Friday, September 9, 2011

Moshe recieved the Torah at Sinai and it ruined his friendships

This week was the beginning of Maya’s and my Avot d’Rabbi Natan chevruta. Avot D’Rabbi Natan is a commentary on Pirkei Avot, so it begins with the first mishna of Avot—“משה קיבל תורה מסיני” -- “Moses received the Torah at Sinai.” It starts with a discussion of the choreography of Moshe’s interactions with God at Sinai—what happened before and after the giving of the Ten Commandments? What did the Divine Cloud do, exactly? And why did Moshe have to stay on the mountain for six days without being spoken to? All good questions with inconclusive answers. 

After that, there is a rabbinic anecdote about Rabbi Yoshia and Rabbi Matia the son of Charash who were sitting and learning Torah, when Rabbi Yoshia began talking about everyday matters— דרך ארץ—instead. Rabbi Matia the son of Charash, who was Rabbi Yoshia’s student, said “My teacher, why are you leaving the words of the Living God for everyday matters?! Even though you are my teacher and I am your student, it is not good to leave the words of the Living God for everyday matters.”  And an anonymous “they” replies, “The whole time that they were sitting and engaging in words of Torah, they were like people who are jealous of one another; when they stopped, they were like people who have loved each other since their youth.”

I don’t entirely know what to make of that story. For one thing, this is a book of Torah, so I would have expected its authors to be pro-Torah. And even more than that, I expect Jews to be pro-study. I’m used to that daily life needs to take precedence over Torah sometimes, and that’s absolutely a Jewish concept, but this story sounds as if Torah is inherently bad, not just less urgent. If we could be like people who have loved each other since our youth, why would we ever decide to be jealous? The best answer I’ve come up with is that maybe learning alone can’t make a real relationship; it’s too hard to really get to know people by talking about purely academic topics. It’s much easier to build relationships by talking about real life and things that are important to us. Still, there should be a good way for study and important real-life topics to not be mutually exclusive.

After that, there’s some more discussion of Moshe’s role in the revelation at Sinai and a little about the priestly tradition that has endured for generations. It looks like the writers of Avot d’Rabbi Natan may have had a different version of the Mishnah than we have, because the chain of transmission includes judges receiving the Torah from the Elders, and Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi receiving it from the Prophets, which is odd, because I thought they were prophets. We ended our study session with the Torah getting to Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, the Great Assembly, and we’ll be back next week with more Banot d’Rabbi Natan. 

1 comment:

  1. Hey guys--this is terrific! Your post reminded me that I wrote something about this opening teaching of AdRN last year: I think the debate with R' Matya is about physicality, and is linked to the Deuteronimic insistence on transcendence, both on the part of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and on Moshe's part. It goes to the basic tension of Torah, namely embodiment. Curious to hear what you think.