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What Happens When the Rebbe Dies?

(Prepared for a teaching before Shabbat candle lighting January 13, 2017)

Divine sovereignty and human agency. From revelation to interpretation. What happens when the rebbe dies? A teaching inspired by Dr. Micah Goodman, a Shalom Hartman Institute scholar.

There is a classic talmudic text that implies that, after the death of our teacher Moses, the role of prophets and the appeal to revelation became irrelevant to the problem of ascertaining the correct understanding of the Torah. In the Babylonian Talmud tractate Temurah, p. 16a, we read two different teachings from Rav Judah about the reaction to the death of Moses.

Rav Judah. A very interesting sage, active mainly in Babylonia between 250 and 290 CE. Rav Judah was one of the most important disciples of Rav, the dean of the Academy in Sura. When Rav died, Rav Judah went to Nehardea to study under Shmuel, the dean of the Academy there. After Shmuel died, Rav Judah founded yet another academy in Pumpeditha which became famous for the sharpness of its pilpul, its legal analysis. Rav Judah didn’t have just one rebbe; he had two - Shmuel and Rav. He wasn’t tied to one school of thought, to one tradition; he could be independent from both of them, someone who thought for himself. This teaching about the reaction to the death of the rebbe, of our teacher Moses, was brought by someone who himself did not have just one rebbe.

When Moses died, not only did he die, but his Torah faded away. A huge body of knowledge that contains God’s will was also forgotten. The loss was not only of the giver of the Torah, but of the Torah itself. It was a spiritual crisis.

“Rav Judah reported in the name of Shmuel: In the days of mourning for Moses, three thousand halachot (traditional laws) were forgotten. They said to Joshua: Ask (to borrow it again); he replied: It is not in heaven (Deuteronomy 30:12).”

This is a very powerful answer - it is not in heaven anymore. Moses brought the Torah down to earth, and now that he’s gone, it is nowhere. Then they asked Shmuel the prophet and Pinhas the High Priest to “borrow it again” through prophecy or through the use of the urim and thumim (divination), or maybe through the mishkan, the sanctuary. But they sought it in vain. That was the uniqueness of Moses’ prophecy. After he died, neither prophets nor priests could bring back God’s law. Thus ends the teaching Rav Judah brought in the name of Shmuel.

“Rav Judah reported in the name of Rav: At the time that Moses our teacher died (and went) to the Garden of Eden, he said to Joshua: Ask me (about) all the questions and uncertainties that you have!

“He [Joshua] said to him: Rebbe, I have only laid you down [for] one hour [ago] and then I went to another place? Didn’t you write this about me (in Shemot/Exodus 33:11) “but his attendant, Joshua son of Num, a youth, would not stir out of the Tent”? Joshua answers that he was certain about everything because he followed Moshe everywhere. He had such clarity he knew there was no chance he would forget anything and he didn’t need to come out of the tent. But when Moses died, Joshua immediately lost all of his strength, forgot 300 halachot and 700 doubts were born within him. His Torah was dependent on Moses, on his rebbe. Rav Judah, a sage who is not dependent on anyone, here brings a critique of a society that is dependent on the rebbe, that is trapped in one tradition.

The people respond by wanting to kill Joshua. The Holy Blessed One advises him to start a war to solve his political crisis. What an answer! How do you solve a spiritual crisis with a war? Was God really telling Joshua to come out of the tent, to take on the mantel of leadership necessary for the time? After all, the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan and encounter hostility.

Thus ends the teaching Rav Judah brought in the name of Rav. Two different teachings from two different rebbes. And what does Rav Judah conclude? Not only was the Torah lost when Moses died, the Torah that is derived from it was also forgotten, as well as the mechanism for deriving it. He brings a third teaching, from Rabbi Abahu: “Even so, Othniel ben Knaz [the first of the judges] was able to restore it through his pilpul, his argumentation, his dialectics.” The attempt to bring back the Torah through revelation failed, but finally it comes back through interpretation.

Othniel ben Knaz showed us that God reveals the Torah and we use our minds, our imaginations, our interpretations to reconstruct the Torah that was lost. When we are dependent on the prophet, on the rebbe, and have a spiritual crisis, the person who uses their intellect, their reasoning ability, can compensate for the absence of God’s active involvement, and reestablish the Book. The forgotten word of God is restored through the power of study and through the power of independent thinking.

This includes the necessity to create and innovate and not just repeat the lessons verbatim. There is a story in the Midrash, in Seder Eliyahu Zuta, comparing the written and the oral law:

“This can be compared to a king of flesh and blood who had two servants whom he loved with a perfect love He gave them each a measure of wheat, and a bundle of flax. The wise servant, what did he do? He took the flax and spun a cloth. Then he took the wheat and made flour which he cleansed, and ground, and kneaded, and baked and set on top of the table. Then he spread the cloth over it until the king should come. But the foolish servant did nothing at all. After some days, the king returned and came into his house: My sons, bring me what I gave you. One servant showed the wheaten bread on the table with a cloth spread over it. The other showed the wheat still in the box, with a bundle of flax upon it. Alas, for his shame, alas for his disgrace! Now, when the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel, he gave it only in the form of wheat, for us to extract flour from it, and flax, to extract a garment.”

This is a very important teaching for us in ALEPH. Over two years ago we lost our dear Rebbe Zalman. Over his lifetime Reb Zalman “deployed” us to carry on the work he began, of renewing Judaism in a world that needs it so desperately. The rebbe died and we have lost that direct connection to his Torah. We can never get it back; we have lost all those adorable moments.

So much gets lost when we lose a great thinker, a great rebbe. Like Joshua, there is a tendency to feel frozen and stay in the tent. But the Torah Rebbe Zalman brought down to us was not lost with him. It has been continuing to unfold in many creative and even unexpected ways. It comes back through practicing the practice, engaging in the work. It is up to us not only to continue the work of Reb Zalman, but to carry it forward, as interpreters, as independent thinkers, using our intellect, our learning, our reasoning ability, our imaginations, our creativity. It is upon us to take the wheat and the flax the rebbe left with us and make bread and cloth from it.

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