Torah Study: The Trap of Literalism

Today is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return, and today’s Torah portion is Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30). It is the shortest parshah in the Torah at only 30 verses, and is part of Moses’ farewell to the Israelites as they all stand across the river Jordan from the Promised Land.

At this point, Moses has already been informed by the Eternal that he will not be going with his people to the Promised Land. He is 120 years old, and he is about to die. He is, at this point, trying to make sure that the people leave with the last wisdom he can give them.

In this parshah, the main messages seem to be “be strong and resolute” and “take these teachings with you and teach them to your children.” This generated a lot of discussion at our Torah Study meeting, but there’s just a few threads I want to braid together for you in this post. Mainly, those threads are leadership, adulthood, and interpretation. So let’s go, shall we?

One of my notes was on verse 31:27, where Moses says to the Israelites:

For I know your rebellious spirit and your stubbornness. Even while I am alive with you today, you are rebelling against the Eternal, and surely after my death!

My original note on this was, “Does Moses think that only his presence is what’s keeping the Israelites on the good path?” Then, during the discussion, I realized that of course he does. He’s already seen what happens when their leader leaves for a while – witness the episode of the golden calf, when he was only away for 40 days. This is not his first rodeo. He’s seen how the Israelites all go off in their own rebellious directions if they don’t have a strong, charismatic leader to keep them together and focused on the main point. They’ve had him leading them for the last 40 years, and there’s nobody really ready to replace him (oh, sure, Joshua’s going to try – but remember how well Joshua did with anyone challenging Moses’ authority back in the day; is he really going to do all that well as a leader when someone challenges his authority? We never find out, since this is essentially the last few chapters of the Torah).

Anyway. Moses is naturally more than a little worried, here. He knows his people well enough to know that without strong leadership, they’re likely to fracture into many squabbling tribes and not follow Torah, even with his dying exhortations to do exactly that. So let’s take this as the setting of this parshah: Moses, the anxious leader/father figure, worrying about the people who have been in his care and under his guidance for 40 years, and how they’re going to function once he’s not there to guide them any more.

During discussion, many people identified this as the same feeling as parents who are watching their nearly-adult teenager finally leave for college or marriage or the job that takes them out of the family home have at that moment. At this point I was reminded of the midrash I read about Adam and Eve and their departure from the Garden: Adam’s kind of like a trust fund baby. He doesn’t have to actually do any work. He just plays all the time. This is what we would call “childhood.” But Eve gets tired of this after a while, so she pulls a stunt that gets Adam’s dad angry enough to throw the kids out and make them earn their own way. They have to grow up – at least a little bit.

Now, here we are again, with Moses worrying about how these kids of his – not just his blood kin but his spiritual children as well – are ever going to make it out in the real world if he’s not there to make sure they’ll do things the right way. They have to grow up – and he won’t be there to guide them.

Up until now, the Hebrew people have pretty much had Moses to tell them what God wants. But he’s not going to be there when they get to the Promised Land. He’s already been informed: this buck stops here. So he’s trying to distill whatever wisdom he can send them off with before he dies, much like a parent helping their kid unload the car at the dorm room door tries to awkwardly say a few words of wisdom before their child flies away into a life where the nearly-adult child will no longer move in rhythm to the same backbeat as the one their parents and younger siblings hear like a heartbeat in the center of their home.

Moses is worried. He knows how his people do when they have a strong leader. He has no idea what they will do when that leader is irrevocably gone.

But he also knows that his departure is inevitable. He knows that they will have to function when he is gone. So he gives them caution – but he also gives them instruction. And that instruction is, essentially: It’s time for you to each develop your own interpretation of what the Law means. It’s time for you to grow up a little more. Now, instead of having me to tell you what the Law means, you’re going to have to start figuring it out for yourselves. It’s time to take the next step – out of childhood, where literalism and black-and-white thinking is normal, and into adulthood, where there are many possible interpretations and all of them can be right.

Rabbi mentioned that the commentary that we use in Torah Study left out an important word in its translation of verse 31:19. The commentary’s translation is, “Write down this song and teach it to the children of Israel.” But there’s a Hebrew word in there that didn’t make it into our commentary’s translation, and it changes the entire meaning of what Moses is saying. That word (which, sadly, I could not catch the Hebrew for during study), means “for yourselves,” and the correct translation is, “Write down for yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel.”

Rabbi felt that this was important enough to also bring in some other texts. One of them is a comparison of the Torah to the Greek legend of the Odyssey. The author of that text, who lived in Nazi Germany and escaped, pointed out that the Odyssey leaves nothing to interpretation, while the Torah leaves almost everything to interpretation. The Torah is sparse, not detailed; it conveys truth, not representation. As a result, with the spaces between the words and the ambiguity of Hebrew, we are given – mainly – the bullet-point description of what happened. This leaves us with the need and the requirement to interpret the rest of it (hence midrashim). Rabbi felt that this need for interpretation is actually of Divine intent, not an accident, because things are always in a state of flux and new interpretations of the Torah will always be necessary for us to maneuver our way through daily life.

Judaism is largely a religion of interpretations, not of literalism. We have many sayings about the space between the words being important – in fact, all our midrashim are, in some sense, about the space between the words. That’s where interpretation happens.  Mozart said that “the music is in the rests,” or the quiet moments where no instruments are playing. The very characterization of this last piece of instruction (which we will see in next week’s parshah) as a poem or a song means it must be open to interpretation, or it has no real meaning.

When we demand the “one true meaning” of our scriptures, we totally miss the point. There are as many meanings as there are stars in the sky, and each one of them can be true. God is in the spaces in between.

Here’s the trap of literalism: the literal mindset that only allows for one interpretation and no other is the mindset of a ten-year-old child. Piaget called it the “concrete operational” stage. This is where the rules are the most important thing, and adherence to the rules is what matters. Some adults are still children under the surface, and still look for the rule set that will make everything simple and straightforward and understandable.

No such rule-set exists. This parshah, in part, is telling us: now that Moses is departing, it’s on us to interpret in order to begin to understand. It’s time for us to grow up. We’re not the children of Israel anymore – we are the people Israel, and it’s time for us to be adults about it.

 

 

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2 Comments

Filed under D'vrei Torah, Judaism

2 responses to “Torah Study: The Trap of Literalism

  1. The word (three letters long) literally translates as “to you” or “to yourselves” The form is masculine plural, which is implicitly (though not explicitly) all-inclusive. The selection of “for” as the translated preposition is obviously correct: there are very few pairs of languages (if any) between which prepositions can be mapped cleanly. I find, “for yourselves,” in the New King James Version. I didn’t look elsewhere.

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  2. Pretty sure the word you’re looking for is לכם (Lachem). Here’s the Hebrew:

    יטוְעַתָּה כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה לִּי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְעֵד בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

    From: http://m.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9995

    I love your perspective on this by the way 🙂

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