Trapping Torah

For the week of September 15th, 2012–28 Elul, 5773

Parashat “Nitzavim”
(Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)

“No offense, Rabbi, but I’m just not a spiritual person.”  Like most clergy people, I’ve heard these words (or variations on this theme) many times.  Folks seem to feel like they are missing a ‘spirituality gene’ or maybe, that theirs is somehow defective.  Or perhaps, they’re viewing spirituality more like a talent (such as being able to sing in tune); you’ve either got it or you don’t.  Or maybe, they’re saying that spirituality is more a matter of taste, like loving chocolate chip ice cream or rap music.  Some people enjoy it and others just don’t.

For my part, I believe that every human being is spiritual.  By “spiritual,” I don’t necessarily have in mind formal religious belief or observance.  By spiritual, I mean that every person has a need for and the potential to express their longing for meaning, for a sense of connectedness, for a way to make sense both of the world and of the best way to live in it.  Organized religion, its teachings and observances, may be the experience that most meets this need, nourishes its expression and provides that sense of connection.  But it may not provide the best path to spiritual nourishment for everyone.  Still, acknowledging the limitations of organized religion doesn’t change my belief that we all feel the need for meaning, that we all want a sense of connectedness.   It also doesn’t change my sense that Judaism can provide a beautiful, rich and fulfilling path for many of us.  And, according to Nitzavim, it’s well within our reach.

This week, as Moses continues with his series of farewell addresses to the Israelites, he says the following:  Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it?”  No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). 

The midrash offers the following story as an interpretation of this last verse:  The prophet, Elijah, ever mentioned on good occasions, said:  Once as I was walking on the road, a man who met me mocked and reviled me.  I asked him, “My son, since you have refused to learn Torah, what will you say on the Day of Judgment?”  He replied, “I have an answer:  Understanding, knowledge and spirit were not given me from Heaven [so how could I study Torah]?”  I said, “My son, what is your work?”  He replied, “I am a trapper of fowls and fish.”  I asked, “Who gave you the knowledge and spirit to take flax, spin it into cords, weave the cords into nets, use the nets to trap fish and fowls, and sell them?”  He replied, “Understanding and knowledge [to do my work] were given me from Heaven.”  I said, “To take flax, spin it into cords, weave cords into nets, and use nets to trap fish and fowls, understanding and knowledge were given to you from Heaven.  But do you suppose that, for words of Torah, about which it is written, “The word is very near to you [Deuteronomy 30:14], understanding and knowledge were not given to you?”*

As I read the midrash, Elijah is teaching that we can’t use the ignorance defense.  We can’t say, I didn’t know what my actions meant and I was incapable of finding out.  We can’t really say, “I’m just not spiritual or intellectual enough to understand what God wants from me.”  We can’t say, “It’s beyond me to know what it means if I make this choice or act in this way.”  No, says Elijah, we all have the potential to hear and understand.  To this trapper-fisherman, he basically says, “How could it be that God would give you the ability to figure out the complex skills of your trade but not give you the ability to understand something as important as Torah?”  You can do it.

All of us are spiritual.  And while we may need to translate the heart-promptings we hear in ways that make sense to us as individuals (using the tools that come most naturally to us), we all can do it.  We need to do it.  We may translate those promptings through writing or dancing or painting or singing or building things or working at social justice or being a good friend or spending time out in nature.  But for me, as a rabbi, the question is how best to help people nourish and express their very personal, spiritual sensibilities using the riches of the Jewish tradition.

So, if I were Elijah (how’s that for chutzpah?!), I’d tell this fisherman-trapper, “Start with what you know.”  I’d say that there is actually Torah in the work of trapping.  I’d explain that in the same way individual fibers of flax can be woven into strong cords, individual human beings can be woven into strong communities of faith.  That’s why Nitzavim makes a point of listing the diverse kinds of individuals who are standing together to enter the covenant (Deut. 29:9-14).  No individual can fulfill the covenant alone.

I’d also tell him that the ropes of those cords can be joined into nets and that each part of the net is joined to and dependent on the others.  If there’s a hole in one part of the net, the whole thing becomes ineffective for holding onto what’s most worthwhile.  I’d explain that the Torah teaches we are all responsible to and responsible for each other for the exact same reason.  If we’re going to “catch” righteousness and compassion, it has to be a group effort.  And I might also say that in order to catch fish or trap animals, you have to learn to pay close attention to their habits/experiences.  You have to do your best to understand other creatures, to identify with them and also to recognize how your fate is bound up with theirs.  I’d point out that if you start paying this kind of attention, you soon realize that all creation is bound together, just like his nets.

Finally, I’d explain that “the Torah” in trapping and fishing has been right there in front of him all along, if only he could have opened his eyes to see it.  Because it is.  And because all of us can.

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* Quoted from: The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah,  eds., Hayim Nahman Bialik & Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, trans. William C. Braude (New York:  Schocken Books, 1992), pg. 407, #51.  They cite the following sources for this story: Tanchuma, Va’yelech, 2; Tanna d’bei Eliyahu Zuta 14; Yalkut, Nitzavim 960.