This year, in preparation for the Days of Awe, I started a new project — working through the famous Tannaitic midrash on Deuteronomy, known as the Sifrei. This is no whim. The standard edition of Sifrei features 430 pages of text, with copious notes and variant manuscript readings compiled by the editor, Prof. Louis Finkelstein, of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. First published in 1939, it was the last Hebrew book produced in Berlin before the official onset of the second World War.
Why am I picking such a challenging text? The answer is complicated.
First, I blame Rashi. Of course, all his Torah commentaries ransack the Tannaitic midrashim for material. But his commentary on Deuteronomy seems to do so more than most. So I am curious: When Rashi quotes Sifrei, what is he leaving outside the quotation marks?
I also blame the Tannaim in general. These early transmitters of the oral Torah, whose teachings dominate the Mishna, are my favorite rabbis. Their terse wisdom and snappy mottos attract me more than their successors, those prolix yakkers, the Amoraim of the Talmud! So the prospect of spending lots of time with the Tannaim has its appeal.
This project will take some time. So far, I’m on page 59 (chapter 32 of 357), which covers Deuteronomy through the text of the Shema (Dt.6:4-9). Obviously, I have a way to go.
But I thought that, during this season of repentance, it might be a public-spirited gesture to report on how Rashi, as a student of Sifrei, encounters the commandment to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your power.”
Let’s get down to the heart of the matter. What do we make of Deuteronomy’s three-fold repetition of ways of loving Hashem — with “all your heart, all your soul, and all your power?” Does the Divine Author really need to pile up synonyms to show his linguistic skills? He created the world by talking, no? So why the poetic pyrotechnics?
Rashi is alert to this problem. And his comments on these words are all direct citations of Sifrei. Commenting on the word, levavechah (“your heart”), Rashi follows Sifrei’s lead by noting how here the word “heart” is spelled with two bets. Why this idiosyncratic spelling, when one bet will do the job (as in libchah)? Channeling Sifrei, Rashi writes: “This refers to the two impulses in the human heart — the impulse to obedience and the impulse to rebellion.” Then, for good measure, he adds another midrash from Sifrei: “Let your heart not be divided against the Omnipresent!”
Okay — we are to love God wholeheartedly. So what is added by the next phrase, “all your soul?” Rashi quotes another Sifrei: “Love Hashem even if He takes your soul.” Succinct and to the point: We owe our lives to God and must deliver them if need be.
Finally, a third quote from Sifrei adorns Rashi’s comment on “all your power”: “This means all your wealth. It addresses people who love their wealth more than their own bodies!”
This must be Jack Benny’s favorite Rashi. Remember the shtick? A gunman pokes a Saturday night special into his ribs, saying: “Your money or your life!”
After a longish pause, the mugger says: “Well?”
Benny replies: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”
But I digress.
Sifrei devotes roughly 60 lines of its text to explicating the shema. Rashi quotes maybe six of those lines. That means that 90 percent of Sifrei’s commentary on the shema is hidden by Rashi’s use of it as a source! So, what interpretive options did Rashi decline to share with his readers?
Here’s just a taste of what Rashi’s commentary omits: The passage to follow (page 55, line 6 of the Finkelstein edition) is the briefest of the several midrashic interpretations assigned by Sifrei to the Torah’s phrase “all your soul:”
“Shimon b. Azzai says: ‘This means: Love Him till your soul is drained dry!’”
It may be brief, but it packs a wallop, don’t you think?
How much of our being is supposed to be consumed by love of God? The image chosen by the midrash is remarkable: ad mitsui hanefesh (“even till the draining of the soul”). We are not merely to give up to God our entire capacity for love, and not only are we expected to give up our lives to God in martyrdom should it become necessary. Even more, we are asked to let our souls dry up and whither in longing for God, the soul’s true love.
Why did Rashi choose to ignore this most powerful (and demanding) of Sifrei’s interpretations of loving God “with all your soul”? Who knows? Rashi never tells his readers why he leaves out what he chooses to leave out (or why he quotes what he quotes).
But I think I can hazard a guess. Can it be that Rashi wants to offer his readers a model of loving God that is within human reach? After all, the Torah is given to flesh and blood — not to angels! To average people — not only to religious virtuosos, like the prophets! It is achievement enough to revere the Holy One in thought and to sanctify His name in deed. But to let our very souls wither away in longing for His presence? Who can bear that?
Isn’t waiting for Messiah task enough?