Friday, March 9, 2007

The magically levitated Torah (Parshat Ki Tisa)

The magically levitated Torah

The Torah portion of Ki Tisa has the story of the golden calf: Moses is up on the mountain getting the Torah from G-d, and meanwhile the Jews begin to freak out. "Moses has been gone too long," they said, "he's never coming back!" Things get more and more out of control, the people let their freaking-out get more and more irrational, and despite all the miracles they saw in the Exodus from Egypt, they end up making a golden calf.

Meanwhile, up on the hill, G-d says to Moses "get down there, the people are freaking out." Well, not in those words, but that's the idea. Moses goes down the mountain, taking the two tablets of stone that G-d had written the Ten Commandments on. He sees the golden calf, and proceeds to drop the tablets of the Ten Commandments on the ground, smashing them.

The Midrash adds a very strange level of detail to the story. The two tablets of the Ten Commandments were obviously huge. How did Moses carry them? The Midrash tells us that as Moses walked down the mountain, the Divine letters of Torah that G-d had written on the tablets magically elevated the stone, so that Moses didn't have to bear their weight. This is why the Torah describes the scene of Moses going down the mountain with a lot of details of the lettering on the stones (Ex 32:15-16), which would otherwise seem out of place. The Midrash says that when Moses got close to the scene of the Jews worshipping the golden calf, the letters of Torah flew off the stones and went back to heaven. Once they weren't there anymore, the stones stopped being levitated by the letters, and reverted to being too heavy for Moses to carry. This is when he dropped them on the ground, smashing them.

This Midrash may be fun for Harry Potter fans to read, because it brings images of Locomotor charms, but what is it trying to tell us? What's the message or lesson from this Midrash?

The Bais HaLevy (the great-grandfather of the Solovetchic family in America) interprets this in way that I find very interesting, as follows: (Note: I'm paraphrasing heavily in explaining the Bais HaLevy, anyone interested can see Drasha 14 in the back of the Bais HaLevy.)

G-d originally wanted to make the Torah easy to understand. Instead of the written Torah being as we know it now, in which laws and moral lessons are phrased cryptically and need to be inferred and reasoned out from the words, the original form of the written Torah that G-d gave Moses had everything spelled out clearly. All of G-d's moral lessons were written explicitly, all the laws were clearly elaborated, and in general everything we needed to know was fully explicit and easy to understand from the text of the written Torah. The Torah in this form obviously was a lot longer, since every phrase and sentence in the Torah as we have it had to be written out with all of its elaborations. But this Torah was easy to learn, easy to acquire, metaphorically easy for Moses to carry down the hill at Mount Sinai.

But when G-d saw the Jews worshipping the golden calf, just weeks after the splitting of the sea and the exodous from Egypt, he (so to speak) changed his mind, deciding that the Jewish people needed the Torah in the form that we have it today. He saw that the Jewish people needed to invest effort in understanding Torah and applying it to our lives. Without investment of effort, Jews could go straight from a spiritual high seeing miracles at the Exodus from Egypt to a spiritual low of worshipping an idol. But true lasting greatness comes when people invest their efforts in something. "No pain, no gain." Or "no guts, no glory."

This is why, according to the Bais HaLevy, the tablets of Torah were levitating as Moses carried them down the hill. They were easy. They weren't "heavy" in the physical or metaphorical senses. But when Moses got down to where the Jews were worshipping the calf, the extra letters, the explanation and elaboration that the first version of the written Torah had included, flew back to G-d, leaving the heavy, hard to understand, form of the Torah that we have today. This is what Moses then dropped under the newly heavy load.

This is why the Torah is so precise when describing G-d's command to Moses to later carve new tablets to receive the Torah the second time, in Ex 34:1: "Carve yourself two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on these tablets the words that were on the first tablets that you broke." First, the second tablets were carved by Moses -- the Torah now required human effort. Second, G-d would write the words that were on the first tablets when Moses broke them, after the extra elaboration letters had flown off. Without this understanding, the words "that you broke" would be superfluous, but with the Bais HaLevy's understanding it all makes sense.

When we read Harry Potter books, or when we have to do something hard in life, we often think to ourselves how great it would be to have a magical way of making things easy. Why shouldn't things be easy? Doesn't G-d want religion to be easy? Doesn't G-d want morality to be easy?

The answer we see above is that easy things aren't always the things that can last. The spiritual high from seeing miracles can disappear in an instant, but the spiritual high that we invest effort in will stay with us. This is true of spirituality and of everything else in life -- the things that we put effort into are the things that truly matter to us.

This concept applies to a lot of areas of life. In Harry Potter, it relates to Hagrid's saying that the magical world stays hidden because otherwise muggles (non-magical people) would constantly be wanting magical solutions to all their problems. In the modern world, it relates to Bill Gates's famous statement that he would give his daughter enough money to do whatever she wanted with her life, but not enough money that should could do nothing. Exercise requires effort. Knowledge requires studying. No pain, no gain.

So the next time we start wanting something to be easier, whether it's wanting religion and morality to be easier or wanting our homework or jobs to be simpler, we can remember: G-d has made the world to take effort, but this effort isn't for nothing, it's what will make our accomplishments last longer and mean more.

Shabbat Shalom everyone!

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