Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Parashat Shelah: The Unifying Nature of Talmud Torah

The Unifying Nature of Talmud Torah
A Message for Parashat Shelah 2017
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Congressman Steve Scalise was shot on early Wednesday morning, in the midst of a baseball game with his colleagues. The men were practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball game, a decades-old tradition that positions Republicans against Democrats on the fields of America’s favorite pastime. Angered by the political direction of the country, the gunman violently vented his emotions by shooting at several politicians, beginning a melee that ended his own life.

Politician Steve Israel noted the tragic irony regarding the specific setting of this attack. He wrote:
It wasn’t just an attack on members of Congress and their staff and police protective details, but one of the few vestiges of bipartisanship left in Congress: baseball…While both parties fight against one another in congressional committee rooms and on the House floor, when they compete in this annual event, it is spirited but civil…The rules of the game are respected.[1]
Israel explained that the gunman’s bullets struck more than just a few people. They punctured a gaping hole into the sole venue of appropriate bipartisan engagement and competition.

Baseball has traditionally represented more than just a relaxing hobby. In his Baseball as a Road to God, John Sexton wrote:
It is that baseball has the capacity to elevate and transform, that it has a power to bring people together in expanding levels of relationship: parent and child, neighbor and friend, community and city, state and nation. On some majestic summer days, the many who assemble are one.[2]
Former commissioner of baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote about an additional, and very much relevant, philosophical dimension of baseball:
To know baseball is to continue to aspire to the condition of freedom, individually and as a people, for baseball is grounded in America in a way unique to our games. Baseball is part of America’s plot…Our national plot is to be free enough to consent to an order that will enhance and compound – as it restrains – our freedom. That is our grounding, our national story, the tale America tells the world…[3]
Paradoxical in nature, baseball holds the keys for the establishment of unity – structured and civilized competition.
* * * *
Immediately following the pronouncement of Am Yisrael’s punishment for the sin of the meragelim – death in the wilderness, God instructed Moshe:

Speak to Bnei Yisrael, and you shall say to them: “When you come to the land of your settlement that I am about to give you, you shall make a fire offering to God, a burnt offering or a sacrifice to set aside a votive or a voluntary offering…” (Bemidbar 15:2-3)

A public explanation of specific sacrificial laws and their accompanying libations – whose relevance was only “when you come to the land of your settlement” – seems brutally insensitive to a nation that had just learned that they would never enter that land. What was God’s rationale for these instructions at this juncture?

Though many of the classical commentators sought peshat-oriented answers to this vexing question, the Midrash set forth a truly perplexing rendition of this situation. Tanna Dvei Eliyahu (ch. 27) described God’s purpose in this instance as an attempt to “console the people.” The continued description of the Midrash envisioned an ensuing intellectual battle regarding the application of these laws to a convert – one that was finally settled by God’s intervening verdict. The Midrash leaves blank any explanation as to how these now-inapplicable laws could in any way console the people, nor why the people would conceivably enter a heated debate about them.

R. Moshe Shemuel Shapira z”l, the former head of Yeshivat Be’er Yaakov, suggested that the Hakhamim’s intent in this portrayal was to display the power of Torah study. He suggested that the rabbis’ explanation and story sought to highlight the positive feelings of enjoyment inherent in a true debate over words of Torah. The ironic context of this envisioned debate sharpens the rabbis’ portrayal of the uncanny ability of talmud Torah to raise the spirits of its learners.[4] Unclear, however, is the specific dimension of this intellectual analysis and debate that led to the comforting of the people. What is this “power source” of talmud Torah?

I imagine the scene of Am Yisrael’s encampment prior to Moshe’s sacrificial commands as one of separateness and disparity. They watched a public rift amongst their leaders – as ten spies warned of the dangers of the Land of Israel, and two others, Moshe and Aharon, professed otherwise. And they then observed the swift demise of a splinter group that rose up, against the warnings of Moshe, in an attempt to conquer the land. Finding themselves in a state of utter confusion, I envision the people of Am Yisrael engaging in shouting matches and other violent demonstrations, as each individual and group sought to voice their own view regarding their shared circumstances.

I believe that it was against the backdrop of this state of affairs that the Hakhamim then envisioned a national consolation through talmud Torah.

Much as, le-havdil, baseball has the ability to bring rise to unity from the midst of opposition, so too does Torah. Its structured rules of study and interpretation are the source of its power to unify through disagreement. It is within the broadly defined contours and specific guidelines of a halakhic debate that the freedom of opinion and interpretation to all that engage in its study arises.

The perplexing narrative and interpretations of the Midrash hint at an appropriate remedy to communal disharmony. Following the schism brought on by the voicing of core issues and opinions, the road to unity must be painted by the appropriate structure and guidelines of Torah study.

[1] Steve Israel, “An Attack on Congress and Baseball,” The New York Times, June 14, 2017. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/14/opinion/attack-on-congress-and-baseball-steve-israel.html.
[2] John Sexton, Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game (New York, NY 2013), pg. 177.
[3] A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games (New York, NY, 2011), pg. 73.
[4] R. Moshe Shemuel Shapira, Zahava MiSheva vol. I (Jerusalem, IS, 2003), pg. 174-5.