Learning to Live and Living to Learn: Rabbi Sacks’ Approach to Studying the Parasha
BY RABBANIT SHANI TARAGIN
For Rabbi Sacks zt”l, the study of Torah was not to be treated “just as words read, but also as a melody sung. The Torah is G-d’s libretto, and we, the Jewish people, are His choir, the performers of His choral symphony”1. Rabbi Sacks himself did not simply sing a melody of Torah; he harmonized with multiple voices. The dissonance of his dialectical thought did not resonate with cacophony but rather with depth and complexity, creating a symphony of integrity and inspiration. This essay will share a few of the motifs in Rabbi Sacks’ “unfinished symphony” of Torah teachings.
Covenant and Conversation, and living with the times
Although Rabbi Sacks was proficient in all of Tanach, his Torah scholarship was most manifest through his study of Chumash and its commentaries. He quotes the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe 2 as teaching that “We must live with the times… with the parashat hashavua,” explaining that events in his life have granted him deeper insight into the Torah text. “Torah is a commentary on life, and life is a commentary on Torah. Together they constitute a conversation, each shedding light on the other… [G-d signals the way] through the words of the Torah, to which every Jewish life is a commentary and each of us has our own annotation to write.”
Rabbi Sacks shares the perspectives of medieval and modern Torah commentaries through the Torah prism of “70 face[t]s.” His goal is to engage in dialogue with the Torah, listening to the text given to us at our covenantal betrothal at Sinai (i.e. pshat) and simultaneously inducing the text to speak to us today (i.e. drash). Together, these different forms of dialogue continuously shape our individual and national destiny.
Rabbi Sacks’ approach to the Biblical text is to set the words in the broader context of ideas. “Many traditional commentaries look at the Torah through a microscope: the detail, the fragment of text in isolation. I have tried to look at it through a telescope: the larger picture and its place in the constellation of concepts that make Judaism so compelling a picture of the universe and our place within it.”3
He explains that his parasha studies are called Covenant and Conversation because “The text of the Torah is our covenant with G-d, our written constitution as a nation under His sovereignty. The interpretation of this text has been the subject of an ongoing conversation… that began at Sinai thirty-three centuries ago and has not ceased since. Every age has added its commentaries, and so must ours. Participating in that conversation is a major part of what it is to be a Jew. For we are the people who never stopped learning the Book of Life, our most precious gift from the G-d of life.”4
Universalism and particularism: two covenants
In approaching the structure of Tanach, Rabbi Sacks often notes that although the subject is the people of Israel – the descendants of Avraham and Sarah – the Torah does not begin with Avraham. It begins with Adam and Chava and their descendants, Noach and his family, Nimrod and the builders of Babylon – universal archetypes of the human condition. G-d first forges a covenant with all of humanity (Bereishit 9) followed by a specific covenant with Avraham and his descendants (Bereishit 17) that is later forged with 613 commandments at Har Sinai.
“Judaism is built on a dual structure. It has a universal dimension and a particularistic one, neither of which negates the other. G-d has a general relationship with all humanity and a particular relationship with the Children of Israel. Rabbi Akiva expressed this, simply and beautifully, in his statement in Pirkei Avot: ‘Beloved is humanity, for it was created in G-d’s image… Beloved are Israel for they are called G-d’s children’ (3:14)”.5
Chochmah (wisdom) and Torah (guidance): two modes of being and knowing
Rabbi Sacks brilliantly wove together philosophy, world history, anthropology, literature, and psychology in his approach to Torah study and simultaneously distinguished between them: “Chochmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chochmah is the universal heritage of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chochmah is what we attain by being in the image of G-d; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of G-d. Chochmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chochmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be. Chochmah is about facts; Torah is about commands. Chochmah yields descriptive, scientific laws; Torah yields prescriptive, behavioral laws. Chochmah is about creation; Torah is about revelation…”6
Morality: idealism and realism
In his analysis of Biblical characters, Rabbi Sacks powerfully presents the layers of complexity inherent in the human condition and the Torah’s morally perplexing and ambiguous narratives. Rabbi Sacks cites three reasons7 presented by Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes to explain why the Torah teaches ethics through characters fraught with complexity and ambiguity:
Moral life is not something we can understand all at once; the most effective means of education and instruction is to present stories that may be read at different levels based on various stages of moral development and exposure.
Decisions and people are complex: Noach, the only person in Tanach to be called righteous, ends up drunk and disheveled. Moshe, Aaron, Miriam and King David are all punished for their sins. “No religious literature was ever further from hagiography, idealization and hero-worship.” Conversely, even the non-heroes have their saving graces. Esav is a loving son, Levi, condemned by Ya’akov for his violence, counts Moshe, Aaron and Miriam among his grandchildren. The descendants of Korach sang psalms in the Beit HaMikdash.
Lastly and most importantly, more than any other religious literature, the Torah makes an absolute distinction between earth and heaven, between G-d and human beings. “Because G-d is G-d, there is space for humans to be human. In Judaism, the line dividing them is never blurred… No religion has held a higher view of humanity than the Book that tells us we are each in the image and likeness of G-d. Yet none has been more honest about the failings of even the greatest. G-d does not ask us to be perfect. He asks us, instead, to take risks in pursuit of the right and the good, and to acknowledge the mistakes we will inevitably make.”
Rabbi Sacks approaches Torah as an instruction guide in proper ethical living and teaches that “In Judaism the moral life is about learning and growing, knowing that even the greatest have failings and even the worst have saving graces. It calls for humility about ourselves and generosity towards others. This unique blend of idealism and realism is morality at its most demanding and mature.”8
Rabbi Sacks taught us how to read and sing the words of the Torah; how, like poetry, it contains deep reservoirs of meaning, sometimes hinted at by using an unusual word or sentence construction. Through his intellect and passion, chochmah and Torah, Rabbi Sacks has taught us how to approach the Torah with the mind and the soul, how the particular may become universal, and to appreciate complexity and diversity. “In Judaism, we not only learn to live; we live to learn. In study, we make Torah real in the mind so that we can make it actual in the world”9. He has left us with a legacy and responsibility to weave our Torah covenant into daily conversation and to continue learning, teaching, singing and living the song of Torah.
1 Covenant & Conversation: Deuteronomy (Maggid Books, 2019), “The Torah as G-d’s Song”, p. 305.
2 Covenant & Conversation: Genesis (Maggid Books, 2009), “Living with the Times”, pp. 1–3.
5 Future Tense (Hodder & Stoughton, 2010), pp. 211–212.
6 Future Tense (Hodder & Stoughton, 2010), pp. 219–222.
7 Essays on Ethics (Maggid Books, 2016), “How Perfect Were the Matriarchs and Patriarchs?”, pp. 15–20.
9 Ten Paths to G-d: A curriculum based on the teachings of Rabbi Sacks (2018).
Rabbanit Shani Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and the Director of the Mizrachi–TVA Lapidot Educators’ Program.