Black fire dancing on smoldering white.
Ancient tree of life abundant with fruit.
An open door towards twisting rabbit holes and worlds unseen.
Our Torah is received as such different ideas by so many. It is sometimes a trusty sidekick, a steadfast friend, or a comforting partner when life gets a little squirrely. It’s acted as adversary and mounted considerable challenges, too.
Whether you view the Torah through a religious, sociological or literary lens, its continuing relevance and impact cannot be denied. It is the foundation of three of our world’s most enduring and influential faith traditions. On both an individual and community level, it has sparked inspiration, quelled anxieties, fueled animosity, and fostered peace. The stories and messages of our Torah resonated with people nearly 6,000 years ago and continue to be meaningful for many today. Our holy text is a mighty force for certain.
The Torah is not a book about God. It is about people – their relationships with one another and their individual experiences of divinity. Contained within its pages is the breadth of human experience. Fundamentally, this fact is the basis for our Torah’s sustained importance in the world. It is also what leads some to feel alienated and confused about their personal relationships with God.
Parsha Devarim includes references to an angry God who punishes people for their doubts and is quick to castigate all of Israel for the actions of a few. “When the Lord heard your loud complaint, He was angry. He vowed: Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give your fathers – none except Caleb son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him and his descendants will I give the land on which he set foot, because he remained loyal to the Lord” (Deuteronomy 1:34-36).
We also read of a God who intentionally manipulates the attitudes of an unsuspecting man for the sole benefit of the Israelites. “But King Sihon of Heshbon refused to let us pass through, because the Lord had stiffened his will and hardened his heart in order to deliver him into your power – as is now the case” (Deuteronomy 2:30).
We can learn that the divine, to whom we are told to give our hearts, souls, and strength, is easily enraged, vindictive, and unforgiving of inherently human emotions (not to mention a callous puppeteer of human behavior). Or, we can read these passages as the words of individuals attempting to articulate an encounter with the infinite. We may understand the ongoing conversation between HaShem and the Israelites as the imperfect efforts of men and women expressing their personal relationships with the ineffable.
Certainly, this attempt to transcribe transcendence into something accessible and applicable is infused with intense feeling. The Torah is a work of fantastic passion and titanic conviction. It is also a document created by people like us – individuals living out the intersections of history, gender, culture, and class. None of us possess objective lenses. When the God of our Torah grows decidedly unlikable, it can be helpful to remember that those who wrote the verses lacked objectivity, too. The stories they told conveying their concept of God reflect their biases, values and customs. It’s all in the context.
One of the interpretations of the metaphor “black fire on white fire” posits the black to represent the letters of the Torah scroll, and the white the space where we bring ourselves to the text. Connection with the universal flow, the sensation of infinity, and awareness of the presence of God are all experiences unique to the individual and utterly indescribable. Who or what or how God is for you will always be different than for me or anyone else. Such diversity is beautiful and necessary because reflecting even a fraction of divinity would surely require the perspectives of every person on this planet. Your journey of faith or skepticism (or both), your understanding of what lies beyond, your communication with and about God are all radiant facets of an immeasurable jewel we only sense in small glances. Your relationship with God, however strong or shaky or conflicted it may be, is valid and valuable for us all.
When we read the Torah, we must fill in the white space with our own experiences. We must weigh the words against our own ideas and ideals. We must seek congruity and embrace discord. We can approach our Torah as an opportunity to step fully into the journey of a living Judaism, rich and sweet and always evolving. In this way, we deepen our own understanding and together we keep the Torah alive.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.