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Moses appointed twelve emissaries to scout out the Holy Land and return with a report. The representative for the tribe of Ephraim was Moses’ primary disciple, Joshua. Until this time, the lad’s name was Oshua. But Moses added a letter to his name and called him Joshua.
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Home » Chukat, Education

Chukat: Unchanging Torah

Submitted by on June 22, 2014 – 3:51 amNo Comment | 3,991 views

Tablets and Torah Scrolls

Why is the Torah so unchanging? Why are religious Jews so resistant to change? Doesn’t our tradition promote questions and provocative thought?

The answer is that Judaism itself is unchanging, but our understanding of it is a work in progress. Think about it, G-d engraved the Ten Commandments in stone. Engraved letters can’t be erased, yet G-d instructed that Torah scrolls be inscribed with ink on parchment. Ink is subject to erasure and change. This implies that though the Torah is engraved and unchanging, our understanding of it is always unfolding and subject to change.

A fellow once asked me what to tell his son, who insists on wearing a kipah at non-kosher restaurants. On the one hand, one sin doesn’t justify another, eating non-kosher doesn’t justify removing one’s kipah. On the other hand, leaving the kipah on might lead the casual observer to assume the restaurant is kosher.

I told him that the simple solution was to dine only at kosher restaurants and the problem would be solved, but he insisted that I answer his question. At this point I smiled and explained that rather than telling him what he wants to hear, I will ask a question. Is Judaism a garment that you put on and take off at will? Can one remove the Kipah and instantly cease being a Jew?

Judaism is a state of being. We were born Jewish and we will die Jewish irrespective of what we wear or don’t. Our Jewishness isn’t written into our souls, the written letter can be erased and rewritten. It is engraved on our souls and engraved letters cannot be erased. They can be filled in and covered over, but under the rubble and dirt, the grooves remain indelible.

We can cover up our Judaism or dismiss it from our minds by removing outward signs of it, but deep inside, we are always Jewish. The question therefore isn’t whether the boy should or shouldn’t wear an external sign of his Jewishness. The question is, what difference does removing it make? With or without the kipah, he is Jewish so why should a Jewish boy be made to eat in a non-kosher restaurant?

We live in an age of Torah Scrolls, not the era of tablets. The Tablets haven’t been seen since the destruction of the first Temple more than two-thousand years ago. In this day and age it is possible to erroneously assume that Judaism, like a Torah scroll, can be erased and rewritten out of convenience. To prevent this, the Torah comes along and calls its edicts Chukim, unchanging rules.

Further, Chukah is etymologically related to Chakuk, Hebrew for engraved. The Torah and its laws aren’t merely written. unchanging torah - innerstream.caThey are engraved. No matter where we go and what we do, our Torah and Jewish identity are engraved on the panels of our heart.

This leaves us with a question: Why indeed are Torah scrolls written rather than engraved? Surely one can say that it is for convenience sake and while this may be true, we still seek a deeper message. If the symbol of the engraved letter is unswerving commitment, what is the message of the written word?

The answer can be found in a fascinating Biblical passage on the miraculous well that accompanied our ancestors on their journey across the desert.

The Well

Describing this traveling well, the Torah says that it was dug out by ministers, but carved by the nobles of our people. On the literal level, the minister, who dug the well was Moses, in whose merit the well was provided to the people. The nobles, were the tribal princes and the laity, who drew water channels from the central well to their tribal and familial locations.[1]

On the symbolic level, however, water is a metaphor for Torah. The well of Torah was dug by Moses, who spent days learning it from G-d and teaching it to the people. But despite the fact that Moses gave us a perfect rendition of what he heard from G-d, the intention was that leaders and lay scholars, distill the Torah through the prisms of their own understanding and thus expand or apply it in new ways.

The key is that the novel extensions of the river, the rivulets and tributaries that fork off from the main river, be drawn from the river’s own waters. If the offshoots deviate from their source, they can’t represent the source. They become separate teachings that have little bearing on the Torah.

To form a rivulet that draws water to new locations and in new directions, we must base ourselves on the original teachings that we received from Moses. Every Torah and Talmudic scholar knows that the litmus test to a novel interpretation is whether it is consistent with all that was taught before the thought was introduced. If it veers away from the original teachings, it isn’t legitimate.

This then is the message behind the written Torah. There are engraved letters – the unchanging and unyielding principles of Judaism. Then there are written letters – our constant struggle to arrive at a better understanding of G-d’s word. Ours, is a work in progress; subject to debate, erasure and reinterpretation. We introduce an interpretation, but if it doesn’t survive peer review, we withdraw it and try again. It’s constant flux, but it’s built on the well that Moses carved. It never deviates from the unchanging message of the engraved letter.

The Student Rises

We can now see that it is possible for the student to rise above the teacher. Though the student is predicated on what he was taught by the teacher, he can broaden the teacher’s ideas with new depth and understanding. The well dug by Moses, was only so large, but when the lay people came along to dig channels, they brought the water to where it was previously unable to go.

So too the Torah student, who seeks guidance in the Torah’s ancient principles on contemporary dilemmas of the modern age. The Torah might not speak of microwaves and ipads, but with creative thinking and proper application, the student finds relevance in ancient texts to dilemmas that Moses never anticipated.

Yet they are all rooted in the Mechokek, the law giver or giver of Chukim, which is Moses.[2] His teachings are at the root of our learning because he heard it directly from G-d. He brought the well waters from heaven and though we expand their flow, we dare not change their nature. Hence the Torah tells us, “The well is dug by Moses and carved by the nobles of the people, but their support is rooted in the law giver.” The closer they reflect the teachings of Moses, the more accurate are their postulates.

This is why the engraved letters of the tablets came first and the written letters of the Torah Scroll, second. Whatever we adjust or improve through ingenuity is genuine only if it is based on the unyielding truth engraved on our souls at Sinai. But, when our interpretations are indeed genuine, they bring the Torah to new and unprecedented heights.


[1] See Kli Yakar and Haamek Davar on Numbers 21: 18. For the balance of this essay see Sfat Emet ad loc.

[2] Deuteronomy 33: 21.

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