The Deepening And Expanding Torah

After Mount Sinai, the Mishnah says, height was no longer the measure of Torah; depth and breadth became Torah’s new and useful dimensions:

Moses received Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua who transmitted it to the elders; from the elders to the prophets; the prophets to the members of the Great Assembly, and they said three things:  Be deliberate in judgment; raise up many students; and make a fence around the Torah.

According to this story, after its moment on the mountaintop, Torah moved down and in until the members of the Great Assembly revealed that Torah transmitted was Torah transformed into three things. Their Torah was a Torah without verses. Yet, the deepening, expanding Torah imagination of the Great Assembly kept the Torah-on-high image in mind. For every teaching, they declared, must make a fence around the Torah.

A succession of teachers followed the Great Assembly, each teacher drawing a three-part Torah from his own life. The first and last of those teachers—both named Shimon—each claimed that his Torah was the deep, three-pillared foundation of the world:

Shimon the Righteous, was one of the last surviving members of the Great Assembly. He would say: On three things the world stands/omeid:  on the Torah, and on the Temple service, and on deeds of loving kindness.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says:  On three things the world depends/kayam:  on justice, and on truth, and on peace; as it is written:  With truth, justice, and peace shall you judge in your gates (Zechariah 8:16).

After the mountain, verses disappeared into the many Torahs of everyday language and varied lived experiences. Only the last of the teachers offered a biblical verse to give shape to his Torah. From mountain-high to foundation-deep, Torah is that which makes the world intelligible and renders life coherent while honoring both the Torah-image from on high and the imagination from within.

Carrying on the ancient tradition, the Israeli poet, Leah Goldberg, rhymed three-part Torahs in a poem for children. She presented a fisherman, a farmer, and an artist who, like the two ancient Shimons, saw the entire world as the sum of three parts:

So said the fisherman down at the sea:
on account of three things earth continues to be-
on the sea’s waters,
on its shore, dry and set,
and on the deep’s fish coming up in the net.

So said the farmer who handles the plow:
upon three things the world stands now-
on the earth’s fields,
rains the heavens allow,
and on bread brought forth by the sweat of the brow.

 So said the artist sitting home on his own:
on account of three things does the world stand, alone-
on someone’s heart,
and on nature’s splendor,
on matters expressed in music and color.

So said the one who sees with insights:
how wondrous and many the world’s delights-
every morning,
caught up in heart’s net,
is the world and its fullness,
the dry and the wet,
the lights and the shade,
days special and plain,
word and refrain,
fields full of grain,
and every rainbow color set.

(Click here for Goldberg’s poem and Mishnah text)

The fisherman spoke the language of the second Shimon who declared, on account of three things earth continues to be/kayam. The artist echoed the first Shimon who taught, on account of three things does the world stand/omeid, while the farmer—just in the middle—imitates both Shimons but quotes neither.

To her three teachers of three-part Torahs, Goldberg added a fourth character, a wise observer, to say aloud that which was only implied in the Mishnah’s narrative of Torah transmitted and transformed:  There are multiple truths that hold the world together and they can never be exhaustively spoken. Such is the movement of Torah in the world; no longer on high, it is always deepening, always expanding.


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