February 28, 2024 |

The Crown of Torah

Reading this week's Torah portion, one is immediately struck by how different Judaism was three thousand years ago. (It wasn't even called Judaism back then.) The descriptions of the wandering Jews (Israelites, really, b'nei yisrael) in the desert describes a people whose religious life was focused on the prophetic leadership of Moshe, Aaron, Miriam and the 70 elders, the Tabernacle (mishkan) with its ark, cherubim, altars, bread table and menora; as well as sacrifices, ritual purity and a bitter struggle against idolatry and paganism.

Very little of this is familiar to us. Our Judaism tends to be focused on synagogues that don't SEEM much like the Mishkan or Temple (mikdash)[1] and on home and community rituals that are not clearly mentioned in the Torah. Even our holiday celebrations - though they are mostly the same holidays - are celebrated differently. We have no sacrifices, prophecy, High Priest, Sanhedrin, king, tithes et. al. Not to mention that our urban and suburban lives are so socially, economically and technologically different from the Torah's world that - aside from universal truths like peace, justice, honesty - it can sometimes be hard to locate ourselves and our spiritual lives within the Torah. If we add in the unfamiliarity of the Hebrew and the traditions of our people, it is confusing when we attempt to understand the Torah's relevance to our lives.

I am NOT talking about people who DON'T think the Torah is relevant. In another essay and another time, we can discuss those who have written off ancient Judaism and "primitive" religion, those who see the Torah as just ancient Near Eastern literature and Jewish Law (halacha) as an item for anthropological study. Here, I am thinking of well-meaning, seeking, spiritual, even very religious Jews who are devoted to living Jewish lives and are seeking inspiration from the words of Torah, for our tradition teaches of the Torah that it is "your life and the length of your days", the tree of life, the life-giving water of the world, the only thing that prevents God from returning the world to primordial chaos.

When we read about the architecture of the mishkan (this week's Torah portion, Ex. 25-27) or the sacrifices, how do we think about or access the eternality of the Torah? I don't think I can answer the whole question in one short essay, but I have three suggestions:

I: The Torah is more than the sum of its parts
The Torah cannot be approached lightly or journalistically. There was a Jewish guy on the website Slate that was "Blogging the Bible" for a year. Although it was interesting idea, when I read his comments, I felt that he was like a tourist driving through Judaism, not a participant. Our Jewish tradition is not just a series of stories and laws in the Torah that we have trouble understanding or relating to, they are a stratum (a foundational layer) of our tradition, a conversation that has continued through the last three millenia. To get the power of the Torah (Judaism, season 1), we need to also experience the flowering and expansion of the conversation in the Talmud, Jewish philosophy, history and responsa etc.(Judaism: seasons 2-3000, the show that never gets cancelled). In every new era, the greatest Jewish minds of a geenration have built the bridges connecting our ancient past with our present, and no less today than in the past. Of course, by saying that, I have now made you want to throw in the towel, you can only get the true fireworks from the Torah if you become a great scholar. Not true. But the more you study, the more you will appreciate. And the more you come in with the attitude that the more you study the more you will appreciate, the quicker you will succeed.

II: The Torah Has Many Layers
For some, the p'shat level, or simple reading of the Torah, may be less edifying than learning how to be a good person, how to find a nice Jewish boy, how to bring Jewish ethics to their job.
Or perhaps they want to get close to God or learn how to feel spiritual all the time. For those people, there may be mystical, Kabbalistic or Chassidic explanations of the Torah[2] that soar above the plain meaning of the text and touch on passionate and ecstatic themes. The principle is that the Torah was meant to be a guide for us in ALL generations - that it transcends time - and that we simply must find its message for this generation. If there is no idolatry of images, perhaps there is an idolatry of money. If we cannot encounter God within the Holy of Holies, perhaps we need to find the "Holy of Holies" in our own world and find out how to enter it.

Another piece to this is to find meaning in the details. Rather than focusing on the big picture of an unfamiliar Torah, let us focus on some of the minutiae. The Torah describes the ark as covered inside and outside with gold (with wood in the middle). I understand why the ark needed gold on the otuside, but why on the inside, which will never be seen? Perhaps we can learn a message about ourselves from this tiny detail - that even those parts of us which are "unseen" need to be treated as royally as the parts that are. We need to nurture and honor our inner and private lives as much as out outer and public lives. Every turn of phrase and detail in the Torah may be mined for peals of wisdom that it up to us to take with us in our quotidian lives.

III: The Torah Is Really What's Left
By all rights, the Jewish people should have gone out of existence a long time ago. After Judaism had been stripped of its original Biblical insitutions, the Temple was destroyed and we were scattered around the world and subjected to crushing persecution, we should have ceased to exist. But of all the central aspects of Judaism, one never left us: the Torah itself and its study. If there is one thing the Jews have carried in their suitcase from time immemorial, it was Torah study. I believe that it is the secret to our survival[3]. Whenever the Talmud registers frustration about a law being discussed that is not practiced anymore or a case that is only hypothetical[4], their answer is "drosh v'kabeil s'char", learn it anyway, for your reward will come even from study that has no practice.[5]

More of the Torah is written down now than it ever was. To some degree, we have lost the essence of an oral tradition. There was a time when only the Torah was written down and all intepretation was done orally, from father to son, mother to daughter, master to disciple. Nowadays, we study a gazillion commentaries, the Talmud and all its interpreters, sets of responsa and websites galore. We are - pound for pound - more likely to google for Torah than to follow the advice of Pirkei Avot "aseh lecha Rav", make a teacher for yourself.

But if there is one constant thread that connects us back most fundamentally to the beginning, it is still the study of the Torah each day and each week. We read "and they shall make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Shmot 25:8) and it is the same verse that our ancestors read in their tents at the base of Mount Sinai.

This idea is also brought out beautifully - and surprisingly -- in our sidra this week. In its description of the vessels of the mishkan, there are three that are desribed as including a "zair", a filigree of fine gold that adorned their tops like a crown. The holy ark (25:11), the showbread table (25:24) and the golden incense altar (30:3) are all adorned with crowns. In the Midrash, it says that, in fact, this is a symbol of the three crowns of the Jewish people:

a) the crown of Torah, represented by the ark (where the luchot, tablets, and Torah were kept)
b) the crown of Kingship, represented by the table, on which bread (physical prosperity) was placed
c) the crown of Priesthood, represented by the altar, on which the incense offerings were made.

Of course, the crowns of Kinghsip (malchut) and Priesthood (kehuna) are not available to us, either because they have been claimed solely by the descendants of David and Aaron, or because we no longer have kings or priests. But the crown of Torah, says the midrash, is still there, waiting, all who wish to come take it may come and take it. Moreover, one who seizes the crown of Torah it is tantamount to having all three crowns, because the other crowns only derive from the power of the Torah and because the crown of Torah surpasses them[6]. The crown of Torah is available to every Jew, whether they are from a kingly or priestly family or not, whether they are from the generation of Sinai or the 21st century.

It is a powerful thought that simply learning the Torah each week (finishing it again once each year) is an ignition of our Judaism and a bridge back to all the generations that have come before. If there is one comforting and familiar part of the Biblical landscape, it is the act of study itself. May we merit to the crown of Torah.

Shabbat shalom!

[1] There is quite a bit of symbolism in the synagogue meant to recall the Temple, but it is lost on most people.
[2] I have lumped these together, though they are not identical and each has its own nuances.
[3] By which I mean both that studying the Torah helped the Jews to survive on their own and also that it was only the merit of our Torah study that inclined God to allow it to happen.
[4] Like the rebellious son who is stoned at the city gates, about which the Talmud concludes that it never happened and never will.
[5] Of course, the Talmud also concludes that the main importance of study is that talmud meivi lidei ma'aseh, study leads to action and one can't be a Jew without action, but even study about things that have no action increase our respect and commitment to the entire system of the Torah.
[6] The midrash also discusses a fourth crown, the crown of a good name (shem tov), a topic for another time.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

Divrei Torah (67)


There are currently no divrei Torah about .



Joined: February 28, 2016

Divrei Torah (0)


Joined: September 14, 2017


Divrei Torah (0)


Joined: June 24, 2016


Divrei Torah (0)

More Faces