Building A Fence Around The Torah
By Yehudah Plaut
March 26, 2005
The best known stories of the five books of the Torah, the ones we can quote line and verse, actually make up a little more than one book Genesis, and part of Exodus. For the most part, the rest of the Torah is taken up with the minutiae of life in biblical times and all its attendant rituals. We, who live in the modern world of refrigerators and crème brulee, are confronted with making sense of the plethora of foreign details from a different period in history, and bringing currency of time and place to our own being.
And so, the wise men of old gave us the Halachah, a set of dictums by which we should live our lives in righteous holiness. Halachah, translated loosely into modern language, means ‘the path’ or ‘the way’. We might add, in parentheses, ‘the way we live our lives’. This week’s passage, Tsav, is among the many passages of Torah from which a ruling premise was inferred which governed the majority of decisions determining the “do’s and don’ts” of Jewish law as applied in our daily life.
At the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the scholars and sages of the Sanhedrin, located in Yavneh, dominated the religious life of Israel for hundreds of years, creating the rabbinic tradition that survives to this day. These wise men held that the books of the Torah, the written tradition, have always been transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition. They pointed as proof, to the text of the Torah itself, where they said many words were left undefined, and many procedures mentioned without explanation or instructions; students of Torah were assumed to be familiar with these details from other sources. This parallel set of material was originally transmitted orally, and came to be known as “the oral law”. By the year 200 C.E. much of this material was edited together into the Mishnah, the core document of rabbinic Judaism, and the next chronological major Jewish work written after the Bible. The rabbinic traditions that grew out of these wisest teachers coming together, stressed all the capabilities of the mind: memory, logic, intuition, deduction, analogy, inference and so on. The sharper the mind, the more respect and reverence a rabbi commanded from his disciples. They considered knowledge the greatest attribute a human could have, and to this day, my grandmother rolls over in her grave with disappointment that her grandson never got a PhD, two Masters degrees weren’t enough.
Without knowledge one wouldn’t know what rules to obey. The rabbinic thinking went something like this; since we, as mere men, could never deem to really understand from the scriptures what God really wanted us to do, the rabbis thought their proliferation of rules would protect both the people and God’s words, the Torah, from transgression. Rules, they believed, kept the Torah sanctified and prevented people from coming too close to sin. The rabbis called these rules “fences”. A fence was a rule that kept people further away from breaking a rule by not letting them even get close. It might be considered that the erection of such fences were meant to protect the less learned from breaking God’s law and also an act of humility that never allowed man to act as if God’s true intention was known and understood by mere mortal man. For instance, take the phrase “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk”, the oft quoted basis for the stricture against eating milk with meat. If one extrapolated beyond the more obvious prohibition against MacDonald’s cheeseburgers, one also could not serve a dish of curried chicken, or any fowl, prepared with coconut milk because of the potential of an uninformed Jew seeing the concoction and mistaking it for a mixture milk and meat and thereby think that the dish was kosher.
In the modern world, we are forced to ask ourselves, of what value does this have to how we live our lives. Initially we can question if what the Torah gives us is actually God’s word. Are we, as humble humankind, able in the very least to distinguish the true intent of God in our lives? If we feel we can, is this not immediately false because in essence it places us on an equal plane with God, by claiming that we truly understand. To all, it is obvious that we can not pursue this line of thinking because it will not provide us a guide for life that the Halachah implicitly promises. So what then can be the ultimate purpose of living with a set of exhaustive laws that lead immediately to further definitions, clarifications, exceptions, contingencies, what-ifs and whatever other mental gymnastics were required to specify just exactly what to do?
Judaism has always spent its spiritual energy on living in the present, the past and future being unreal and unknowable. If you actually followed the extensive litany of rules and obligations you couldn’t help but being subject to a constant awareness exercise that keeps you in the present, and the humility in knowing that you couldn’t possibly get all of Maimonides’ 613 laws right. The Halachah, by offering constant present awareness, allows us to sanctify the holiness of each moment simply by being aware of it, and acknowledging that awareness in the present is what living a life of fullness is all about. Tzvi Wolff, a teacher I studied with many years ago in Israel, used a wonderful example to teach me about sanctifying actions in my life. He reminded me of the orthodox practice of not turning on lights on Shabbat. He said the act of turning lights on and off is an everyday affair, something we might do without even thinking about it. However, by stopping and putting a sock on your hand before you pull the switch, you have sanctified the moment and continued in the Hallachic tradition separating what we do on Shabbat from what we do everyday. The wearing of the sock is the visible manifestation of the intention that we must consciously bring forward to sanctify our action. The intention to live a proper Jewish life in full, present awareness is solely a matter of keeping that intention front and center and that ultimately is the meaning of Halachah.
So here we are, in the present, celebrating Shabbat, in a conscious act of intention. We aren’t out on the tennis courts; we aren’t home watching the NCAA finals on television. We are here knowingly sanctifying this moment. As I finished this writing, I asked my son, Ben, for feedback and we both acknowledged the difficulty of ending this train of thought rather than continuing on for pages and pages more. And that is just the point, here we are in the present and this present doesn’t end as long as you and I are conscious, and not habitual, in all our actions. Therefore in full mindful cognizance, I wish you all Shabbat Shalom!