“It Is a Time to Act for the Lord, They Make Void Your Torah”
It takes courage to stand up for truth in the face of dismissal.
We live in a world that is polarized and sectarian, where people often refuse to hear another point of view. That tends to disregard and diminish anyone who doesn’t agree with a specific party line. Yet, the Almighty created this world out of chaos (tohu vavohu), including the right and the responsibility of human beings to make decisions for themselves. In a way, chaos was built into the genetic makeup of the universe we inhabit. Once upon a time, cultural correctness looked for certainties. But now we can accept that there are uncertainties, and we can embrace them.
Three Guiding Principles of My Rabbinate
Three ideas have guided me in my life as a rabbi and teacher, and they all come from the same daf (page) of Gemara in Berakhot (63a):
1. Spreading Torah
When I started my career fifty years ago, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish life was very different. Unlike now, when tens of thousands of people sit and learn Torah full-time, very few people were doing so then, and outreach was unheard of. Nevertheless, I knew my mission would be as a rabbi and educator, even if it would take me outside of my cocoon.
When teachers and colleagues would ask me why I was willing to abandon the sacred world of Torah learning to teach and interact with people who were neither rooted nor educated in the ways of Torah, I would respond with the Gemara:
בבלי ברכות סג. תַּנְיָא, הִלֵּל הַזָּקֵן אוֹמֵר: בִּשְׁעַת הַמַּכְנִיסִין—פַּזֵּר. בִּשְׁעַת הַמְפַזְּרִים—כַּנֵּס. וְאִם רָאִיתָ דּוֹר שֶׁהַתּוֹרָה חֲבִיבָה עָלָיו—פַּזֵּר, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״יֵשׁ מְפַזֵּר וְנוֹסָף עוֹד״. וְאִם רָאִיתָ דּוֹר שֶׁאֵין הַתּוֹרָה חֲבִיבָה עָלָיו—כַּנֵּס, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״עֵת לַעֲשׂוֹת לַה׳ הֵפֵרוּ תּוֹרָתֶךָ״.
b. Berakhot 63a It was taught: Hillel the Elder says: “At the time of gathering—spread. In the time of spreading—gather. If you see a generation upon whom the Torah is beloved—spread it, as it says (Prov 11:24) “One man gives generously and ends with more.” And if you see a generation upon whom the Torah is not beloved—gather it in, as it says (Ps 119:126): “It is a time to act for the LORD, they make void Your Torah.”
Following Rashi’s explanation: When the great rabbis of the generation are going out to spread Torah, then you can stay in the study halls and learn for yourself; when they are completely involved in the study halls, then you must go out to spread Torah.
2. Religious Flexibility
I discussed with Roshei Yeshiva (heads of the yeshiva) what my parameters and room for religious flexibility would be, and another quote from the same page of the Talmud came up, reading the same verse:
בבלי ברכות סג. ״עֵת לַעֲשׂוֹת לַה׳ הֵפֵרוּ תּוֹרָתֶךָ״. אָמַר רָבָא: הַאי קְרָא, מֵרֵישֵׁיהּ לְסֵיפֵיהּ מִדְּרִישׁ, מִסֵּיפֵיהּ לְרֵישֵׁיהּ מִדְּרִישׁ.
b. Berakhot 63a “It is a time to act for the LORD, they make void Your torah” (Ps 119:126). Rava said: “This verse can be interpreted from beginning to end, or it can be interpreted from the end to the beginning.”
מֵרֵישֵׁיהּ לְסֵיפֵיהּ מִדְּרִישׁ: ״עֵת לַעֲשׂוֹת לַה׳ ״, מַאי טַעַם? מִשּׁוּם ״הֵפֵרוּ תּוֹרָתֶךָ״. מִסֵּיפֵיהּ לְרֵישֵׁיהּ מִדְּרִישׁ: ״הֵפֵרוּ תּוֹרָתֶךָ״ מַאי טַעְמָא? מִשּׁוּם ״עֵת לַעֲשׂוֹת לַה׳ ״.
From beginning to end: “It is a time to act for the LORD.” Why? Because “they make void your Torah.” From end to beginning: “They make void your Torah.” Why? Because “it is a time to act for the LORD.”
I connected to the more radical, second meaning suggested in the Gemara, that one may be lenient or flexible about the Torah when it is time to act for the Lord.
3. Doing What’s Right Even If Others Think It’s Wrong
A favorite phrase of my father, Rabbi Yaakov Kopul Rosen, who learned in the great Yeshivah of Mir in Lithuania, is also found on this page. He even chose it as the motto of Carmel College, the school he founded:
בבלי ברכות סג. דָּרַשׁ בַּר קַפָּרָא: אֵיזוֹהִי פָּרָשָׁה קְטַנָּה שֶׁכָּל גּוּפֵי תוֹרָה תְּלוּיִין בָּהּ? ״בְּכָל דְּרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ וְהוּא יְיַשֵּׁר אֹרְחֹתֶיךָ״ (משלי ג:ו). אָמַר רָבָא: אֲפִילּוּ לִדְבַר עֲבֵירָה.
b. Berakhot 63a Bar Kappara taught: “Which is a brief passage upon which all fundamental principles of Torah are dependent? ‘In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths’ (Proverbs 3:6).” Rava said: “Even when you are doing something wrong.”
In my understanding, Rava means that even when you are doing something others do not agree with, yet you believe it is the right thing to do, at that moment in time and history, you are acknowledging God, and God will direct your path.
Creating Change in a Polarized World
It takes courage as well as determination to create something new and stand in the face of dismissal. When I came across R. Dovid Steinberg and R. Zev Farber, two of the driving forces behind the ground-breaking website, I immediately recognized two soulmates who combined being steeped in scholarship and religious commitment with an open-minded, inclusive, critical approach to honest inquiry and the desire to bring together a range of different views and ideas regardless of where they came from.
TheTorah.com contributes to the open-mindedness of honest exploration of texts and ideas and underlines the magnificence and variety of the Torah. I am in awe of the founders and staff of TheTorah.com, as well as their authors, supporters, and readers. I congratulate them for what they have achieved against the odds and wish them all the strength and support they need to continue and expand this vision that has already enriched so many thousands.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
Dr. Rabbi Jeremy Rosen is the Chairman of the Faculty for Comparative Religion in Wilrijk Belgium. He is a graduate of Cambridge University and yeshivot in Israel including Be’er Yaakov and Mir from whence he has his Smichot. He has worked in the rabbinate, education and academia.