The Cosmic Fix-It Manual

If we’re here to repair the world, it makes sense that we must have been given some sort of manual, something to tell us how to put the pieces together and what this world is supposed to look like once fixed. You would also expect some sort of hotline, for those times when the parts don’t fit together so well.

Sure, all the world is nothing more than G‑d speaking to us. But it’s broken, remember? By the time that voice gets to us, it’s all noise and no signal. As much as we can know much from our study of the stars above, the rocks below and all the creatures that fill the earth, all we get is what is. What should be, that they do not tell us.

So we’re told that there is one clear signal detected from the heavens, and that is Torah. In Torah, G‑d speaks and says, “Do this. Don’t do that.” Torah is not about what is, but what should be.

Yet even that is a very puzzling signal.

It begins with a writing that Moses gave to us after forty years of direct reception from Above. When? Where? Around the end of the Bronze Age, in the Sinai Desert, traveling from a collapsed Egyptian civilization, on our way to set up farm in the Promised Land.

What do we do with a Bronze Age agrarian Torah in the post-industrial global village?

So what do we do with a Bronze Age agrarian Torah in the post-industrial global village?

No problem. It is a living Torah—a “great voice that never stops.” Once in our hands, it grows, germinates, propagates and breathes life into all its pupils. We investigate, we argue with one another, we arrive at deeper meanings of His words, extend those meanings, innovate and make applications accordingly. And the labor never ends.

Hello, Operator?

But you have to ask yourself: Isn’t that strange? If it is G‑d’s word, shouldn’t it be straightforward from the outset? Shouldn’t He be the one to dictate every decision? How could it be that we can only work things out by arguing with one another and innovating our own applications?

What ever happened to prophecy? Certainly that would be an effective means to keep the channels of communication open. And indeed, the Talmud often tells of Elijah the Prophet, a mortal who never really died, but ascended to the heavens in a fiery chariot. Since that time, Elijah would frequent one or two sages of each generation with messages from Above. Basically, our man in heaven.

The Talmud tells of a certain Rabbi Aviatar, who had a prolonged Torah debate with Rabbi Natan, arriving at no resolution. At some point, Rabbi Aviatar met up with Elijah and asked him, “So what does the Holy One, may He be blessed, have to say about our little dispute?”

Elijah answered, “He says, ‘Aviatar my son says like this, while Natan my son says like this…”

So much for directions from heaven.

And that’s not the end of it. Another time, all the sages held a great debate with the greatest among them, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus. He presented argument after ingenious argument, but they could not come to agree. Finally, they all heard a voice came from heaven chide them, “Why do you argue with my child, Eliezer? Don’t you know he is always right?”

It was then that Rabbi Eliezer’s closest colleague, Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya, stood up and declared, “We cannot accept the testimony of a voice from heaven. The Torah is not in heaven. It was already given here to us to decide. And the Torah says, “In all difficult cases, you must rule according to the majority.’ (Exodus 23:2)

And so it was decided, by majority vote, that Rabbi Eliezer was wrong. Which means that so was G‑d.

And so it was decided, by majority vote, that Rabbi Eliezer was wrong. Which means that so was G‑d.

Later, one of the rabbis who had been present met up with that same above-mentioned agent to heaven. He asked, perhaps somewhat nervously, “Elijah, please tell me: When we determined that Rabbi Eliezer was wrong, despite the voice from heaven, what did the Holy One, may He be blessed, have to say about that?”

Elijah replied, “He smiled and exclaimed, ‘My children have beat me! My children have beat me!’”

Not only does He see both sides—even when we disagree with Him, He acquiesces to our decisions.

Don’t Touch That Letter!

This wouldn’t be so puzzling, were it not for the other end of the stick: Has He given the entire thing over to us? Absolutely not.

King Solomon was the wisest of all men. If anyone would be allowed to play around with Torah, it would be him. And he did.

For one thing, the Torah—in the Book of Deuteronomy—instructs that a king must not have many wives. Solomon had a thousand wives. Being so wise, how did he justify himself? He said, “The Torah doesn’t just say ‘Don’t have too many wives!’ The Torah provides a reason: ‘Lest they turn his heart away.’ But I’m a wise man. My heart will not be turned away by having more wives. And, for the sake of international affairs, it’s vital that I have a wife from each nation and province in the world. This way, I will bring peace to the world!”

What happened then? Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai fills us in on the rest of the story:

The Book of Deuteronomy rose and prostrated itself before the Holy One, may He be blessed. “Master of the Universe!” it said. “You wrote in Your Torah that if a person annuls anything of his will and final testimony, he has annulled the whole thing. Which means that even if one small letter could be removed from me, even a fragment of the smallest letter, I am invalid. And now, here is Solomon attempting to invalidate these words from my text!”

To which G‑d responded, “Solomon and a thousand like him will disappear, but not one word of you will ever disappear.”

If even Solomon the Wise could have been so subjective, what can we predict of our own decisions?

So here you have tremendous tension: On the one hand, it’s His Torah; we can’t change a thing—not one letter. After all, are you going to argue with the Master Programmer of all creation about how to fix up His own creation?

Further than that: it’s not about us, our understanding or desires at all. When we accepted it at Mount Sinai, we said, “We shall do and we shall obey.” It wasn’t just a matter of accepting a Higher Authority because He knows better. Accepting the Torah meant we are no longer our own beings. The Creator Himself spoke, and we lost all sense of existence. We became agents of the Infinite Light.

And yet, He put us in situations that demand we make decisions based on those instructions. And He relies on us entirely to make the right decision. So what is it that He wants? Obedience or self-initiative? Compliance or creativity?

Plugging In Your Brain…

The answer, once we realize it, is so obvious: We human creatures ourselves are also in need of fixing up. This process of wrestling with G‑d’s word is our therapy.

Are we broken? Most of us would probably admit we are. But you don’t have to be broken to need fixing up. Moses himself disputed his brother Aaron’s application of Torah in one specific instance—and ended up admitting, “You were right and I was wrong.”

Prayer fixes up your heart. Struggling with Torah fixes up your brain.

Repair means that this created being must become one with its Creator—one through and through, in every cell of its being. That means not just the soul—the soul is one with G‑d to begin with. It means the physical body, and the personality that inhabits that body.

Prayer takes care of your heart, to make room for G‑d to dwell there. Many other mitzvahs take care of your actions, to the point that, “in all your ways you will know Him.” Torah takes care of the brain.How does a human brain become one with G‑d? Not by Him doing our homework for us, but rather, by leaving it up to us to figure things out.

When that two-and-a-half pound slab of grey meat is entirely absorbed in trying to understand, “What exactly does G‑d want of me in this situation? What do His words mean? How did the sages understand it? How do I understand it? Why am I not getting it? What am I missing?”

And then this human creature realizes he can’t get it on his own, so he debates with others, listens to their arguments, admits where he was wrong, defends where he was right, all the while plunging deeper and yet deeper into the issue.

If his mind is a memory tank, he must connect the dots between all he remembers. If his mind is a gushing fountain of creativity, he must squeeze out of it every ounce of innovation he can muster. Whatever skills and talents he has, all must be enlisted, one hundred percent, into grasping, “What is Torah telling me here?”

And then, after repeatedly smashing into dead-end walls in a dark maze, a flash of light sparks in his brain and everything is clear.

…and Lighting It Up

But, hold on—how did that spark-generating process begin? It began because an intelligent person was humble enough to admit, “I don’t understand G‑d’s Torah.” And this person could have easily said, “So I guess it’s wrong.” But he doesn’t. Because his starting point is that this is the wisdom of the One who created me, so what makes my reasoning the measure of its truth?

When dealing with the Being that created you, that’s the only place to plug-in and start: It’s His Torah, not mine. If you’re not plugged in, nothing is going to light up. Plugged in not only to the words of the written Torah, but to the wisdom of all its sages who made decisions for the Jewish People throughout all the generations as well—since, after all, G‑d Himself submitted to their decisions.

But once you’ve made that connection, the next step is to absorb the light, to let it penetrate every cell of your brain, through sweat and hard work. Until Torah is no longer a light that descends from above, but one that is generated by your very own mind. His Torah becomes your Torah.

That’s real Torah, in all its paradoxical essence: The place where G‑d and man become one.

Likutei Sichot volume 19, page 254. Sefer HaSichot 5752, volume 2, pages 507–510.