אמונת חכמים

Trust of sages [1]

This mishnah begins by comparing the greatness of Torah with that of priesthood and kingship:

גדולה תורה יותר מן הכהונה ומן המלכות
“Greater is Torah than priesthood or kingship.” [1]

The latter two, of course, can only be acquired by inheritance (and, as the mishnah later says, by fewer requirements or achievements than Torah). One must be born into a family of priests (kohanim). Kingship is likewise only acquired under normal circumstances by inheritance. “Elected” leadership is an alternative. But even in our supposedly “democratic” system, we see how “inheritance” and/or entrenched power undermines the earning of leadership by merit alone.

One might add here that in most cases, the leadership of a Hasidic group has likewise been a matter of inheritance.

“Torah,” on the other hand can be achieved by anyone, even if to varying degrees. Spiritually, it is the most “democratic” of all. “Holiness” is open to any and all who seek it. One might even say it is an essential aspect of rabbinic Judaism — one not necessarily rejected by any later “reform” movements, including “Christianity” and “Islam,” none of which promise holiness only by inheritance to members of a special caste. [2]

This mishnah goes on to enumerate 48 aspects of mastering Torah, “trust of sages” among them.

A “sage” is more than a mere master of the literature he or she has studied. More, even, than a living example of it. He or she interprets its eternal aspect and expresses it in the manner appropriate to a given time and place:

“The task of the sages of each generation is not merely to ‘figure out’ what G-d meant in the Torah…Rather, the task of the sages is…to bring down the Torah from the heavens to the world of man and to fathom how their particular generation relates to the Torah. What does the Torah — in its many possible interpretations — mean to *us*, not what did [or: does] it mean to G-d in heaven?” [3]

Or, I might say: their task is to understand what Torah means eternally to G-d in heaven, and then relate that to a specific generation.

This, of course, invokes the image of Mosheh receiving Torah at Har Sinai — a most appropriate image for this short period preceding Sh’vuot, which commemorates that event.

A sage, then, is (or should be) like Mosheh receiving Torah.

Does that mean that we receive words alone from them?

No.

קרן עור פניו בדברו אתו
“…the skin of [Mosheh’s] face sent forth beams [of light] while he talked with Him…” [4]

Rabbi Hertz comments:

“Communion with G-d illumines the soul with a Divine radiance.” [5]

If Mosheh’s face shined from speaking with G-d, ours should as well, if, in Torah study, we are not merely reading words but perceive ourselves as speaking with G-d:

ופניו מאירות כאור החמה וקרנותיו יוצאות כקרנותיו של משה
“[When Rabbi Eliezer b. Hyrkanos sat down and expounded Torah] his face shone like the light of the sun; his [or: its] beams of light spread forth like Mosheh’s beams…” [6]

It is to that Light that we join ourselves when we learn and teach Torah:

“From my master [the Baal Shem Tov] I received the rule that the main, essential element in occupying ourselves with Torah study and prayer is to bind ourselves to the inner, spiritual aspect of the light of the infinite, boundless G-d that exists in the letters of Torah and our prayer.” [7]

For a sage to bring that Light to a generation, he or she must bind themselves to the tradition through which it flows:

“Rabbi Mordechai of Lekhovitz said…’The tzadik cannot say any words of the teachings unless he first links his soul to the soul of his dead teacher or to that of his teacher’s teacher. Only then is link joined to link, and the teachings flow from Mosheh to Y’hoshuah, from Y’hoshuah to the elders, and so on to the tzadik’s own teacher, and from his teacher to him’.” [8]

We receive that Light, too, by binding our hearts and minds to those who themselves have received it, back through the chain of tradition to Mosheh in the very moment of receiving Torah at Har Sinai.

How do we bind ourselves to them?

By learning their words not merely in our minds, but in our hearts.

Not only learning their words, but by picturing them in our minds and hearts:

“How powerful is the effect of impressing the deeds of the Patriarchs [and Matriarchs] on our hearts and minds. Picturing in our mind’s eye the deeds of the righteous [tzadikim] activates our spiritual potential and brings out all the good latent in our soul. Studying the holy character of the Mussar figures of previous generations [Hasidic and other spiritual models, too] fires our imaginations and invokes a longing to emulate their deeds and ways…Remembrance leads to contemplation, contemplation leads to longing and cleaving, longing and cleaving draws the light of the tzadikim [the “righteous,” saintly ones] into the souls of their disciples.” [9]

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav teaches that even by reciting the names of the tzaddikim, we can join our souls to theirs and receive their Light:

“The holy name of each and every Tzaddik encompasses the entire nature of that Tzaddik — all his righteousness, his Torah, his good deeds, his high qualities and accomplishments. His name is his soul and spirit. Accordingly, when we mention the name of the Tzaddik, we are drawing his holiness and merit upon ourselves, and then we too can achieve holiness and purity and return to G-d.” [10]

“Priesthood” and “kingship” are roles in human society. They imply no necessary inner transformation.

Torah is exactly opposite. It implies nothing so much as inner transformation.

As we approach Sh’vuot, let us prepare not merely to receive “information,” but to receive within us G-d’s Light Itself and be transformed by It.

______________________________________________________________________________

[1] Pirkei Avot 6:6

[2] I regard Christianity and Islam as groups that have “revised” the rabbinic tradition, rather than as groups that have broken away and become “separate” religions. Their starting point is Torah, although that might not be clear to them. This in no way denies or ignores their profound inspirational qualities. Antisemitism is to some degree a kind of paranoid fear of recognizing their eternal connection with us and our tradition, expressed as vehement, violent rejection and denial. We, as Jews, can understand and appreciate them best as groups that have brought Torah to the world. From their side, the more that they value and appreciate Judaism, the more they will value, understand and appreciate their own traditions, too.

[3] Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld:
http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter6-624.html

[4] Sh’mot/Ex. 34:29, 34:30 and 34:35

[5] Hertz, Rabbi Joseph H.; Pentateuch and Haftarahs; Soncino Press, © 1961; p. 368

[6] see: Friedlander, G., ed. and trans.; Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer — The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer the Great;  Sepher-Hermon Press, Inc., © 1981; p. 7
(I altered Dr. Friedlander’s translation slightly, to conform it to the Hebrew in simpler English)

[7] Dvorkes, Isaiah Aryeh and Joshua; The Baal Shem Tov on Pirkei Avot; Chas. Wengrov, trans.; Feldheim, © 1974; p. 131 (based on: Rabbi Yakov Yosef of Polonnye; Tol’doth Yakov Yosef; Vayetze)

[8] Buber, Martin; Tales of the Hasidim (vol. II; Later Masters); Schocken Books, © 1975; p. 153
(I’d be very interested to find Buber’s own original source for this quote)

[9] Zaitchik, Rabbi Chaim Ephraim; Sparks of Mussar; Pisgah Foundation, © 1985: p. 2 (introduction)

[10] Greenbaum, Rabbi Avraham, trans. and ed.; Rabbi Nachman’s Tikkun; The Breslov Research Institute, © 1984; p. 102
(a complete list of the names of all the Tzadikim — including women — mentioned in TaNaCh, Mishnah, Midrash, Zohar, etc. — is included in the rear section of this volume)