First Day of Rosh Hashanah Sermon- September 17, 2012
Tumah and Torah
Delivered at Rollins Chapel
It was a summer ערב שבת and I was hiking the Appalachian Trail towards Holt’s Ledge. I was going to the Ruddemacher cabin for a Hillel Shabbaton. Most of it was uphill. I was rushing because I was late, having first done services at the Roth Center. By the time I had arrived, I was soaked in sweat. I needed a shower, not to mention that I felt chilled as the cool, night-air pierced my clothing.
A traditional Shabbat would have mandated a shower, putting on fresh clothes, long before sundown, so as to welcome in the holiness of the time. Instead, as I approached the cabin, I found myself thinking of the common phrase, ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness.’ There is an equivalent biblical term to this time worn teaching and one that I was keenly aware as I arrived at the cabin. I felt טמא, unclean, and not ready to לכבוד השבת to honor the Shabbat and to experience the holiness of it with anyone.
Each of us experiences this state of טמא because we ‘see’ the Holy and we “see” ourselves as not prepared for it, yet we want to be there. I have found that routine and tending to the necessities of life are a breeding ground for the טומא. Whether it is שבת, רשה השנה a beautiful life-cycle event such as a wedding or Bar/Bat Mitzvah, or the anticipation of a serious moment in one’s life, we often sense that we are not in the right state of mind. Our tradition would frame it that we are not in the right state of being. The ‘right’ state in certain times in one’s life
is that of טהור a state of cleanliness, of ritual purity and this morning I want to suggest that טהור – purity – and אהבה – love – are closely related ideas in our tradition. As we will see and as John Lennon once wrote in his song “Mind Games,” Love is the answer” to the טמא of our lives.
The Book of Love and the Laws of the Shema
The Mishnah Torah (lit. the teaching or retelling the Torah) remains today one of the great works in all of Jewish literature. It was completed by Moses Maimonides in 1177.
The text is divided into 14 “books” or treatises. One of these is ספר אהבה – the Book of Love. No, it is not the first thought that might have come to one’s mind. Perhaps if it were, it would have sold a few more copies. This section deals with how to show love towards God, who, moving a few years forward from the 12th century, was once described by Robert Frost as the “Greatest of all generalizations.” Perhaps he was describing that which cannot be described, God, as a way of referencing both the universality of the expression and its lack of definition. Frost might agree with Maimonides that simply because something cannot be demonstrated to be true through logic, experimentation, or be defined, does not mean that such an object, entity, or being is false or non-existent. Instead,
to leave the mind open and truth a possibility, we may generalize because of a sense of its truth that goes beyond our capacity to verbalize.
Let us return now to Maimonides’s Sefer Ahavah. There, we find a fascinating discussion of טמא and טהור – impurity and purity regarding the laws governing the recitation of the Shema (הלכות קריאת שמע). Can one recite the Shema while being in a state of ritual impurity – טומא – for one is reading, not only words of Torah, but also expressing one’s ultimate devotion to G-d? This includes the affirmation that one loves G-d with all one’s heart, one’s soul, and one might. Maimonides gives us a history lesson that takes us back to the time of Ezra (circa 526.b.c.e).
The Scribe Ezra, who lived in the first Exile of Babylonia and his rabbinic court, decreed that the Torah should not be read by someone in a state of טמא. From this, he ruled that no one should study Torah or say words of Torah in such a state. Instead, one must first remove the טומא, through an act of ritual purity, such as going to the מקוה – the ritual bath- and then engage in reading of Torah.
It is here that Maimonides writes something quite remarkable
However, this decree of Ezra did not include all of Israel for the majority of the community did not have the strength to fulfill it. Therefore, it became a nullity. Israel was accustomed to reading the Torah and reciting the Shema, the consummate expression loving God, even within a state of טומא. Words of Torah do not accept טומא. Rather, they forever stand in their purity, for it is stated at Jeremiah 23:29, “Surely, they are words of fire, sayeth the Lord.
Maimonides concludes: Just as fire cannot receive טומא – impurity – so too words of Torah that are likened to a fire, of which the Shema is a part, cannot receive טומא.
Love Conquers Impurity
Ezra was the Moses and Herzl of his time, for he returned our exiled ancestors from Babylonia to Israel. One of the books of our Bible bears his name and recounts his story. The Talmud compares Ezra to משה רבינו, Moses our Rabbi. Overthrowing a decree of Ezra could be analogous to disregarding a command from Moses.
However, our ancestors did this and this is part of our tradition. Nothing can separate a Jew from love of God at any time. No one has the right to deprive anyone of this love at any time. A human being must be able to love in order to give sanctity and holiness to life. The right to love God, to love life, regardless of time or space, is inalienable.
The Torah, regardless of circumstance, remains pure, even when we compromise its ideals and deepest values out of necessity.
How does this teaching of the importance of love apply in our time? Few would assert that sports are more important than the ideal of the Sabbath. However, we engage in these and other activities. Each year I see students studying in the halls of the Roth Center on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur. Some are in classes as we speak. It is not because if questioned they would say Dartmouth is more important than sacred observance. It is just the world we live in and all of us are doing the best we can.
We come home from work and we are too tired to study, to read, to reflect, to volunteer to give צדקה because we may feel exhausted. It is the furthest thing from our mind. Some people work hard both at work and then in their personal lives, tending to a compromised loved one, an aged parent, or a sick child. It feels endless at times. We feel as if we cannot return to that state of טהור of purity where we can experience the קדוש – the holiness and sanctity of life in the moment.
כל ישראל – all of Israel – have taught us otherwise. We can become טהור – pure – at any moment by expressing our love to God and by extension to others because אהבה and holiness are never ordinary. Love conquers the ordinary because the Torah, on which love is based, is an ideal. It is akin to an eternal fire that can never be extinguished by the idea that life is nothing more than ‘the daily bread’ that we must have. It never accepts the טומא that comes from our daily struggles and existence and our strivings, and compromises.
This Torah is the one that is in the heart of all Israel. It is the one that we are commanded to speak of each day, with all our hearts, our soul, and with all of our might. Our essence symbolizes all that is good in the Divine creation.
True, I was accepting the טומא, accepting it with each step towards Holt’s Ledge. By the time I arrived, I was a mess. But once we started, lit candles, made Kiddush, and talked about the meaning of Kabbalah over hot dogs and hamburgers, it was one of the most beautiful and unique Shabbats of my fourteen years at Dartmouth.
I learned through that experience that we are capable of overcoming the ordinariness of life through love of God and people, regardless of whatever came before, regardless of the difficulties of the day, the struggles and hardships that each of us confront.
Rosh Hashanah is the time to turn inward and outward to acknowledge the basic truths of our lives. Love is the answer to that which is ordinary, sometimes sweaty, and often just plain unclean. These 10 days of Repentance that began last night is the time to remind ourselves of the possibility of purity, sanctity, and love at every opportunity. It is a time to this basic truth, learned and taught long ago by our ancestors, never to be forgotten, be it here, our work, our homes, or on some trail called Appalachian.