November 1, 2008
3 Heshvan 5769
Metaphor is one of the most effective literary tools of the prophet. Through the use of creative comparison, the prophet can deliver a message that is powerful because it gives the audience an insightful reference point with which to relate to the lesson being taught. Isaiah wishes to convey to his audience what God\’s word, the Torah, might mean to their lives. He chose for his vehicle the most basic of human needs, food and drink: \”Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money; come buy food and eat: buy food without money, wine and drink without cost.\” (55:1)
After a thorough survey of the differing perspectives on the meaning of the metaphor comparing Torah to water in rabbinic literature, Rabbi Yitzhak Abrabanel (Portugal, Spain 15-16 century) offers his own unusual insight. He contends that the Torah is compared to water because water benefits people in two significant ways. Water, according to Abrabanel, cools people down when they are hot and it makes food digestible by thinning that which is too thick to be swallowed. The same is true, he holds of Torah, in a metaphoric way, of course. There are times when people get carried away (overly excited – overheated) by mental wandering and doubts. Torah study, he notes, is an antidote to these thoughts. It helps a person put his or her thoughts into perspective by giving insight into those issues which trouble a person\’s frame of mind.
Similarly, as Abrabanel admits, there are sometimes issues of faith and ideas in the tradition which are hard to understand and \”difficult to swallow\”. Often, when faced with such ideas, we simply dismiss them before we have taken the opportunity to fathom their depths. Here, too, he contends, serious study will make such ideas comprehensible and \”easy to swallow\” and consequently \”digestible\”.
It is interesting to hear such a perspective from Abrabanel, whose life and position in cosmopolitan Spain, in many ways, parallels that of modern Jews. Here, we have an observant and committed Jew, learned both in Jewish and worldly matters, a person who has traversed the corridors of power in both Portugal and Spain, serving as finance minister in both nations. His world was a world of competing universes, like ours, and his struggles to develop a consistent worldview were also similar to our struggles. He advices us not to give Judaism short shrift in this struggle because the truly significant answers are there to be found, but in order to find them one must drink of their waters. One\’s thirst will surely be quenched.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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