May 27, 2009

“My words are like fire, says God.” This is what the prophet Jeremiah relayed to the people of Jerusalem of his day, in the hope of rousing them from their indifference and apathy toward the word of God. Many centuries later in Babylonia, the Talmudic sage Rabba, the grandson of Hanna, found himself particularly intrigued by Jeremiah’s choice of metaphor.

“In what sense are words of Torah compared to fire?” Rabba asked (Talmud Taanit, 7a). In what way is studying Torah comparable to experiencing the unique power of fire?

Before getting to Rabba’s response to his own question, let’s put some more context around it. We can easily imagine that Rabba spent much of his time studying and discussing words of Torah with his peers and colleagues. We can further imagine, based on our own experiences, that there were days that their studies and discussions were on fire, exciting and dynamic. And then there were other days when they just weren’t.

Perhaps then, Rabba was actually asking, “What’s the difference between the days? What’s the ingredient that makes the study of Torah like fire? What is it that, on some days, brings Jeremiah’s metaphor to life? And how can we make Torah like fire every day?”

After much consideration, Rabba understood Jeremiah’s metaphor in the following way. “Just as fire cannot ignite through ‘one,’ so too do words of Torah not come alive through only one.” One flint can’t start a fire. You need at least two in creative tension generating friction and heat in order to have fire.

There must have been days on which Rabba and his colleagues studied as if they were one flint. Whoever was leading the study essentially lectured, and the others nodded in agreement. These were never days of fire.

There may also have been days when many around the table indeed spoke, but in the interest of pressing their points or attempting to win a debate. They were more speaking at one another than with one another. These were days of heat in all likelihood but still not days when their study was on fire. The table was filled with “ones.”

But on the days when they came to the study hall not just to hear and not just to speak but to listen and respond, to truly see the other’s point, and then in the spirit of seeking truth to refine and enhance the other’s idea, on those days their Torah took on the explosive and exciting creativity of fire. And Jeremiah’s metaphor was realized.

It is tempting for us to admire Rabba’s insight from afar, perhaps wistfully wishing that we could ourselves experience what he and his peers did on their days of fire. After all, Rabba and his colleagues were well equipped to generate fire. They were learned people, well versed in Mishnah and scripture, well practiced in the art of Talmudic debate.

But we? How could we imagine setting the study hall on fire? We don’t know enough. We haven’t studied enough. There are too many gaps in our Jewish education.

But as if it were anticipating this reaction on our parts, the same Talmudic passage continues with the comment of Rabbi Nachman, son of Yitzchak. Asked Rabbi Nachman, “In what sense is Torah compared to a tree, as it is written, ‘It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it?’”

And he answers, “Just as you need a small piece of wood, or kindling, to ignite a huge log, you need the ‘little scholars’ to ignite the more learned scholar.”

You don’t need to be an accomplished talmid hacham (wise student) in order to start the fire and to be a vital part of the dynamic process of Torah study.

Yet we still might be feeling, “I don’t even qualify as a little scholar. I feel like I come to the table with little prior knowledge of the subject being taught. I have nothing to contribute to the discourse; I cannot instigate the fire.”

As if anticipating this, as well, the Talmudic passage concludes with the observation of Rabbi Chanina: “I have learned much from my teachers. And I have learned from my peers more than I have learned from my teachers. And I have learned from my students more than from the others combined.”

To ignite the fire, to be a part of the explosive, transformative process of Torah study, we need to come to the table only with curiosity and the desire to learn. It is we, the students, who kindle the fire.

Every year on Shavuot, we resolve to strengthen our commitment to personal Torah study. This year, we say to ourselves, we’ll really throw ourselves in. The reality of following through on this resolution can be initially discouraging. There are often language and intellectual framework differences that need to be overcome.

But let none of us be discouraged by the belief that we have nothing to add to the conversation. The Jewish people’s conversation that started at Sinai with “we will do and we will hear” continues at a synagogue or a living room near you. The hearth of Torah study beckons to us, and each of us has the power to light the fire.

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (www.bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

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