A Diamond Dvar

It isn’t a second bar-mitzvah, but it has been ten years since I leyned and gave a dvar torah for the first time.  On March 9th, 2002, it was parshat ויקהל–פקודי and פרשת החדש, which, then as now, provides for an interesting contrast.

The last two parshiyot of Shmot, which we read last week, are very hard to understand.  Not because the words are difficult, but because it seems like both of the parshiyot are (almost) completely repetitive, as the details of the Mishkan (Tablernacle) were already given a few weeks before.  More than any other sections, these parshiyot strain the traditional doctrine that there is no extraneous letter in the Torah.

Contrast that to the Maftir (final, additional section of Torah read on Shabbat services) I read ten years ago, and is again to be read this week, which we read in honour of the Shabbat before ראש חדש ניסן (The first of the Hebrew month, Nissan).  This passage (Shmot 12:1-20) details the first mitzvah the Israelites received as a people, to keep a lunar calendar.  The new contrasted to the seemingly repetitive.

Rashi goes even further, and in his famous opening remarks to the Torah, he asks: Why does the Torah start with בראשית?  Let it start with החדש הזה לכם (Shmot 12:1) — as that is the first mitzvah given to the Israelites as a people.  This shows that there is at least a strain of thought that believed that the Torah was only given to instruct us in the mitzvot, and so Bereishit and the first eleven chapters of Shmot are extraneous narrative.  Leaving aside the incredulity which I and many other commentators feel when presented with the idea that the narrative in the Torah does not have lessons for us, it is clear that, as luck would have it, my first public exposure to Torah contrasted the brand new, the beginning, with the meticulous and potentially stale.

The end of Shmot deals with endless details of Jewish ritual life, while 12:1 deals with the newness of ritual obligation.  When presented with both, the lesson seems clear: both the mundane routinized ritual observance and fresh perspectives and new stages of life are important.  These last ten years, the first decade of my adult Jewish life, have exemplified this.  The first four years after my Bar Mitzvah were engrossed in the detail of ritual.  Learning and living Orthodox Jewish life provided me with a basis in the culture, worldview and the skills to find my own path while being deeply engrossed in Jewish tradition.  Life then took a turn to the newness of university, before settling back into the routine of ritual (this time academic, not religious), where I learned a whole new worldview, culture, and set of values.  Going to Pardes for a year-and-a-half provided a lot of both newness and ritual, a time for introspection, looking both backwards and forwards.  Looking to the next decade, there is no doubt that there will be more החדש הזה לכם (newness) than mundanity (ויקהל/פקודי), but keeping both in my life is crucially important.


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