Monday, February 3, 2014

I Have a Story to Tell

3 Adar Rishon, 5774
February 3rd, 2014

The Torah speaks its message in three different voices: law – like the Ten Commandments; narrative – like the story of the Exodus from Egypt; and prophecy – like Isaiah’s vision of swords being beaten into ploughshares. I love all these voices; over time, they have made a home in my heart; I welcome each one as an old friend.

Throughout the Bible God uses each voice according to its particular strength. Law teaches us what to do. Prophecy gives us perspective on the state of our world, and pushes us to hope for better.

Explaining narrative – stories, really – is harder. Their function is to show us how to know ourselves and know God; however, they don’t always present that way. Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac – what could an example that extreme have to teach us? God places Moses in the cleft of a boulder and passes by so that Moses can see God, but only from “the back”. I find it unlikely that I’ll be put in that position any time soon – why does this story matter to me? And does God even have a back?

People often ask me why the Torah isn’t clearer. It’d be a lot easier if Torah just said what was what: God is about 7 foot tall and wears size 15 shoes; make sure you write that check to Hadassah or you’ll be afflicted with mild gastric irritation.

But that’s not how it works. Substantive knowledge of ourselves and of the Soul of the Universe is hard won – and that’s when the answers are easy. We have spent the entirety of human history seeking the spiritual truth of things, and we have never yet found that truth.

Paul Kalanithi, the chief neurosurgical resident at Stanford, wrote a brilliant and heartrending article about his quite-likely-terminal cancer. In explaining why doctors do not give clear answers about life-expectancy, he says, “What patients seek is not scientific knowledge doctors hide, but existential authenticity each must find on her own. Getting too deep into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.

Torah is just like that. Even if it were possible to give some kind of concrete spiritual truth (and I’m not convinced it is), we simply wouldn’t know what to do with it. Maimonides teaches that we wouldn’t understand it, or we’d get it completely wrong, or we might see that truth and decide that we should put our neighbors to the sword for being unbelievers (my addition). The only way to find authenticity is through an authentic search. And that’s why the Torah teaches in stories: narratives take work to understand, and one inevitably understands them through one's own perspective. And that is proper.

So whenever you encounter a story in Torah, know that you are being invited to dig in. Every story is a metaphor, pointing the way towards a deeper truth. The trick is to enjoy the ride, and to be satisfied with the wisdom we find, even in the knowledge that it is incomplete.

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