I don’t care how much Torah you know.
What matters is how you live it.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik articulates for us a challenge in telling our story and learning Torah:
We not only tell stories describing events; we tell stories precipitating the re-experiences of events which transpired millennia ago. To tell a story is to relive the event. We still sit on the floor and mourn the destruction of the sanctuary, an event which took place 1,900 years ago. We still celebrate the Exodus, an event which lies at the dawn of our history. Our stories are concerned not only with the past, but with the future as well. We tell our children the story of patient waiting for the great realization of the promise, no matter how slow the realization is in coming… Our story unites countless generations; present, past, and future merge into one great experience.
Soloveitchik points out to us that the story only has value when we see it in the context of experience. Experience is only achieved when we move from telling the story to living the story. How do we do that and why should we?
There are plenty of people who know Torah – knowledgeable, articulate clever people who know the story of the Jewish journey by heart. They can tell you where a random idea or quotation comes from and easily navigate the sea of Talmud.
Content knowledge, the essential building block of Jewish life, is a very prized skill. As a kid, in yeshiva, we would be quizzed every Friday on the Parashah – endless quiz questions involving a piece of a pasuk (a verse) asking us “who said this and to whom?” We were made to memorize unusual passages like the “Song of the Sea” and many other parts of Torah, Midrash, and Talmud.
I thrived in that world for a while, relying on my memory and my fascination with detail. It saved me from a lot of mischief that I got myself into (almost got thrown out of school once but was able to “Talmud” my way back in… but that’s for another time). But now, years later looking at my life at this particular moment, about to read the 10 Commandments in our Parashah for the 45th time, I know that knowing Torah and living Torah are two very different things. My knowing Torah was not enough to define me or give my life meaning or even save me from the trouble I was getting into. Clever as I was it was not enough.
Content may be the essential part of our religion and culture but it is just like the pieces of Lego. What you build with it is completely up to you. That is where living Torah comes in. It’s easy to look at what’s happening in our Parashah and judge them or look at them and not see how we can relate. After all, we were not in Egypt, we did not see miracles in our life as clear as the parting of the sea or the pillars of smoke and fire. We would stand up and listen if God spoke to us, right? Or would we?
Content means very little without meaning. Knowing things serves the ego and the constructed, self-important self. That part of us is what we want to show to the external world: our role, our achievements, and our biography. It is necessary but it is hollow unless you balance it with meaning. Knowledge without meaning is a façade behind which is a void.
When learning Torah, we have to go beyond what we know to what we understand. That is more difficult because it requires us to leave what we can retell or repeat and ask to examine HOW we know what we know and to see ourselves in the text and experience it. We have to expose our inner self and learn how to relate. This can only happen through reading the text and bravely asking difficult questions.
What would happen if indeed one day you woke up and God spoke to you? Would you tell anyone? Who? Your doctor? Your partner? Your rabbi? Would you listen?
Have you asked yourself if you are truly free? Are you willing to entertain the idea that none of us are truly free? If so, how are you enslaved? To your job, to your addiction, to money, or to your fame?
Living Torah requires us to see ourselves in the story; it demands that we recognize that the people of Israel were human and that the human condition was as true, as sublime, and as painful for them as it is for each and every one of us today. Without that recognition, our knowledge of their story becomes yet another piece of information that serves our constructed self. Through the text, when we live Torah, we get to see ourselves. We get to identify not just the beautiful and heroic but the ugly and the despair in ourselves. That is difficult.
We must ask ourselves how we are living the Torah.
Which story and which character shows us the many parts of ourselves that we need to face:
How am I like Yitro? What organization have I brought to my life, to my community?
How am I like Tzipora? How did I behave when I was faced with a loved one who left me behind?
How am I like the people of Israel? Am I prepared to face the truth about my complaining?
How am I like a god? What are the 10 most important things for me?
How much Torah one knows is in many ways irrelevant to me: Torah can be learned. Living the Torah one knows is a skill that eludes many of us, but when we are able to see ourselves in the story we connect to our inner selves, connect to our larger story.
That’s when we create meaning from the Torah we know.
Rabbi Igael Gurin Malous