Echoes of Sinai: How can an ancient text inform global issues today?

This essay is the first in our new series, Just Thought—a monthly publication that dives deeply into a key issue or question each month. For our inaugural post, we want to examine the very basis of our ongoing dialogue between our global world and our ancient Torah:

How can an ancient book of myth and law have something to say about the challenges of the 21st century?

This week, we celebrate Simchat Torah and begin the cycle of Torah readings anew. Many Jews know the Torah as the scroll that they read weekly in synagogue. But in the rabbinic tradition, “Torah” means much more than that.

The Torah began with the written Bible—which includes the five books of Moses, the works of the Prophets, and other writings, such as Psalms, Proverbs and the book of Esther. It later expanded to include the Mishnah and the Talmud—the voluminous works of the “oral Torah” that serve as the foundation for Jewish law and practice.1 Over time, as Jews produced more religious commentary and analysis, that too became Torah. The Rabbis considered all of this—old and new—divine revelation. In fact, there is a midrash that claims that “even the sayings of students in the future” were known by Moses on Mount Sinai.2

What makes Torah so powerful is that it’s not a static book or ideology—it is a living thing that keeps changing and growing as each generation interprets it and builds upon its wisdom. The spiral of new insight and commentary added each year and in each age allows the divine revelation issued on Mount Sinai to echo through history and into our time.

So—how does an ancient text relate to modern-day life? The answer is within us. Each of us is an author of Torah as well as a student. We don’t merely stand back and derive meaning from this ancient tradition. We turn toward it with novel questions and innovative interpretations, and thus, the topics contained within the ever-expanding Torah are a reflection of the conversations that we—and people in each age before us—have with the Torah they have inherited. We participate in the divine echo from Sinai when we speak and think in the language of Torah, or when we apply lessons from Torah to our daily lives.

For an example of this echo, consider a statement from the book of Deuteronomy—an ancient text commanding us to give charity to the poor:

… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, open your hand and lend him sufficient for his need, for that which he lacks.3

The Talmud, writing during the medieval period, then interpreted this verse:

“Sufficient for his need” [implies] you are commanded to sustain him, but you are not commanded to make him rich. [But] “for that which he lacks” [includes] even a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him [if that’s what he was used to].4

Notice how the concerns and assumptions change in the different layers of the Jewish tradition. The Biblical text lays out a basic foundation of human need and defines charity as providing for that need—nothing more. But then the Talmud ponders just how much help the Torah is asking us to give, and says that while we are not commanded to enrich a poor person, if a pauper used to be rich, then we should help her return to her former station in life.

While this was likely practical during Talmudic times when one knew only a handful of people grappling with poverty, it may be troubling today. In our global world, where our “kinsmen” include billions of people and where one in every 10 human beings lives in hunger, it seems blatantly unfair to use our limited funds to return wealth and comfort to the relatively well-off. Applying the Talmud’s lesson to a practical example today, it would be outrageous if a welfare law in the U.S. provided millions of dollars to financial traders who lost money in the financial crisis so that they can return to their former affluence. Rather than helping narrow the gap between the rich and poor, this approach preserves and concretizes social and economic inequality.

The apparent anachronism in this text pushes us to examine it differently—to seek a deeper meaning that makes sense in our reality. Seen another way, this text can teach us an important lesson about human suffering. The Talmud is saying that individual suffering is relative. For someone living in dire poverty, providing the resources to meet basic needs will feel like a luxury. But for someone accustomed to wealth, being given only minimal sustenance can feel like deprivation. The Torah’s laws of social welfare account for this variation and task us with addressing the felt experience of poverty—the scarcity and the loss—and not just the lack of money.

We learn from this text that poverty is not measured in numbers, but in the experience of deprivation and loss. Charity, too is not only measured by how much you give, but by how you make the recipient feel whole again. The Rabbis wanted us to give with our hearts and not just our funds—whether we’re giving to a friend in our own community or to someone in our broader global community, like a survivor of the recent hurricane in Haiti, or to a villager thousands of miles away in rural Burma.

When we act on this ancient insight, we are both learning from and adding to the expanding corpus of Torah. When we use Torah as a lens to understand our modern world, we reach back into the past while expanding Torah’s reach to the present. For both the sake of Torah and of the world, we have an obligation to craft a Torat Tzedek, a Torah of justice—which instructs and inspires Jews to live lives of meaning, purpose and justice—no matter the moment.

1 In classical Jewish thought, these works are also attributed (either in whole or in nascent form) to revelation at Sinai. See, for example, Exodus Rabbah 47.
2 There are a variety of formulations of this idea in rabbinic literature. For one example, see Yerushalmi Pe’ah 13a.
3 Deuteronomy (15:7-8)
4 Talmud Ketubot 67b