|Did you hear the news? (Ideas #93)|
Man's curious fascination with things new is clearly acknowledged by the Jewish tradition: Rashi (Devarim 6:6), following our sages, understands the use of the word “today” in the Shema as telling us that we must make the words of Torah as interesting as if they were given today.
But we should pause to ask why this fascination exists to begin with. Why not just tell us that we should constantly try to make the words of Torah interesting? What is it about novelty that is so critical to our relationship with Torah?
As someone involved in biblical exegesis, I know that interpretation is one of the most exhilarating activities known to man. It is taking an external object and figuring out its place in our own personal world. Via this process, we acquire something in a much more fundamental way than anything we can purchase.
Indeed, it is not only texts that we interpret. When we encounter a new food, we interpret the item to be pleasant and/or helpful and perhaps especially so in combination with certain other foods or at certain times. We may also note that it has a taste, color or texture that reminds us of a certain culture or topography. While this may be much less conscious than the interpretation of a text, it remains the same basic process.
For better or worse, most interpretation occurs near the time of our first encounter with an object. Once we have given it its meaning, it is rare for us to want to reexamine it. Each time, we reencounter the object in question and it fits within our original interpretation, we become more certain about the correctness of our understanding. It is only in rare cases that, after encountering a great deal of evidence that contradicts our original interpretation and, usually kicking and screaming, we agree to reevaluate our original interpretation. All this, in itself, is not so bad. The real problem is that our general satisfaction with our initial understanding eventually leads to a numbness, where there is no longer any need for interpretation whatsoever. If there is a certain intuitive comfort and stability in our relationship with, for example, an orange, gone is the thrill of getting to know it and interpreting it.
Even as man resists reinterpreting that which is old to him, he greatly enjoys the uniquely rewarding process of interpreting that which is new to him. This explains his delight at his very encounter with novelty.
When the rabbis tell us that the Torah wants us to read its words as if they were constantly new, it means that we need to interpret them each and every time we learn them. Granted, we may come up with the same interpretation as we did the last time. Still, we have to engage in the act of interpretation each time we encounter a Torah text. We may not simply look at it with the intuitive comfort that we understand it already.
Though there may be great benefits for our study in treating the Torah as new each time we see it, even more central is the relationship that such an approach creates. By asking us to constantly interpret the Torah, we are being asked to constantly personalize it. More than anything else, it is this constant search that gives life to the Jewish people's relationship with the Torah's Author.
In this context, the rabbinic statement that the Torah has seventy faces is both puzzling and revealing. Postmodernist thinkers might endorse the thought that really everything has seventy faces – this interpretation is necessarily personal and consequently anything that we interpret is intrinsically multi-faceted. In that case, why single out the Torah?
Although the individual may indeed be able to see many facets of any one item or text, seeking them out can end up being counterproductive. For the bottom line of interpretation is relationship. While we can and should have a relationship with, as our earlier example, an orange, that relationship is not deserving of our life's focus. The same cannot be said about Torah – the relationship of man to Torah and, via it, to its Author is paramount to our existence. As such, it is the one thing whose myriad interpretations we must seek – for the knowledge that they reveal, but even more for the living relationship they create.