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On Torah, Trenches and Trifles: A Modern Legend

In the beginning the Torah lay bound up in a corner, and whosoever desired would come and claim her…
A fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Ari Elon has 30 years of experience teaching Talmud and Midrash at institutes throughout Israel. Ari is a faculty member in the Bina Center for Jewish Studies at the Efal Seminar Center of the United Kibbutz Movement. He formerly directed the Rabbinic Texts Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. His publications include From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven – Meditations on the Soul of Israel

By Ari Elon

In the beginning the Torah lay bound up in a corner, and whosoever desired would come and claim her. And the Great Sages came, for they were courageous and confident and creative, and they would claim her, and make her their own. Tenderly would they turn and turn her words, and they would expound mounds and mounds of meaning from her every letter. So that there was no study hall without an innovation, and the land was filled with Torah as the waters cover the sea.
And the Torah was happy, for she was the plaything of the people.
Then came a time of great darkness and the people were forced to exile from themselves. And the Divine Presence exiled with them, driven forth from all places until It had nothing in the world but the four cubits of Halakha. And the First Rabbis, fearful for the fate of these four cubits, sought to protect them. So they erected two tall pillars to the east and to the west of the Torah. And the pillars stood, towering and ominous and forbidding, and no man could approach the Torah lest he scaled their great height. And many men tried and failed. And many men did not try.
And the Torah was sad, for she was no longer the plaything of the people.
Years passed, and the Latter Rabbis grew dissatisfied with the pillars their forefathers had built. Still is the Torah exposed and vulnerable, said they, and must be shielded from those who are unworthy of her. So they fortified the pillars with hundreds of columns, citadels and steeples. And the Torah became impregnable, and no longer gave birth to meaning. For no man dared go near her, and the few who tried lost themselves in her trenches, her mazes and her moats. Even when a rare pilgrim finally entered her gates, he could but stand and stare, so paralyzed was he by the perils of his journey.
And the Torah lay, desolate and untouched, in her corner, and no man would claim her, and no man would make her his own.
Now the time came when the people returned once again to themselves. They rebuilt their homes, reinstated their reign, revived their language. But the Torah remained entrenched within her fortresses, as ever secluded and remote. Until one day the people said, Wherefore have we returned to our native tongue, that our Torah remains beyond our reach? So they established study halls, where some men and women covered their heads with skullcaps, and some covered their heads with flat caps, and some covered their heads with no caps at all. And once again were there no study halls without an innovation, for these men, too, were courageous and confident and creative. They did not storm the bastions of Halakha, but discovered the hidden regions of Aggada. These forgotten parts of the Torah were surrounded by no walls, for they are not concerned with questions of rites and ritual, but with trifles of life and death, good and evil, faith and love. And so the people sallied boldly forth, linking the words of the Torah to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Writings, and the words of Torah were as joyful as when they were given at Sinai. For what was once a source of authority became a source of inspiration, and what filled the people with awe now filled them with elation.
And the Torah was happy, for she was once again the plaything of the people. She liberated them and was liberated by them. She was a reflection of their past, and they were the promise of her future.
* This essay was written as an allegory and is not meant to be read literally. The writer does not wish to detract from the momentous importance of 2,000 years of Torah study.
Written with Gila Fine

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