In the glorious song with which Moses addresses the congregation, he invites the people to think of the Torah - their covenant with G-d - as if it were like the rain that waters the ground so that it brings forth its produce:
Let my teaching fall like rain
and my words descend like dew,
like showers on new grass,
like abundant rain on tender plants.
G-d's word is like rain in a dry land. It brings life. It makes things grow. There is much we can do of our own accord: we can plough the earth and plant the seeds. But in the end our success depends on something beyond our control. If no rain falls, there will be no harvest, whatever preparations we make. So it is with Israel. It must never be tempted into the hubris of saying: "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me" (Deut. 8: 17).
The sages, however, sensed something more in the analogy. This is how the Sifri puts it:
Let my teaching fall like rain: Just as the rain is one thing, yet it falls on trees, enabling each to produce tasty fruit according to the kind of tree it is - the vine in its way, the olive tree in its way and the date palm in its way, so the Torah is one, yet its words yield Scripture, Mishnah, laws and lore. Like showers on new grass: just as showers falls upon plants and make them grow, some green, some red, some black, some white, so the words of Torah produce teachers, worthy individuals, sages, the righteous and the pious.
There is only one Torah, yet it has multiple effects. It gives rise to different kinds of teaching, different sorts of virtue. Torah is sometimes seen by its critics as overly prescriptive, as if it sought to make everyone the same. The midrash argues otherwise. The Torah is compared to rain precisely to emphasize that its most important effect is to make each of us grow into what we could become. We are not all the same, nor does Torah seek uniformity. As a famous Mishnah puts it:
When a human being makes many coins from the same mint, they are all the same. G-d makes everyone in the same image - His image - yet none is the same as another. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4: 5)
This emphasis on difference is a recurring theme in Judaism. For example, when Moses asks G-d to appoint his successor, he uses an unusual phrase: "May the Lord, G-d of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over the community" (Num. 27: 16).
On this, Rashi comments:
Why is this expression ("G-d of the spirits of all mankind") used? [Moses] said to him: Lord of the universe, You know each person's character, and that no two people are alike. Therefore, appoint a leader for them who will bear with each person according to his disposition.
One of the fundamental requirements of a leader in Judaism is that he or she is able to respect the differences between human beings. This is a point emphasized by Maimonides in The Guide for the Perplexed:
Man is, as you know, the highest form in creation, and he therefore includes the largest number of constituent elements. This is why the human race contains so great a variety of individuals that we cannot discover two persons exactly alike in any moral quality or in external appearance . . . This great variety and the necessity of social life are essential elements in man's nature. But the well-being of society demands that there should be a leader able to regulate the actions of man. He must complete every shortcoming, remove every excess, and prescribe for the conduct of all, so that the natural variety should be counterbalanced by the uniformity of legislation, so that social order be well established. (Guide, II:40)
The political problem as Maimonides sees it is how to regulate the affairs of human beings in such a way as to respect their individuality while not creating chaos. A similar point emerges from a surprising rabbinic teaching:
Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a crowd of Israelites, one says: Blessed be He who discerns secrets - because the mind of each is different from that of another, just as the face of each is different from another. (Berakhot 58a)
We would have expected a blessing over a crowd to emphasize its size, its mass: human beings in their collectivity. A crowd is a group large enough for the individuality of the faces to be lost. Yet the blessing stresses the opposite - that each member of a crowd is still an individual with distinctive thoughts, hopes, fears and aspirations.
The same was true for the relationship between the sages. A Mishnah (Sotah 9: 15) states:
When R. Meir died, the composers of fables ceased. When Ben Azzai died, assiduous students ceased. When Ben Zoma died, the expositors ceased. When R. Akiva died, the glory of the Torah ceased. When R. Hanina died, men of deed ceased. When R. Jose Ketanta died, the pious men ceased. When R. Jochanan ben Zakkai died, the luster of wisdom ceased . . . When Rabbi died, humility and the fear of sin ceased.
There was no single template of the sage. Each had his own distinctive merits, his unique contribution to the collective heritage. In this respect, the sages were merely continuing the tradition of the Torah itself. There is no single role model of the religious hero or heroine in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. The patriarchs and matriarchs each had their own unmistakable character. Moses, Aaron and Miriam emerge as different personality types. Kings, priests and prophets had different roles to play in Israelite society. Even among the prophets, "No two prophesy in the same style", said the sages. Elijah was zealous, Elisha gentle. Hosea speaks of love, Amos speaks of justice. Isaiah's visions are simpler and less opaque than those of Ezekiel.
The same applies to even to the revelation at Sinai itself. Each individual heard, in the same words, a different inflection:
The voice of the Lord is with power (Ps. 29: 4): that is, according to the power of each individual, the young, the old, and the very small ones, each according to their power [of understanding]. G-d said to Israel, "Do not believe that there are many gods in heaven because you heard many voices. Know that I alone am the Lord your G-d." (Shemot Rabbah 29: 1)
According to Maharsha, there are 600,000 interpretations of Torah. Each individual is theoretically capable of a unique insight into its meaning. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas commented:
The Revelation has a particular way of producing meaning, which lies in its calling upon the unique within me. It is as if a multiplicity of persons . . . were the condition for the plenitude of "absolute truth", as if each person, by virtue of his own uniqueness, were able to guarantee the revelation of one unique aspect of the truth, so that some of its facets would never have been revealed if certain people had been absent from mankind.
Judaism, in short, emphasizes the other side of the maxim E pluribus unum ("Out of the many, one"). It says: "Out of the One, many".
The miracle of creation is that unity in Heaven produces diversity on earth. Torah is the rain that feeds this diversity, allowing each of us to become what only we can be.
The Shofar is the satellite navigation system of the soul
BBC Radio 4 - Thought for the Day
18 September 2009
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins tonight. And on Sunday in the synagogue we'll blow the shofar, the ram's horn, as a kind of summons to us to get back on track in our lives. Asking G-d to write us in the book of life helps us remember our aims and aspirations in life. And we need such moments of reflection, individually and as a society, because otherwise the sheer pace and pressure of events can stop us noticing that for all our efforts we're still no nearer our destination.
Here's an example. I'm fascinated by the cars I see on my way to work. There are 4 wheel drive MPVs that can take you anywhere from the North Pole to the Sahara desert. There are sports cars that can go from zero to a hundred miles an hour in less than six seconds. Each one is a miracle of technology. A hundred and fifty years ago, all there were, were horses and carriages, as low tech as you can get. A hundred and fifty years ago the average speed of traffic in London was ten miles an hour. And today? You guessed it: ten miles an hour. A car was supposed to get you from A to B more rapidly, but the faster we built cars the more congested the roads became.
Or take work. In the 1960s when I was studying economics, we believed that automation would transform the economy so much that work would shrink to twenty hours a week and the biggest problem we'd have was what to do with all our leisure time. Yet instead, we found ourselves working harder than ever; and now our mobile phones and emails mean that work pursues us into places and times outside of work, interrupting even the little leisure we have left.
I'm not suggesting there's any easy answer, but we'll never get where we want to be if we don't stop, from time to time, to check how far we've come -which is what we do in the synagogue once a year. The shofar is the satellite navigation system of the soul, reminding us of our ultimate destination, telling us how far we've yet to go.
Perhaps we all need something like the Jewish New Year, to remind us of the ideas and hopes that once inspired us and should inspire us still, thanking G-d for our achievements, asking for His help in the tasks that still lie head. Shanah tovah. May it be a good year for us all.