Thursday, 21 May 2009

Our Torah - Just a Broken Telephone Conversation?!


In 1984 (25 years ago), the Lubavitcher Rebbe set into motion a cycle of learning – to join all the Jewish people together – in the learning of Jewish law. Learning to be done would include working through the Rambam's – Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204) Mishneh Torah (Second Torah) or the Yad HaChazaka (The Strong Hand) as it is also known. The word Yad – hand – has the Hebrew numerical value of 14 – the amount of books in the entire guide.

The guide includes all of Jewish law, both at the times of the Temple (to be rebuilt immediately) as well as to those times when the Temple does not stand (the current time until Moshiach reveals himself.) 1000 chapters work through the entire corpus of Jewish law. Studying just 3 chapters a day will allow one to complete the entire cycle in just under a year, although one may choose to learn just one chapter a day and complete the cycle in 3 years (something worthwhile for those learning it for the first or second times, to be able to spend much more time on each chapter and gain much from it.) The Rambam was heavily criticised for his work as he did not indicate the sources of his legal rulings. Today, there is no Jewish legal authority who considers the Rambam's work as anything less than the absolute roots of all Jewish law today!

The Rambam begins his magnum opus with an introduction. While it seems that many people wish to get to the nitty gritty of things, this is one introduction that is an absolute necessity to read. It includes a number of ideas that take the reader into concepts he may not otherwise consider, for example, the Rambam's famous statement that in *his* day nobody was really able to learn Talmud properly anymore, and so he compiled his guide so that people would just be able to read the Tanach – and then this guide – and already know the entire law. Perhaps he may well have put most Yeshivot out of business with a statement like that. Yet, with a very careful study of the Rambam, one can clearly see how accurate this statement of his actually is.

Indeed, until one has a thorough grasp of the laws in the Rambam, the Talmud is truly a sea of law filled with waves crashing all over, and one simply has no idea where one is. After a good understanding of the laws in Rambam, one turns to the Talmud with a whole new approach in learning – one that suddenly brings the Talmud to life, and helps to ease one's way into understanding the source of these laws, and how they come about. Naturally there is much more to learning Halachah – Jewish law!

Nevertheless, the fact that the Lubavitcher Rebbe saw a need for learning Rambam as opposed to any other structured learning order – shows clearly how he saw it as being the root of everything necessary to care for the Jewish soul. (This excludes the previous Rebbe's institution of learning the regular portions of Chumash and Rashi, Tehillim and Tanya, and by no means takes into account the tremendous amount of active Mitzvot one is required to perform – constantly, together with inspiring others to do likewise!)

If one were to begin a book of law, where would be the best place to start? The Torah itself begins with a series of stories on how G-d created the world, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel… Noah and his generation… Abraham and his generation etc. The Jews go into Egypt, are taken out, receive the Torah (FINALLY!) and onwards into the Land of Israel. From here – as they say – the rest is history! But what of the actual law?

So many today know the well known game played by children – "Broken Telephone." A humorous game, whereby a message is transmitted from one child to the next, as it is whispered ever so quietly into the other's ear. The message may begin with something like, "Today, the president of the United States announced in a speech that he would let the Jewish people live peacefully in their own land without the need to invite terrorists into it and please the rest of the world", and it may end up at the other side of the room with the last child in the series announcing what the message was, "The fish says we should all jump up and down!"

Today, people think that Torah is a similar game. One in which some child (with a very bad memory) whispered a message to another (thousands of years ago) without ever confirming whether the other heard it, and that that child then whispered the message (including every secret of Torah ever passed down in the past 3300 years and more) to another child – also with a very bad memory, who forgot most, and couldn't pronounce their words correctly either. So today we have a watered down version of what the real Torah was then.

Indeed many Jews will firmly state that they believe that the Torah was given over 3300 years ago, but that everything was mixed up along the way, and that's why we have the variety of stylistic "Judaisms" of today, including reform, conservative, and a host of names too unbelievable to even mention! Indeed, when Moses was living in a physical body, there simply wasn’t electricity, no cars – and "sadly" not even the Internet! What would Moses know today of driving to Shul on the holy Shabbat day?! Besides, even if he did have some 2 cents worth of his own mind to say about it – do we really remember it today – what with the state of affairs of forgetful children who cannot pronounce their words correctly – nor confirm if the other really heard them correctly in any case!

And so, the Rambam does not begin his work with the laws, but rather a clear description of the entire transmission of the Torah. Indeed, from Moses, the Torah was passed to Joshua, and from him to the elders. Eli (the Kohen in the famous story of Hana who could not have children) and Pinchas, received it from the elders. The prophet Samuel (the son born to Hana in the story with Hana and Eli) received it from Eli and he passed the entire transmission of Torah to Kind David. And so the Torah was passed – from teacher to student – as the Rambam lists 40 generations of transmission, accurately mentioning exactly who received the Torah from whom.

These were no simple children unable to pronounce words properly. Nor did they forget easily! In addition they *all* feared G-d, were either great prophets themselves or filled with Divine Inspiration, and wanted nothing more than to serve G-d with every fibre of their being! Do spend some time looking through the list of the transmission and become acquainted with these great individuals who made up the beginning of Jewish history.

These people were not interested in bribery, wealth, honour, greatness etc. They wanted only to serve G-d every day of their lives. They knew that this is simply what life is all about – connecting to G-d at all times in everything one does.

Were King David to walk into a reform synagogue (which he would not) on a Friday evening while both men and women sat next to each other singing with the piano accompanying them as the main singer arrogantly demonstrated her way of praising G-d through singing "sections" of the "Standing Prayer" aloud, I have no doubt there would be an absolute silence, and a feeling of complete embarrassment by all, as they realised just who this man – King David really was.

But as these same people read of the stories contained in the Tanach, they consider King David a simple poor man. Someone who had a hard life. If only *he* had had a car, it would have made his life so much easier when it came to driving to Shul on Friday night! But the reality of meeting him in person would no doubt stir in all of us such a fear of what truth really is – of what fearing G-d is all about – I have no doubt, most of us would simply melt away in embarrassment!

The truth of the transmission of Torah is clearly discussed in the Rambam's introduction. It serves to teach us the biggest lesson in life we all need to know. Without this introduction, we will continue to scoff at the questions regarding the truth of Torah – of its accuracy, of its true authenticity.

There is nothing but the same Torah in our hands today as it was given to Moses – by G-d Himself over 3300 years ago. It was handed from teacher to student in a long chain of transmission (still continued to this very day – from teacher to student). Teachers knew about fear of G-d and truth of Torah – and it was these teachers who taught their students these very same values.

The written law we have today – is exactly the same law that Moses was given over 3300 years ago. The oral law today – is that same law that Moses received way back then too. Nothing has changed. The Rambam makes it clear. The mysteries contained in the Torah were those same mysteries taught to Moses then – and each of us has the choice in life to grab hold them today – as if they were our very life (because they are!) – and to spend our lives immersed in learning Torah, teaching it and practicing it.

First comes this acknowledgment, to realise the Mesora – the tradition – the *real* tradition – is as true today as it was then… and when one is then ready to move on, one begins to turn the pages of the Rambam and learn the laws of life. The laws of the soul – as contained in a body. Its duties. Its connection with G-d. About angels and mysteries (chapters 3 & 4)… and about the every day law of giving charity to another. About guarding the holy Sabbath day, keeping the laws of Family Purity, and eating Kosher food (for nothing in these laws has changed one iota even if we think our food is cleaner today than it was then.)

There is nothing more left to do or to say – says the Rambam. The transmission is a clear one made up of the greatest people in the Jewish nation. People whose memories were *perfect*. People of the greatest stature that the generations have ever known about. People who strove for absolute perfection in serving G-d every day of their lives – every moment of the day!

Now it is up to each of us to begin the cycle today without delay, and to learn how to behave as a Jew, what to do, how to do it, when to do it. And from here, we will grow to degrees that slowly but surely, we will not just do – but we will hear what it really is all about, until one day as we turn around, we will realise that we have suddenly connected to G-d. We become One with Him, and realise that our lives are filled with meaning.

For more information about studying Rambam and resources both in English text and audio, see: Learn Rambam in Just One Year!

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