Holiness, wildlife, keeping awake (Radical Torah repost)
Meeting "impurity," and being changed (Radical Torah repost)

Our mouths are the crucible for refining Torah

"God's words are pure words, silver refined in a crucible on the earth." (Psalm 12, verse 7.) Midrash tells us that in the days of David, even babies knew how to expound on the 49 facets of taharah and tum'ah, purity and impurity. The midrash explains how to find purity: through the power of divine speech. All things that are created are drawn forth through 10 utterances; the purity associated with divine speech is therefore found within them.

This is the Sefat Emet, from his commentary on parashat Emor, which we've been studying in my Moadim L'Simcha ("Seasons of Our Rejoicing") class on the Hasidic sacred year. The text is dense and allusive, but bear with me: this passage is going to go somewhere really gorgeous.

In the Hasidic understanding, 49 is the number of "gates" or "facets" of impurity (I blogged about that during the lead-up to Purim -- teasing out another Sefat Emet text, actually.) One interpretation of this puzzling midrash about babies suggests that someone who's really attuned can render the divine word into 49 different levels of purity or impurity, and in the days of King David, everyone was so steeped in Torah that even babies could spin interpretations to knock your socks off. Though the word tinok, a baby, literally means one who is suckling. Maybe the midrash is speaking metaphorically about one who is nourished by the Torah.

The 49 gates or facets of purity and impurity can also be read as the 49 days of the Omer, the days we count between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. (I've blogged about counting the Omer in years past; here's Rabbi Shai Gluskin's excellent explanation.) And the 10 utterances? Kabbalistically, these are the 10 sefirot, the ten facets or aspects of God. During sefirat ha-Omer (the counting of the Omer) we move through the prism of seven of those sefirot. God speaks the world into being through ten utterances, but the highest three are like a dog whistle -- they resonate on a level we can't perceive. Our experience is mediated through the lower seven sefirot, and those are what we move through as we count the Omer: a week of chesed/lovingkindness, a week of gevurah/boundaries, etc. These are our 49 gates.

All things are created by means of these 10 utterances. And we draw from them, and find purity in them. It's humanity's obligation to awaken that purity. This is what "silver smelted in a crucible on the earth" means. Through living in corporeality, on the earth, one can clarify this silver. The mouth of a person is a kiln for refining the letters of Torah.

That's the line that really knocks me out: a person's mouth is a kiln for refining the letters of Torah.

Interpreting the divine word becomes a way of living out divine energies. Drawing out the purity in Torah is a process of refining. And we ourselves are the smelting furnace in which God's word can be burnished. We live in corporeal reality, so what's in us is silver mixed with dross. Through our intentions, which are the crucible, we "refine the letters of Torah."

And what does that mean? One interpretation is a literal one: we combine and permutate the letters of Torah in our speech. (Think Abulafian letter-meditations.) But reading this, I also think of how the letters of Torah are the very letters which spell out the words we use every day. Every time we speak, we're reordering the letters of Torah into new combinations. 

This is what's being brought forth in the midrash about the 49 facets. The power of Israel through our speech is to make repairs, to bring forth words of Torah before the Blessed One according to the proper way that they should be purified. This is how we recombine the letters of Torah. And this itself is the Exodus from Egypt, being "brought forth from the iron furnace." (Deuteronomy 4:20.) Because it's hard to bring forth the voice through the throat without mixing and turning.

Our job is to speak words of Torah in a way which will bring healing to creation. This is what the Exodus was about: the power of free speech is itself the liberation. But what's this "mixing and turning?" My first thought was that "mixing" refers to the letters we recombine, and "turning" means loosening the throat so that speech can come through. But the word pniut can also mean "directing," as in "directing one's speech toward someone else." In the high holiday liturgy, the word means special pleading to God. So maybe the Sefat Emet is talking about clarifying our speech, removing the admixture of ego so that we can speak directly with God about what's important. That's what enables us to really bring forth our voices.

The Exodus from Egypt, in this understanding, is all about opening the throat and letting holy words through. Our speech had been constrained but now it's coming forth in a renewed way. The throat becomes the Narrow Place from which speech breaks free. The mouth is a furnace, it heats our words. And if we're doing it right, the words we speak are holy words, words which bring healing.

The Sefat Emet goes on to say that when we and God chose one another in the desert (he's speaking here, I think, of the theophany at Sinai -- which we celebrate at Shavuot, the endpoint to which our Omer-counting is carrying us) there was a mutual betrothal, a choosing from both sides. And this is reflected in the twofold Torah, the Oral Torah and the Written Torah.

He's not just talking about "Torah" and "Talmud," which is how those terms are often understood. I think he's saying something deeper. The Oral Torah is the Torah that comes through us, it's on our lips and in our mouths; the Written Torah is that which is implanted in us, given to us from beyond. Written Torah comes from a transcendent place; Oral Torah is immanent. What we contribute are our creative rereadings, the Torah that comes through us.

In addition to this, God implanted within us the true, real power of Torah: that humankind can renew the words of Torah to configure the letters of Torah.

The Torah is within us. We creatively recast, refine, smelt the letters of Torah which we've received. To me, this is a pretty radical notion: it's our job to repair creation, and to refine God's own words, by recombining those words in creative ways which give rise to healing. Maybe I'm just an irredeemable Hasidut geek, but I find this both beautiful and powerful. Does it speak to you?

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