August 7, 2018

The transformative waters of Torah (Balak)

Some of the most exquisite words of prophecy found throughout Tanach are uttered by Bilam in this week’s parsha where he extols the virtues of the Jewish people. Certainly, the most famous of these verses is מה טובו אהליךHow goodly are your tents etc., which though literally as referring to Jewish homes, is also interpreted by our Rabbis to refer to the ‘tents’ of Torah that are synagogues and study houses (see Sanhedrin 105b).

Bilam then continues by explaining how these tents כנחלים נטיוstretch out like brooks, and it is this juxtaposition between ‘tents’ and ‘brooks’ which inspires our Rabbis to remark that ‘just as a brook elevates a person from impurity to purity, so too the tents [of Torah] can elevate a person from the state of guilt to the scale of merit’ (Brachot 16a).

Of course, the use of water as a metaphor for Torah is well known, and it was from the experience of the Israelites not drinking water for three days (Shemot 15:22) that the Torah reading on Mondays & Thursdays was instituted so that three days never go by without the Jewish people encountering the ‘water’ of Torah (see Bava Kamma 82a). However, I believe that the lesson drawn by our Rabbis from the words of Bilam is profound, because it teaches us that the transformative experience of Torah study can be compared with the transformative experience of Mikveh, and consequently, the more we understand of the Mikveh experience, the better we can understand what Torah can and should do for us. Below are three lessons that I think we can learn from Mikveh that we should apply to our Torah lives:

1. PREPARATION – In general, immersion in a Mikveh requires preparation, and similarly, for Torah to transform our lives we should approach Torah deliberately and for the purpose of self-transformation. Nonetheless, as the Chida explains, just as someone who unintentionally immerses in a brook, ocean or Mikveh is cleansed (see Rambam, Mikvaot 1:8), so too, sometimes it is the random Torah idea that we hear that can be most transformative. This means that we should always try and keep our eyes, ears and heart open.

2. IMMERSION – In all cases, whether immersion is done deliberately or otherwise, Mikveh is only transformative if a person is, at least momentarily, fully immersed in water and free from holding onto any items or ‘baggage’. Sadly, in our multi-tasking lives of the 21st century, too many of us are unable to immerse in any particular activity, and this is having a detrimental effect on us allowing Torah to change us and shape us. This is something we must work on.

3. WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARDS – According to many authorities, the transformative effect of Mikveh is achieved not while in the Mikveh but rather, when you have come out of it. Similarly, the transformative quality of Torah is most measured when we leave the synagogue and study house, which is why the Ramban writes in his famous letter that ‘when you arise from your learning reflect carefully on what you have studied, in order to see what in it that you can be put into practice’. So for Torah to truly change us, it must impact our lives beyond our schools and shuls.

When Bilam praised the Jewish nation, our Rabbis understood that his praise described not only towards the way Jews live, but also, the way Jews continue to grow and change. Especially as we begin the period of ‘three weeks’ this Tuesday with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, it seems that this is a perfect opportunity to immerse ourselves in Torah with the view to self-transform. May the learning begin!

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