A Bissel Torah – 05/14/2020

I have shared with you my vigilance during this pandemic. All that I hear are the dire predictions of the economic downturn we will experience as this crisis is over. What does Judaism ask of us as we face a poor economic outlook?

We study a Mishnah from the Pirkey Avot, the Teachings of the Sages, most Friday nights, and we will do so tomorrow night. To answer the question I posed, I turn to a concept found in Chapter 3 Mishna 17. We read:“Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria used to say: Where there is no flour, there is no Torah, and where there is no Torah, there is no food.”

The first part of this statement seems obvious: Anytime we don’t have either food or financial stability, we cannot really delve into the study of Torah, since whoever is unable to feed their selves and their families, might feel incapable to concentrate in study and spiritual development. Yet the second part of the statement does not flow so naturally. What does Rabbi Eleazar mean to say when he states that without Torah there is no sustenance?
One way of understanding this statement is to say that the Torah helps us comprehend the limits of our consumption. When we study Torah we understand the boundaries of human needs, what is truly necessary for us to live happily and satisfied. There is a delicate balance between what we really need and what we just ingest without thinking, making us spiritually obese, blind to the world around us and the needs of others. Our tradition is clear that we, as human beings, have powerful needs, and puts boundaries on them, through Kashrut, Ketubah, and Tzedakkah. Through Kashrut and the system of Brachot (blessings), our consumption of food is not limitless; we realize that not everything in creation is meant for the pleasure of our palate. Through the Ketubah (marriage contract), our needs for sexual intimacy are channeled to a relationship that includes God in its midst. And through Tzedakah (the kind of justice we do with money, by taking a percentage no smaller than 10% of our income and giving it to projects that help our surrounding community) our tradition teaches us that our wealth comes with a set of responsibilities for our community and the world we live in. Rabbi Eleazar’s statement can be understood as follows: without Torah we lack the self-discipline to use our money responsibly, and that there is no enjoyment in this world if we do not limit our consumption to a level that can be sustainable.

This teaching of Rabbi Eleazar provides the guidelines for our actions in life right now. We are living in a difficult time, and the future is uncertain. As we allow our tradition to guide our actions, we can find the balance between our human needs and our search for our spirituality. Rabbi Eleazar teaches us that we are better off when we can make time not only to make money and share our resources with those who have less than we have, but also to grow in our learning and our spirit. Rabbi Eleazar teaches us that times like the one we are living in are the best time to balance the “flour and the Torah”, to take sustenance from our sources in other to navigate the difficult maze of this crisis. 

Tomorrow evening we will study Chapter 5, Mishnah 8 of the Pirkei Avot. Here is the text we will talk about:Ten things were created on the eve of Shabbat (of creation), at twilight: the mouth of the earth, the mouth of the well, the speech of the ass, the rainbow, the manna, the rod, the shamir, the script, the writing instrument, the tablets. Others add: the demons, the burial place of Moses, the ram for our father Abraham. Some add: tongs, which must be made with tongs. 

I hope you will join our discussion, after our Facebook live kabbalat Shabbat.

Meeting ID: 897 8763 9907

Password: 027012

Rabbi Lia Bass