What is a M’qom Torah – A Place of Torah?

I wish to share some thoughts I have about where we are, who we are, and what we are striving for as a rabbinical school and cantorial school at the Academy.

I begin with a story from Pirqe Avot, the collection of fundamental teachings included in the Mishnah.1 This story comes from the sixth and last chapter, actually a later addition to the tractate, called Pereq Qinyan Torah – The Chapter of Torah Acquisition, Baraita 9:

Rabbi Yose ben Qismah said – Once I was walking along the road and a certain person bumped in to me and greeted me. So I returned his greeting. He said to me: ‘My Master, where do you come from?’ I said to him: ‘I am from a great city of Sages and Scribes.’ He said to me: ‘My Master, How would you like to come to live with us? I would give you a million gold dinarii and precious gems and pearls.’ I said to him: ‘Even if you would give me all the gold and silver and precious gems and pearls in the world, I would never live anywhere but in a M’qom Torah – a place of Torah.’ etc.

A M’qom Torah – a place of Torah – That is what we strive to create here at the Academy. What does this mean? Well, the plain meaning of the term is that it is simply a place where people study Torah. But such a place is not a simple place at all.

We read another teaching from Pirqe Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 2:

Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion says: When two sit together without any words of Torah between them it is just a setting for frivolous people, as it says (Psalms 1:1), that a person [who only desires God’s Torah] does not sit among frivolous people. But when two people sit together and there are words of Torah between them, the Shekhinah – Divine Presence – is between them, as it says (Malachi 3:16): ‘Then those who fear God engaged each other in conversation, each with their friend, and God listened and heard. Then it was written as a book of remembrance before Him, for those who revere God and who contemplate His Name.’

Rabbi Hananiah tells us that the Divine Presence hovers between two people who study Torah. How much more so, how much more powerful a Presence can there be here, in our place of Torah, where there are not two people, or two dozen, but dozens and dozens of people studying Torah with their teachers, students and study partners!

But if Rabbi Hananiah teaches us a wonderful fact, that the Divine Presence hovers between those who study Torah with one another, he does not tell us why it is so. What is it that enables the Shekhinah to be present? What is the vehicle, the instrument or the container that holds or supports the Shekhinah’s Presence among those who study Torah together? Let us hear an explanation of this teaching from Rabbi Yitzhaq Eiziq Yehudah Yehiel Safrin of Komarno:2

When two sit together – because that is the way it is when two [sage tzaddiqim]3 sit together, each one craves to hear a new word from the mouth of his friend. And through this [craving] their friend is aroused and his heart opens up to him like a fountain to create new words of Torah. And so it is for his companion. Therefore it says ‘words of Torah between them‘ – for it is between the two of them that words of Torah, reverence and instruction are newly created . . .the Shekhinah – Divine Presence – is between them, as it says . . .engaged each other in conversation – it does not say ‘spoke,’ but, rather, ‘engaged each other in conversation,’ for each one speaks through the arousal of his companion, because were there no arousal, each one would sit and, in love and devequt (mystical communion), unite with the Blessed Name. But, nonetheless, it is the will and pleasure of the Blessed Name for one [who is a tzaddiq] to come from pure contemplation down to speech, desisting from mystical unifications and communion.

The Shekhinah is found in the in-between-ness of Torah study. The Komarno Rebbe suggests that the Shekhinah delights in leaving the static bliss of unio mystica to enter the inter-relationship of the two who learn, to hover in the space created between two students engaged in stimulating each other to create new words of Torah.

This past Shabbat we read about the very founding moment – the origin – that created the possibility for this phenomenon, for we read about the first Giving of the Torah itself. The verses just preceding the Ten Commandments read as follows (Ex. 19:20-25; 20:1):

God descended upon Mount Sinai to the top of the mountain, and summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses ascended. And God said to Moses, ‘Go down to bear witness before the people, lest they act destructively toward God by trying to [come and] see, and then many may fall.

God tells Moshe – Moses – to warn the Israelite people that they should not get too close to the mountain, for that could be disastrous. Moses tries to tell God that it is not necessary to worry about this since God has already issued such a warning. But God insists that Moses do so again. Then the verses proceed to report that God spoke the Ten Commandments.

The Meshekh Hokhmah, Rabbi Meir Simhah Cohen of Dvinsk,4 read these verses and made an interesting observation. We know, after all, that this was not the first time that Moses had ascended this mountain and had experienced there a Divine revelation. The revelation of the Burning Bush happened there, according to the traditional identification of Horev and Sinai, and according to the Biblical record of the Divine promise (Ex. 3:11-12). We read at the beginning of the third chapter of Exodus:

Moshe was herding the flocks of Yitro, his father-in-law, the Priest of Midian. And he led the sheep beyond the desert and he came to the Mountain of God, to Horev. And an angel of God appeared to him in the heart of the fiery flame, from within the bush. And he saw that actually the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not being consumed. So Moses said, ‘Let me get closer so that I may see this great sight. Why won’t the bush burn up?’ When God saw that he was going to come closer, God called out to him from within the bush and said, ‘Moshe! Moshe!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Don’t approach from there. Take your shoes off your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground.’

Here is the first time that Moses is granted a revelation from God on Mount Sinai. But at this scene of the Burning Bush God tells Moses to remove his shoes, for he is standing on holy ground. Why, asks the Meshekh Hokhmah, doesn’t God make the same demand from Moses the second time that Moses ascends this holy mountain? Why didn’t God tell Moses to take off his shoes? Wasn’t this mountain, quaking with the Divine Presence, holy ground? Rabbi Meir Simhah offers his own answer, based on his profound understanding of traditional symbolism. But I wish to attempt a different answer.

I propose to answer the question of the Meshekh Hokhmah by first posing, and discussing, another question regarding the giving of the Ten Commandments. My question is a simple one, though it is not, to the best of my knowledge, explicitly dealt with by the classical commentators: Since the Ten Commandments constitute the official giving of the Torah to Israel, why isn’t the mitzvah – the Divine commandment – to learn Torah (Talmud Torah) – included among those Commandments? Wouldn’t it have made sense for God to charge us with the study of the Torah at the time God was giving us the Torah to keep?5

The mitzvah of Talmud Torah does not appear until the fifth book of the Torah. We do not hear this mitzvah from God, but from Moshe, on his death bed. The commandment is included in what was to become the first paragraph of the Sh’ma(Deut. 6:4-9):

Hear this, Israel, The Divine Being is our God and the Divine Being is One. Love the Divine, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your own resources. These words that I command you today should be upon your heart. Teach them over and over to your children; speak of them and through them , whether you are dwelling in your home or going on a journey, whether you are resting or rousing yourself. Tie them so that they will be a sign on your hand and ornaments between your eyes. And write them on the doorposts of your home and on your gateways.

‘Teach them . . . speak of them and through them . . .’ is the injunction to engage in Talmud Torah, both as teachers of our children, and as active participants in the discourse of Torah. Why did we have to wait so long to hear this mitzvah? And why from Moses and not from the Holy Blessed One?

To understand this we must consider what happened at Mount Sinai. We have asked why the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is absent at that event. But, of course, the truth is that it is not. The commandment of Torah study is, indeed, introduced at Sinai. But it is not introduced by the Holy Blessed One. It is we, Israel, who created the mitzvah of Torah study. Let us read of the response of Israel to God’s revelation at Mount Sinai (Ex. 20:15-18):

Now all the people were seeing the voices and the torches and the shofar sound and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw this they moved away and stood far back. They said to Moshe, ‘You speak with us so that we can hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die. But Moses said to the nation, ‘Don’t be afraid. God has come only for the purpose of initiating you, and so that His reverence shall be on your faces, so that you won’t sin.’ But the people stood far away, and Moses approached the heavy cloud where God was.

By appointing Moses as our emmissary, we made a fateful choice: that the Torah would not be given in the form of Divine Revelation, but in the form of teaching and study.

Why did we do this? Why, originally, did we create the mitzvah of Torah study? We created it because we were afraid. We were afraid of God, so that when we heard God’s voice, we trembled, and fearing for our lives, we moved away. And despite Moses’ remonstrances and reassurances, we persisted: ‘But the people remained standing far away, so that only Moses approached the heavy cloud of God’s presence.’

Now let us return to the earlier story of the Burning Bush:

Moses was herding the flocks of Yitro, his father-in-law, the Priest of Midian. And he led the sheep beyond the desert and he came to the Mountain of God, to Horev.

The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin,6 was sensitive to the strange phrase employed by the Torah in describing Moses’ choice of pasture land for his flock. Why did Moses go ‘ahar ha-midbar,’ ‘beyond the desert’? How far is that? What, after all, is farther out than the desert itself? So the Ha-`Ameq Davar began picturing the scene. He imagined Moses leading his flocks way beyond the customary pasturing spot that other shepherds frequented. He did this to avoid the others, because he needed to get away from their company. He was in search of something and he did not want to be deflected or hindered. He was a seeker. He was seeking God. Finally, ‘beyond the desert,’ in a place which is no place at all, he found the Mountain of God, and he experienced God’s revelation.

His response to his vision was to try to draw near, ‘asurah na.’ As Rashi7 renders the phrase: ‘I will turn away from here to get closer to there.’ Moshe’s desire is to get closer to the source of Revelation. It was at that point that God moved from Vision to Speech:

When God saw that he was going to come closer, God called out to him from within the bush and said, ‘Moses! Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Don’t approach from there. Take your shoes off your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground.’

What does this mean? Why has God instructed Moses to take off his shoes? God has prevented Moses from approaching the source of Revelation, toward which Moses yearns. Let us listen closely to God’s words. God tells Moses to take off his shoes, ‘for the place upon which you stand is holy ground.’ God is not referring to the place of the Burning Bush. God is revealing to Moses that the very place on which Moses is standing is, itself, holy ground, and Moses must therefore remove his shoes.

What makes it holy? It seems to me that the answer is – Moses’ desire to come closer to God’s Presence is what sanctifies that place. But this is only one part of the answer. The feeling of love and desire creates the holiness, but not by itself. There is one more essential, paradoxical component to the sanctification. It is, additionally, Moses’ forbearance from actually coming any closer. God tells Moshe that the place he stands on is holy, but only after He instructs Moses to come no further. Moses then finds himself in the position of thirsting for an intimacy with God’s Presence, but he cannot consummate that desire in the direct way he wishes. In accepting that suspension of actualizing his desire in a unilateral manner, he has created a new kind of place, an ‘in-between’ space, to use the language of Pirqe Avot. He has created a holy space, a space that is not to be traversed and passed through, to be left behind. Instead, he has taken a stand in an open space sanctified for the mutual arousal of both personalities, human and Divine, Moses and the Blessed Holy One.

We witness or experience just such a sanctification whenever we are present at a Jewish wedding. As the two loving partners stand together under the huppah – the wedding canopy – there is an intermediate moment that occurs before the completion of the ceremony. That moment is the ‘engagement’ of the couple. It is called qiddushin – sanctification. It is precisely the moment when a declaration of love is made, while the intimate physical expression of that love is, as yet, forbidden. Thus, traditionally, the groom says to the bride, ‘Haray at mequdeshet li … Behold you are sanctified to me with this ring in accordance with the rites of Moses and Israel.’ And, indeed, in many communities today, the declaration is reciprocated in the same language or another formula. Yet, the blessing recited at that stage has announced that all engaged parties are still physically forbidden to one another.

So it is the dialectical moment of love and restraint that creates the silent, open place of holiness, where nothing moves, where one stays in place – ‘for the place upon which you stand is holy ground.’ Of course, in such a place, God says, ‘Remove your shoes.’ There is no need to lace up one’s feet for the road.

Let us now return to Sinai. What did God really want to happen at Mount Sinai? God wanted to give Israel the Torah. In preparation, God instructs Moshe to warn the people:

‘Go down to bear witness before the people, lest they act destructively toward God by trying to [come and] see, and then many may fall.

God is worried that the Children of Israel will want to come closer, and God tells them, for their own good, to keep back. This is the simple meaning of the text.

But, now, after examining the dynamic created by God with Moses at the Burning Bush, we can read this story a little differently. Perhaps God was not simply worried. It was not that God merely suspected that perhaps the Children of Israel might want to come closer. Rather, God wanted the Children of Israel to desire to come near – to desire to do so, but, yet, to refrain from drawing near. God wished to encounter an entire people – aMamlekhet Kohanim ve-Goy Qadosh – a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation – standing and listening to God’s revelatory words, an entire people aching to draw close, but abiding in the Word. This would create such a holiness that the entire world would have become perfect and redeemed.

But we didn’t do that. We didn’t want to come closer. Instead of being overcome with ahavah – love – we were overcome with yir’ah – fear. That’s when we created the first Rabbi. ‘You, Moses, go up to get the Torah, and come down to teach us.’ So, of course, we understand the answer to the question of the Meshekh Hokhmah. Of course God could not say any longer, ‘Take off your shoes, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground.’ It had not been sanctified by that dialectical process of desire and forbearance. God had desired to reveal the Torah to the entire Jewish People directly. The pristine revelation intended by God was exchanged by the Jewish People for the mitzvah of Talmud Torah me-Yir’ah – the study of Torah out of fear.

This is not the end of the matter, however. Let us go back to the beginning of the Torah portion of Yitro. Jethro -Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, has heard of all the miracles of God and Israel and he comes to Moses, restoring his family to him, as well. We know that there is a dispute in the Tradition as to whether this episode happened before the Giving of the Torah or afterward.8 Let us assume that the story takes place after the Torah was given (for, otherwise, what is Moses teaching the people?9) Yitro watches his son-in-law at work. He sees Moses teaching Torah to the Children of Israel single-handedly. But Yitro realizes that this cannot and should not continue (Ex. 18: 17-23):

Then Moshe’s Father-in-Law said to him, ‘The thing you are doing is not good. Both you and this people with you will completely shrivel up, because this matter is too weighty for you; you cannot do it on your own. Now, listen to what I say. I will advise you and may your God be with you. You should go before God for the people, bring any issues whatsoever to God. And you shall alert them to the laws and teachings, telling them the path they should follow, and the acts they should perform. But you should survey the nation for valiant people who revere God, people of Truth and hating corruption, and you should place these over them as officials for the thousands, the hundreds, the groups of fifty and the groups of ten. They should be the ones judging the people at all times, while if there is some great matter they may bring it to you, while they adjudge all the minor matters. This will ease things for you, for they will bear responsibility with you. If you do this thing, with God’s command, you with be able to remain standing, and this entire people will come to its own place in peace.

Yitro argues to Moses that Moses’ approach to teaching Torah is doomed to failure. The Children of Israel are left standing from morning until night waiting for an audience with their Teacher. There are too many dangers lurking in that situation. Yitro worries about excessive distancing, just as God had worried about excessive closeness. The people will feel too distanced from Moshe and the Torah. They may lose interest, they may feel ignored, or, worse, their questions, problems and needs may go unmet. Yitro worries that the Torah is not democratically accessible to Israel. It is not enough to have (Deut. 33:4)- ‘Torah tzivah lanu Moshe‘ – ‘The Torah commanded to us by Moses. The second half of the verse must follow – ‘Morashah qehillat Ya`aqov‘ – It must be ‘the Heritage of the entire Congregation of Jacob.’ Yitro pleads with Moses to let everyone take part in learning and teaching Torah.

Why didn’t Moses understand this himself? The reason is that he was not in the same position as the rest of the people. He was an intimate, loving recipient of God’s direct revelation, ‘Face to face’ (Deut. 34:10). Furthermore, with regard to the institution of Talmud Torah me-Yir’ah as created by Israel, he could think of himself as legitimately satisfying their demand. He was the one they asked to be their teacher, after all.

It was Yitro who realized that a revolution was necessary, that the Revelation through Love, experienced by Moshe, had to be combined with the need of the Children of Israel for Talmud Torah in a defined, human dimension. Yitro understood that what had happened to Moses was not the same thing that had happened to Israel. The Torah portion begins (Ex.18;1):

Then Yitro, Priest of Midian, Father-in-Law of Moses, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His People…

Notice that the verse states that Yitro heard of two types of action by God, what God had done for Moses and what God had done for Israel. As someone who stood apart from the experiences of either Moses or Israel, he could appreciate the need and the possibility of bringing them into synthesis.

Moses is able to hear Yitro’s voice. He accepts Yitro’s advice. He creates a new system of Talmud Torah, including teachers and study partners – havruta. His ultimate achievement is to reconceive the mitzvah of Talmud Torah. For when we finally hear the official promulgation of this commandment, not from God but from Moshe, we receive it in the context of the Ve-Ahavta – the commandment to love God. The study of Torah must come from ahavah – Love – as described by the Komarno Rebbe. It is the genuine love that fosters cathectic passion while simultaneously clearing a respectful space for the arousal of inspired mutuality.

I began by describing our school, The Academy for Jewish Religion, as a m’qom Torah – a place of Torah. Yitro promised Moses that if Moses could create a system of Talmud Torah me-Ahavah – Torah Study from Love, then –

this entire people will come to its own place in peace.

Then the entire people will find its place – its own place. Each person will find her and his own place, the place that only they can stand upon and make holy.

The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger,10 explains that this place in each individual is called Tziyyon – from the word tziyyun – a marking, a distinguishing sign. He explains, at the start of his work, why the Torah begins with stories:

Therefore the story of Creation is called Ma`aseh Bereshit – the Act of Creation – to tell us that the world was created through Ten Sayings, so that the life of the world comes from the Torah.

It is a person’s job to make this clear – that each act draws its vitality from the Blessed One. And when a person does his actions according to the power of Torah, to complete the will of the Creator, then he renews the light that was hidden in nature. This is the subject of the verse:

I have put My words in your mouth and kept you covered under the shelter of My hand. I, Who fixed the Heavens in place and established the Earth, say to Zion, ‘You are My people’. (Isaiah 51:16)

And the Rabbis taught in the Zohar (Introduction, p. 5), ‘Do not read ‘You are `Ami – My people’ but ‘You are `Imi – with Me”, that a person is a partner in the Act of Creation. The meaning of Tziyyon – Zion is Tziyyun – Marker. It is the point that is in each thing, a note and sign to remind us that it is from the Blessed One. It is the life force which vitalizes everything. A person who clings to this point, whose entire life draws from this point, becomes a partner with God in the Act of Creation.11

This explains one last question. Why don’t we say, – ki mi-Sinai tetze Torah – ‘For out of Sinai comes forth the Torah’? Wasn’t that the place where the Torah was given? Yet that place was never sanctified as a m’qom Torah. We have even forgotten where it was because it was not within the category of ‘the place upon which you stand is holy ground.’ No, instead we say – ki mi-Tziyyon tetze Torah – ‘For out of Zion comes forth the Torah.’ (Isa. 2:3)

The place of Torah is that space created through the melding of authentic personal love, desire and passion with a necessary restraint, expectation and respect. It is that synthesis which allows us to hear and cherish the words of Torah spoken by others and, thus, to be aroused to speak new and authentic words of Torah from within ourselves. The space we open up in this way is the place we make for the Shekhinah – the Divine Presence – to dwell among us.

May we work together to create a true m’qom Torah – a true place of Torah. And may we hasten the day when we see the fulfillment of the promise, when –

Ve-gam kol ha-`am ha-zeh `al m’qomo yavo b’shalom

when this entire people will come to its own place in peace.

1 The Mishnah is the first book produced by the Rabbis. It was completed at the very beginning of the third century CE.
2 Rabbi Yitzhaq (1806 – 1874) was a great rebbe – Hassidic Master, and was a student of R. Zvi Hirsch of Zydachov. He was a master of exoteric and esoteric Torah, often combining both aspects in his writings. This excerpt is from his commentary to Pirqe Avot, Notzer Hesed, Israel, 1982.
3 A tzaddiq is a righteous person. In Hassidic anthropology, the Tzaddiq is the holy man, possessing unique spiritual powers and responsibilities, who serves as the leader of a group of devotees, his hassidim. While R. Yitzhaq Eiziq’s teaching refers to this idea, it is possible to read him without being bound by this tenet of Hassidism. For our purposes, his teaching should be read as applying to all those who study Torah, for as Isaiah says: ‘Your people are all tzaddiqim.’ (60:21)
4 Rabbi Meir Simhah (1843 – 1926), as have so many other rabbis, merited to be called by the name of his book, a commentary on Torah, combining incisive legalistic interpretations with philosophical and spiritual discourses. In fact, he had the double merit of also being called ‘The Or Same`ah‘, from the title of his magnum opus, his notes on Maimonides’ code. The custom of referring to a person by the name of their book of Torah teachings expresses the belief that the very essence of the person’s soul is embodied in these volumes just as surely as in their flesh and bones.
5 Meshekh Hokhmah has another interpretation which could be used to this question, as well. See his comment to 20:1.
6 Rabbi Berlin (1817-1893) was the Head of the famed Volozhin Yeshivah. He is known by his acronym, Netziv, but also by the title of his classic commentary on the Torah, the Ha`Ameq Davar, from which the following insight has been gleaned.
7 Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhaq (c. 1040 – 1104), the greatest commentator on the Written and Oral Torah, the Bible and the Talmud.
8 This is discussed in the Babylonian Talmud, the record of Rabbinic teachings after the Mishnah. See Tractate Zevahim 116a.
9 The other side of the difficulty is that, if we accept that Sinai happened first, we are puzzled as to why the story is told out of chronological order. For an important answer, see the comments of Tosafot on the Babylonian Talmud, `Avodah Zarah 24b, s.v. Yitro.
10 R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib (1847-1905) was also known as the Gerer Rebbe,. The Gerer are, to this day, a powerful Hassidic group. He is known by the title of his collection of discourses on the weekly Torah portion. The same title was given to his collected novellae on the Talmud.
11T his teaching, along with selections from each Torah portion, has now appeared, with a slightly different translation and with discussion, in Arthur Green’s The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, JPS, 1998.