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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Learning, Inspiration, Genius in a Post Shavuot World

I was most privileged to make the acquaintance of one Nava when I brought in a Pitum Haktoret piece I did for framing into her shop a few days ago. She made a great impression on me in many ways but especially when she said that while she has been involved in framing for decades, even now she feels that her 'talent' in framing is not from her at all but rather just a sense she has from somewhere or something outside of her.

I pointed out that this sense has been noticed in many cultures including ancient ones and, in fact, including our own Jewish one. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love (which admittedly I haven't read), has a great TED talk about this same idea.

This notion is alluded to in a midrash apropos of Shavuot which, of course, has just passed. The midrash states:

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשת כי תשא פרשה מא

אמר ר' אבהו כל מ' יום שעשה משה למעלה היה למד תורה ושוכח, א"ל רבון העולם יש לי מ' יום ואיני יודע דבר, מה עשה הקב"ה משהשלים מ' יום נתן לו הקב"ה את התורה מתנה שנאמר ויתן אל משה

Shmot Rabbah (ed. Vilna) Parshat Ki Tissa 41

Rabbi Avahu said: Throughout the entire forty days which Moshe spent above, he would learn Torah and then forget [what he learned]! He said to God, "Sovereign of the Universe! I have forty days and I don't know a thing! What did the Holy One Blessed Be He do? As soon as [Moshe] completed the forty days, the Holy One Blessed Be He gave him the Torah [as a] gift. As it says, (Shmot 31:18) and He gave to Moshe.

The full verse there says: And He gave to Moshe, when he finished speaking with him on Mt. Sinai, two tablets of testament, tablets of stone written with the finger of God.

While the plain understanding of the verse is simply that God handed over the tablets that He wrote, the midrash picks up on the word ויתן vayiten (and He gave). The verse could have stated that Moshe took the tablets or that Moshe brought the tablets or some such. The fact that it says that God gave the tablets implies that it was only by God giving them could Moshe 'receive' or comprehend them. 

The 'giving' here implies that God simply implanted the knowledge of the Torah in Moshe's brain a la The Matrix, meaning that Moshe, in the end, received the entire Torah not through intellectual struggle and mastery but through Divine Grace in some way.

One obvious question is: If God had to give the Torah in this manner to Moshe, why didn't He just do it on the first day? Why shlep the whole process out for forty days? 

There is a hint, I believe, in the words of the midrash: As soon as [Moshe] completed the forty days. This implies that Moshe had to do his part by showing up for forty days. For many reasons, Moshe was the one whom God wished to bring the Torah from the heavens and down to mankind. The Torah was/is the culmination of Divine Wisdom, something which is arguably beyond mortal comprehension. In short, no person could really bring it from the heavens to the earth by his or her abilities alone. Divine help was clearly needed.

But in order to deserve that help, in order to be able to receive that which the Divine is offering, Moshe had to be there, to make the effort, to show up. 

So it is with all learning. We need to understand that while creativity and learning are things which are granted to us by the Divine, we need to make the effort to receive that gift. 

May we all learn to show up!

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