By Rabbi David Ackerman
The wetness of these last days of summer has got me thinking about Torah. I know that sounds funny, but let me explain.
The Talmud, in the midst of a long and complicated midrash on the symbolism and religious significance of rain, serves up these words in the name of Rabbi Judah: “A day of rainfall equals in greatness the day of the giving of the Torah” (Talmud Bavli, Taanit 7a). On the surface, the meaning of the metaphor is clear. Particularly in the arid climate of the land of Israel, no rain means no life. Rabbi Judah wants us to feel the same way about Torah. So far, so good.
But the Talmud’s metaphor yields up deeper and more subtle significance if we work it a bit. Rain comes in a variety of forms, as we know very well from the weird weather of the past weeks. Torrents, light sprinkles, occasional drizzles, steady showers — all forms of the same thing — each impact the earth and us in distinct ways. So, too, Torah.
And there’s still more. Rain, while usually beneficial, can sometimes destroy and, yes, there is such a thing as too much rain (a feeling I’m sure is shared by some of us in this latter part of hurricane season). Torah, too, has its dangers, its very own dark side. It can support fanaticism and even violence if misappropriated, and it can be overused to its and our detriment. Rain and Torah have much in common indeed.
On a recent day of hiking, I discovered one clear benefit of a wet season. Mountain streams and waterfalls, when filled with rain and runoff, are a sight to behold. Perched comfortably (and safely, I might add) at the bottom of a particularly magnificent representative of the waterfall species, I found myself contemplating both the power and the persistence of water.
The grandeur of a good-sized waterfall is glorious. The water’s ability to shape even very hard rock struck me as another aspect of the Talmud’s metaphor. Hard as it is, the mountainside was actually molded and recast by the continuing flow of the water. Indeed, elsewhere the Talmud enhances Rabbi Judah’s statement by declaring that “there is no water other than Torah” (Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 82a). Not just rain, but water in general, all water, symbolizes Torah.
The waterfall under which I sat that afternoon presented many kinds of water. At the falls’ center, a powerful cascade had carved out caves and ledges, a clear demonstration of the enduring strength of water. But a more careful perusal revealed smaller trickles both behind and to the side of the main, central falls.
With the help of those secondary flows I came to a richer understanding of the Talmud’s image. Water finds its own way down from the heights. At times a mighty stream, at times a small steady flow, at times a slow and subtle drip, water finds its way.
Torah equals water, recall. If we allow it to, Torah will find us, a thought that leads to one last element of our original metaphor. A very favorite midrash of mine (Sifre Devarim 306) riffs on the second line of Moses’ great poetic farewell speech. “May my discourse come down as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, Like showers on young growth, Like droplets on the grass” (Deuteronomy 32:2).
Notice that the Torah uses four different words for precipitation — rain, dew, showers, droplets. The midrash begins by describing God’s discourse, namely Torah, as promoting growth, fulfillment and joy, a spiritual parallel to rain’s effect on the natural world. Then Sifre notes that “rain descends on the trees giving to each its unique flavor.” Same water producing many different fruits from a variety of trees. Torah, too, comes from one divine source, but yields up many different disciplines and modes of thinking.
Sifre’s drash more fully presents the expansiveness of the Torah/water analogy. It’s a powerful claim for pluralism and multiple meanings and interpretations. Another lovely rabbinic teaching wonders how one might know what Torah teaches when one scholar prohibits while another permits. “Make for oneself a heart of many rooms, so that you can hold onto the words both of those who declare it pure and those who declare it impure” (Tosefta Sotah 7:12).
Think of it as our tradition’s version of e pluribus unum. One Torah affects each of us in our own unique ways. Each tree blossoms in its own fashion. Each of us presents our own distinct fruit. And all of it is Torah! Long may she rain.
Rabbi David Ackerman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.