A 2,000-Year-Old Debate on Whether to “Get Out of the Box”
By Yosef Y. Jacobson
This week’s portion (Vayelech) relates the dramatic events that transpired during Moses’ last day on earth. Among the many things he did on that fateful
day was commit the entire Pentateuch (the Chumash, or Five Books of Moses) to writing (1). The Torah scrolls we use today are copies of copies of copies
of the original Torah scroll written by Moses on the day of his passing, on 7 Adar of the year 2488, 3,278 years ago.
After completing the writing of the full Torah, Moses commanded the Levites, “Take this Torah scroll, and place it at the side of the Ark of the Covenant
of the Lord your G-d, and it shall be there as witness for you (2).” The Tabernacle in the desert and later the Temple in Jerusalem housed a Holy Ark containing
Two Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and the newly completed Torah scroll needed to be placed at the side of this Ark.
Not surprisingly, the exact location of the Torah scroll vis-a-vis the Ark inspired a debate between the Talmudic Sages (3). Rabbi Meir held that the Torah
scroll needed to be placed inside the Ark, at the side of the Two Tablets. Rabbi Judah was of the opinion that a shelf protruded from the outside of the
Ark and Torah scroll was placed on it.
The logic behind their argument lay in the proper interpretation of Moses’ words quoted above, “Take this Torah scroll, and place it at the side of the
Ark.” According to Rabbi Judah, “at the side of the Ark” is to be understood literally — that the Torah scroll ought to be placed not inside, but outside
the ark. Rabbi Meir, on the other hand, believes that the words “on the side of the Ark” merely tell us that the Torah scroll should be placed not between
the two Tablets, but rather at the side of the tablets, next to the interior wall of the Ark (4).
Three questions come to mind.
First, why did Rabbi Meir feel compelled to impose an apparently twisted interpretation to the words “at the side of the ark”? Why would Rabbi Meir not
embrace Rabbi Judah’s simple and straightforward explanation that when Moses instructed the Torah scroll to be placed “at the side of the Ark” he meant
Second, why was there a need to have the Torah scroll situated in such close proximity to the Ark? Would it really have mattered if the scroll were placed
at another location more distant from the Ark (5)?
And finally, we have discussed numerous times that the Torah and all of its commandments and episodes were transcribed to serve as a Divine blueprint for
living, as a road map for life’s challenging journeys. How can a 21st century human being glean wisdom and inspiration from an ancient commandment to place
a Torah scroll at the side of an ark, at a time when we have no Ark and no Tablets? What type of relevance can Moses’ instruction to the Levites carry
for our lives today?
The Root vs. the Branches
Our Sages have said (6) that the Ten Commandments presented at Sinai and inscribed on the Two Tablets of the Covenant embodied the quintessence of the entire
Torah, of all the Five Books. All perspectives, themes, ideas, laws, ethics and stories of Torah are encapsulated in the 620 letters of the Ten Commandments
(7). The Five Books of Moses, then, serve essentially as a commentary to the Ten Commandments, elaborating and explaining the background, meaning and significance
of these ten pillars of Jewish faith.
The Tablets, in other words, constitute the source, the epicenter, the nucleus of Judaism; the Five Books are the elaboration, the explanation, the outgrowth.
The debate between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah on the kinship between the Torah scroll and the Tablets is not merely a technical argument concerning the
proximity of two physical entities, but rather a profound disagreement on the fundamental methodologies of the development and communication of Judaism.
How closely must we uphold the connection between the expansion of Torah and its core? Are we capable of “leaving the box” containing the Tablets without
losing the real thing?
This is by no means an abstract dilemma. How does one communicate ancient truths to a young generation molded in a secular weltanschauung? How does one
present a Torah which is more than 3,000 years old to a modern 21st century Palm addict? How do we pass on the gift of “In the beginning G-d created heaven
and earth” to Stanford and Yale graduates for whom Charles Darwin holds more sway than Moses?
Are we to present Judaism in its original form and composition, without employing modern-day terminology, techniques and structures of thought? Or must
we take Judaism “out of the box” and re-package it in contemporary language?
I once received an e-mail from a weekly reader, a very learned and observant Jew from Los Angeles: “Rabbi Jacobson, would you cease transcribing your psychobabble
and begin teaching good old Judaism.”
So I wrote back: You are of the opinion of Rabbi Meir; my e-mails follow the path of Rabbi Judah…
The Light and the Vessels
The Talmud (8) says something profoundly moving about Rabbi Meir: It is known to the Creator of the world that Rabbi Meir surpassed his entire generation
and had no equal. Why then was the law not established according to his opinion? Because the sages could not comprehend the depth of his wisdom. Rabbi
Meir was misunderstood even by his own colleagues; his ideas were too advanced for his times.
“Meir” in Hebrew means “the illuminator (9).” The light that emanated from Rabbi Meir’s mind and heart was too profound for his colleagues and students.
Why? Because Rabbi Meir was of the opinion that all interpretation and development of Torah thought must remain intimately bound with its source. The commentary
and exposition may never be removed from the space of their progenitor. The Torah should be placed right near the Tablets. To dilute the light in order
to accommodate the vessels or students, would do an injustice to the integrity of the message.
According to Rabbi Judah, however, the word of G-d needs to leave the perimeters of the sacred Ark and be brought outward.
Judah, Yehudah in Hebrew, means surrender or submission. One has to surrender his or her own elevated state of consciousness in order to reach out and present
the Torah to the student who would not be able to absorb the intense light dwelling “inside the box.” Judaism, Rabbi Judah argued, needed to be “packaged”
in a manner that would make it accessible, relevant and pertinent to people trained in a different mind set and educated in secular schools of thought.
The Critical Link
Yet here is the critical catch: Even according to Rabbi Judah, the Torah must always remain connected to its source by means of a plank of wood.
What this means is this: There is a difference between presenting Judaism in terminology and methodology that can penetrate modern man vs. attempting to
prove that Judaism conforms to modern trends of thought. The former path is noble; the latter path is intellectually dishonest, as it does not seek to
discover the authentic message of Judaism, only to create a fluffy Judaism that does not challenge the comfort zones of the progressive man and woman.
This distinction between the two approaches has been profoundly blurred in recent years, and the results have been obvious. The former approach has given
countless students the opportunity to challenge themselves by the divine truths of Torah; the latter approach has brought down the Torah to suit the fancy
of modern man. In the end, it comes down to the question of how confident you are in the truth of Torah: Are you employing modern thought merely to communicate
Torah, or are you employing it to legitimize Judaism? (Or are you unaware of the distinction between the two, which may be worse…)
What Rabbi Judah is saying is that as far out of the box as you travel, a “plank of wood” ought always to connect you to the original, pristine “Tablets”
inside the box. The link between the nucleus of Torah and its expansions must always remain evident. If not, you may be depriving yourself and your students
from the vibrant, pulsating, divine wellsprings of G-d’s word (10).
1) Deuteronomy 31:9. Cf. Rambam’s introduction to his Mishnah Torah.
2) Deuteronomy 31:26.
3) Bava Basra 14a-b, quoted in Rashi on this verse.
4) See Bava Basra ibid.
5) In fact, the location of the Torah scroll made it unavailable for use, since nobody was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies where the Ark lay. There
are two opinions of if and when this Torah scroll in the Ark was used. According to Rashi (Bava Basra 14b), during the ceremony of Hakhel, the king of
the Jewish people would read chapters of the Torah from this scroll. Also, the High Priest read from it on Yom Kippur. According to Tosafos (ibid. 14a),
this scroll was taken from the Ark only for the purposes of maintenance and it was never put to use.
6) See Talmud Shabbas 87a; Rashi to Exodus 24:12; Baal Haturim to Exodus 20:13.
7) This number is not coincidental: it represents the 613 biblical mitzvos and the seven rabbinical injunctions.
8) Eiruvin 13b; ibid. 53a.
9) See Talmud Eiruvin 13b.
10) This essay is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbas Vayelech 5729, September 1968. Published in Sichos kodesh 5729 pp. 9-19. Large
parts of the talk were later published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 9 pp. 196-203. For another English rendition of this talk, see Week In Review (edited by
Yanki Tauber) vol. 5 number 32.
My thanks to Shmuel Levin of Pittsburgh for his editorial assistance.