Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Psalm 50: Torah from Zion


"From Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shined forth." [Psalm 50:2]

What is this unique radiance of Zion? According to Rav Kook, this refers to a special quality of the Land of Israel. An individual residing in Eretz Yisrael can connect to the Torah on a level that is not possible outside the land. The unique nature of Torah in the Land of Israel is illustrated in the following story, as recorded in the Talmud [Shabbat 53a]:

Rabbi Zeira Arrives in Israel

When Rabbi Zeira finally succeeded in fulfilling his dreams, and left Babylon for the Land of Israel (despite his teacher's opposition), he met Rabbi Benjamin bar Yefet. At the time, Rabbi Benjamin was teaching the laws of tending one's animals on the Sabbath. One is allowed to cover a donkey with a saddle-blanket, in order to keep it warm; but one may not place a fodder-bag around its neck.

Upon heard this ruling, Rabbi Zeira exclaimed, "Yishar! Well said! And that is how a king in Babylon translated it." The 'king' to whom Rabbi Zeira referred was Samuel, an expert judge and leading authority in third century Babylon.

Why was Rabbi Zeira so excited when he heard this ruling? And why did he say that Samuel 'translated' this law in Babylon?

Animal Care on the Sabbath

We must first analyze Rabbi Benjamin's ruling, which seeks to navigate a path between two great ideals. On the one hand, we have moral obligations towards our animals, to care for them and relieve them of any pain or anguish ("tza'ar ba'alei chaim"). On the other hand, if we were to spend our entire Sabbath tending the needs of donkeys, what would remain of the Sabbath's elevated holiness? Over-involvement in animal husbandry would destroy what should be a day dedicated to rest and spiritual pursuits.

For this reason, the rabbis made a distinction between a saddle-blanket and a fodder-bag. The blanket is permitted, as it prevents the donkey from suffering from the cold. The fodder-bag, on the other hand, is only for the donkey's convenience, making it easier for him to eat his food. Here the rabbis drew the line, in order to safeguard the sanctity of the Sabbath day.

Straight from the Source

Rabbi Zeira had already learned this law while living in Babylon. Nonetheless, there was a tremendous difference hearing it again in the Land of Israel. He felt a surge of energy in this teaching that he had not felt before. "Yishar!" he called out excitedly. The word yishar literally means 'straight.' He was able to feel the direct connection of this ruling with its vibrant source. What happened?

When the song of inner holiness pulsates in the heart, one may discern the spiritual and ethical source for each detailed law. Even when dealing with what appears to be dry, prosaic legislation, the soul senses a sublime poetry.

Sensitivity to this inner song is a function of one's situation. In particular, when the soul is exiled to foreign lands, the inner content of Torah becomes a mere shadow of its true self. Torah laws become detached from their living source. Torah study outside of Israel is like a translated poem, lacking the original vitality and lyric beauty.

When Rabbi Zeira fulfilled his life's goal and ascended to the Land of Israel, he underwent a great transformation. All matters were elevated. His spirit could now sense with greater clarity the inner essence of each detailed law. Yishar! he cried out. Now he could feel the inner vitality, the holy life-source revealed in this ruling. He was filled with awe, aware of how the Torah's lofty ideals are able to descend even into the lowest, most mundane depths, encompassing the needs of everyday life.

Torah Outside the Land

Samuel, the great Babylonian scholar, had ruled similarly. But there, outside of Eretz Yisrael, it was only a translation, lacking the original vitality. "And that is how a king in Babylon translated it." With his superior intellect, Samuel was able to distinguish between covering a donkey with a saddle-blanket and giving him a fodder-bag. But to truly feel this fine distinction - when is the descent into mundane living justified, and when is it detrimental - this may be experienced only in their origin, in the Land of Israel. In Babylon, it could only be grasped intellectually, as a faded copy of the original.

When Rabbi Zeira heard Rabbi Benjamin teaching this law, he suddenly realized the great difference between the dim light attained outside the Land, and the brilliant light when hearing the words in the place where they belong.

Thus King David wrote, "From Zion, the perfection of beauty, God (Elokim) has shined forth." The verse uses the divine name Elokim, indicating that in Zion, even the divine attribute of justice and law ("midat hadin") shines with a special light, as its original beauty is revealed.

[adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 15-16]

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