February 22, 2020

Torah portion: Lean in

It’s been a rough few months worldwide. In addition to the violence and the threats, the tenuous cease-fires and seemingly insolvable problems, many people also find all this difficult to talk about. 

I’m hearing from colleagues and congregants, friends and family — sad and distressed by the summer’s traumas in Israel and Gaza, for example — that some of us have turned our fears and anger, anxiety and dismay inward, lashing out at, or shutting ourselves off from, those closest to us who may differ from us in opinion or approach. 

How do we keep civil discourse and provide support instead of adding to the grief? How do we offer comfort to one another in these troubled times, especially as the Days of Awe approach and we prepare ourselves to gather with like-minded and not-necessarily-like-minded members of our communities? 

I’m reminded of a possible answer when I think of how one of the walls leans in behind the bimah in the sanctuary at my congregation’s new synagogue. Our architects made it that way on purpose — the slanted wall helps provide excellent acoustics. But the slanted wall serves a second purpose, as well. It is there to remind us of a famous Talmud story (Bava Metzia 59b), which finds a group of prominent rabbis in debate about a matter of law. 

Rabbi Eliezer stood alone but firm in his opinion, bringing forward every imaginable argument, none of which was accepted by his colleagues. So Eliezer tried to bring others to his side by calling in supernatural forces, in the process getting a carob tree to uproot itself and move, a river to flow backward and the walls of their study house to lean in as if to fall. 

When the walls lean in, Rabbi Yehoshua questions the walls, asking what business it is of theirs if scholars argue. The Talmud story reports that, hearing the question, the walls did not fall — “in honor” of Rabbi Yehoshua, nor did they fully straighten up again — “in honor” of Rabbi Eliezer. Instead, they remained inclined but still standing, still providing a meeting place for study, discussion, prayer, community.

“But the Talmud story is about scholars, not about ‘just anyone,’ ” someone said to me recently, standing by our inclined wall and implying that not everyone should have a say in a particular matter.

When we read more of the Talmud story, though, more is revealed. Rabbi Eliezer continued his approach, saying, “If the law is with me, let heaven prove it,” whereupon a bat kol (a heavenly voice) called out, “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that the law is always with him?” 

Are the other rabbis defeated by a voice from heaven? Hardly. Rabbi Yehoshua stands up and quotes Moses himself from the first of this week’s double Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech:

Lo vashamayim he — It is not in heaven!” (Deuteronomy 30:12)

Here’s the context of Rabbi Yehoshua’s response to Rabbi Eliezer, a passage so integral to Jewish thought that many congregations read this passage not only this week, right before Rosh Hashanah, but again on Yom Kippur morning, the day more Jews come to hear Torah than any other day of the year:

“For this commandment (mitzvah), which I command you today, is neither beyond you nor far away. It is not in heaven, causing you to say: ‘Who will go up to heaven on our behalf, get it for us, and let us hear it, that we may do it?’ And it is not across the sea, causing you to say: ‘Who will cross the sea on our behalf, get it for us, and let us hear it, that we may do it?’ No, this is so very near to you — in your mouth and in your heart — it can be done!” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

As the Days of Awe approach, how can we best let the days themselves and the communities we gather in truly be safe havens for each of us? I invite us all to imagine the walls of the House of Learning, leaning in — in deference to the different points of view — but also, still standing. 

In our sanctuary, I know that the acoustics resulting from our leaning wall will allow us to hear one another better, but only if we also let that inclined wall remind us to incline our hearts toward one another, remembering that every mouth and every heart contains Torah given to us by God.

Shanah tovah, and may 5775 bring sweetness and peace after all. 


Rabbi Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), “House of Life,” founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue, today an inclusive community of progressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual Jews, our families and friends.