Rome and the Romans had placed a price on their heads.
Rabban Gamliel, valuing the calendar as a chief means of holding the nation together, defied the Romans and assembled his council. He surveyed the room. Suddenly, his breath caught - there was an extra person, one more than the count of invited sages. Was the extra person a security breach, or an impetuous student? He demanded, מי הוא שעלה שלא ברשות? ירד! Who has ascended without permission? Descend immediately!
Shmuel haKatan, one of the invited sages, realized that the interloper was an overeager student who was now about to be humiliated in front of the others. There seemed to be no good approach. If he said nothing, someone would be publicly shamed - but there didn’t seem to be another option.
Thinking quickly, Shemuel remembered a story from Tanach about a man named Shechaniah ben Yechiel, who had falsely identified himself as a sinner in order not to embarrass others who had actually transgressed - and, even though this would be a lie and even though it would also bring him embarrassment, Shemuel did the same. He lied and said, “אני הוא שעליתי שלא ברשות, I am the one who ascended without permission. I did not intend to participate, but only to learn the law.” And so Shemuel haKatan used Tanach to guide him through a difficult situation.
Shemuel haKatan is not unique; every generation of Jews has found relevance in Tanach or in figures from later in Jewish history. The gemara tells the story of a man captured by Romans, who the Romans attempted to mate with a woman who was not his wife; the man drew inspiration from Tanach’s Palti ben Layish, who lived in the same house with King David’s wife for years without sinning. The famous woman whose seven sons were killed drew her sacrificial inspiration from Avraham. Jews tempted to adultery have learned from Yosef’s restraint, impoverished people have taken inspiration from Hillel, rich people from the extraordinarily wealthy Rabbi Elazar, people in great despair from Chanah.
We have learned from mitzvos, as well. We have learned selfless kindness from the mitzvot of tzedakah, of visiting the sick, of burying others. We have learned mercy for animals from the mitzvah of sending away a mother bird before taking her young, and we have learned environmental concern from the mitzvah of not slaughtering a mother animal and her young on the same day. We have learned to be careful in judging others from our judicial law, and we have learned to value literacy from the laws promoting Torah study.
From Shemuel haKatan to the woman and her seven sons to us today, Jews have always understood Judaism to be more than a set of practices, and Torah to be more than an intellectual or spiritual exercise. At Har Sinai, 3400 years ago, we were bequeathed an eternally relevant roster of role models and a panoply of pertinent principles from which we may glean counsel, from which we are expected to draw inspiration, in any real-life situation.
When I studied in Yeshiva in Israel after high school, I didn’t really understand this point of applying Torah to general life. I wanted only to remain there in the yeshiva for as many years as I could, filling the gaping lacunae in my knowledge and living daily mitzvos without the distraction of the broader world. The relevance of Torah to challenges of business ethics or medical ethics wasn’t anywhere near the top of my agenda. It wasn’t for years that I understood that Torah is not an entity unto itself, embraced in isolation. Torah is meant to guide us through life, just as it guided Shemuel haKatan.
Look at Matan Torah, the presentation of the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai. HaShem gave us the Torah in a desert, a place in which our nation could study and mature and develop, but as Ramban noted, so many of the Torah’s mitzvos are prefaced, כי תבאו אל הארץ, When you come into the land you shall fulfill these commands. Torah was meant to be lived by a nation in Israel, a real-life people handling real-life problems, not an isolationist population dwelling in Gan Eden but rather a political force living in Canaan.
Rabban Shimon bar Yochai’s life is perhaps the best illustration of this fact. The great Tanna spent twelve years in a cave with his son, hiding from Roman authorities who would have killed them. They spent the entire period in deep study, their Judaism a self-focused spiritual experience; they are credited with writing the seminal Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, during that time. What a wondrous escape from the world, a life in which their food was Divinely provided and all distractions were removed!
But, as Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm noted in a speech he delivered at Yeshiva University in 1997,5 that period did end, and at Divine command: HaShem declared, “Leave your cave!”
The cave, like the midbar, like the yeshiva, is an incubatory laboratory, a grand place to learn, to engage in Research and Development, to deepen our understanding - but, ultimately, Jewish life must be lived, the Torah must be implemented, in a world of crises and, yes, distractions. True Torah knowledge is deep, true Torah knowledge is sophisticated beyond the words on a page or the pilpul in a shiur, true Torah knowledge guides us on matters as diverse as abortion and euthanasia and free trade and free speech. True Torah knowledge is eternally relevant.
So far, I don’t think I have said anything new or surprising… but don’t worry, there’s still a little time.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his introduction to Horeb, explained that not only should every Jew learn practical lessons from the Torah, but every generation should learn NEW practical lessons from that Torah. The Torah itself remains relevant, the halachah is the same as it has ever been, but in addressing new situations, non-halachic situations, we can always find FRESH guidance in the role models and principles of the Torah.
As Rav Hirsch put it, “A greater measure of freedom has been given to every individual mind to work out and form such views according to the thinker’s own will. As a result, we possess a collection of the most diverse views of men of the highest gifts from the earliest times down to our own day.”
In every generation, we are summoned to find the relevance of the Torah to our individual lives, because every generation faces new situations.
We face new policy issues: Personal computer technology, globalization, constant attacks on the state of Israel, an environmental crisis, who foresaw all of this even forty years ago? Who would have analyzed the Torah and produced lessons we could use directly, in our own day?
We face new personal issues: Families wrestling with the results of intermarriage, people making new choices on gender issues and homosexuality, greater options in Jewish education as well as secular careers, increased availability of mitzvah observance but decreased cohesion in Jewish communities - all of these demand a new look at Torah’s lessons, through modern eyes…
…And so, we need to provide this analysis, through the words of our sages, ourselves.
Many people here are about to say Yizkor, remembering generations of relatives who did exactly this, who acted on the lessons of an Avraham and Sarah, a Moshe, Aharon and Miriam, a Yehoshua or a Devorah, who derived values from the Torah’s mitzvos and laws and philosophies. We remember them, and we honor them, and we carry on their tradition... but not too far.
Once in a while, someone tells me that he wears his father’s tefillin, his grandfather’s tefillin, even his great-grandfather’s tefillin. This is a beautiful practice - but only so long as the tefillin don’t remain our father’s tefillin, our grandfather’s tefillin, our great-grandfather’s tefillin, as those beloved relatives left them. We might need to touch up the leather. We might need to replace a strap. We might even need to change the parshiyyos inside the tefillin; the passage of time, and changes in heat and humidity, can damage even the finest set.
The key is that we make those tefillin our own, we update them for our lives - and the same is true with our Torah. The stories don’t change. The mitzvos and laws don’t change. And yet, the Torah which HaShem gave us remains ever current. Like Shemuel haKatan, like the woman with her seven sons, like a grandson fitting his grandfather’s tefillin for his own head and arm, we can always find sophisticated relevance in those words we received at Sinai, to guide us in our lives.
The Rabban Gamliel at the beginning of the derashah is Rabban Gamliel II, and the incident with Shemuel haKatan is in the beginning of Sanhedrin. To see how serious he was about the calendar, look at his disputes with Rabbi Yehoshua, for which he was temporarily deposed.
The Ramban to which I referred is toward the end of Sefer Vayyikra, where he comes very close to saying mitzvos matter specifically in Israel.
The cave experience is recorded in Shabbos 33b. Rabbi Dr. Lamm’s speech on it may be found here.
Rav Hirsch’s comment is found as part of a longer discussion of שמעתתא vs אגדתא, in his Foreword. In the Dayyan Grunfeld translation from the German, 3rd edition, it’s on page clviii.