From the very first verse of the Book of Genesis, it is clear the Torah is talking about God. In the passages connected with the momentous event that took place at Mount Sinai, we read that God granted the Torah to Israel and that, following the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses wrote the Torah as commanded by God.
The various options for depicting the relationship between God and the Torah rest on the assumption that they are two separate entities: God is a living deity who carries on a dialogue with his children, while the Torah is a text that is reread and reinterpreted constantly. However, when God no longer reveals himself in an actual, live give-and-take situation with his children, the sages radically change the relationship between the two sides: From now on, God converses with man only through the Torah, and the various, dynamic aspects of that dialogue are revealed through the different interpretations of its text. God reveals himself through the Torah text and sometimes, as in the case we are dealing with here, he is even identified with it.
“Rabba said to Rabbi Nachman: ‘We have learned that, with respect to some commandments, those who perform them eat the fruits of those commandments in this world and also receive a reward in the next. These commandments are respecting one’s parents, acting charitably and making peace between two neighbors; however, the commandment that is equal to all of the above is the study of the Torah’” (Talmud, Tractate Kedushin, p. 40a). For each of these commandments, the Talmud cites a verse that specifies the reward for that specific commandment. For example, the Talmud notes, “Regarding the commandment concerning the study of Torah, it is written: ‘for that [or, he] is thy life, and the length of thy days.’”
However, when we read that verse in its context – namely, in the weekly portion of Nitzavim, which will be read with Vayelech in two weeks – we discover that it refers not to the Torah but to God: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; to love the Lord thy God, to hearken to His voice, and to cleave unto Him; for that is thy life, and the length of thy days; that thou mayest dwell in the land which the Lord swore unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
In the above passages, the Talmud interprets the words “for that [or, he] is thy life, and the length of thy days” intuitively as referring not to God but to the Torah, as the metonymic representative of the Almighty.
The same interpretation of those words appears in the following homily: “Rabbi Judah said that three things shorten a person’s days and years: If a person who is given a Torah scroll in order to read from it fails to do so … for it is written, ‘for that [or, he] is thy life, and the length of thy days’” (Talmud, Tractate Berachot, p. 55a).
In the daily liturgy, the second blessing said before one recites the Shema Yisrael prayer in the evening service reads as follows: “Thus, God our Lord, when we lie down and when we get up, we will always recite your laws and we will rejoice in the words of the Torah and in your commandments forever, because they are our life and the length of our days; and we will recite them night and day.” From the fact that the words “for that is thy life, and the length of thy days” are quoted almost verbatim in this prayer, we understand that the drafter of the text of the liturgy understood those words as referring not to God, but rather to the Torah.
This slight and clearly understood metonymic displacement is given a dramatic twist in the following homily, which deals with a verse appearing in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19). Among the laws governing conduct in the army in this reading, there is the commandment to keep military camps ritually clean. A soldier who has a nocturnal emission must stay outside the camp, an orderly place must be arranged outside where the soldiers can urinate and defecate, and each soldier must have a stake to cover his urine and feces. In the next verse, the Torah provides the reason for these strict rules: “For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thine enemies before thee; therefore shall thy camp be holy; that he see no unseemly thing in thee, and turn away from thee” (Deut. 23:15).
The Israelites’ military camp is the place where the presence of God, who is responsible for their victory or defeat, is palpably felt; the rules of ritual purity pertaining to such camps are the conditions that will enable God’s presence. However, Sifre Deuteronomy, the Tanaitic midrashic work on the Book of Deuteronomy, offers a different interpretation of these two verses: “It is written: ‘the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp.’ From these words, we learn that a person should not recite the Shema Yisrael prayer while standing near a launderer’s tub and that a person should not enter a bathhouse or a tanner’s shop with Torah scrolls or while wearing tefillin” (Sifre Deuteronomy: 258).
In the above midrashic passage, the military camp is replaced by the civilian public space, where there are tubs in which the launderers soak their laundry and where there are bathhouses and tanner’s shops. Sifre Deuteronomy’s commentary substitutes the idea of texts from the Torah for God, who, of course, would never walk in a military camp where launderers’ tubs are present. Some of these texts (such as the Shema Yisrael prayer) are recited out loud, while some of them are written on parchment (such as Torah scrolls) or are carried within tefillin.
In a world where God does not reveal himself, the Torah replaces the living dialogue with him. However, according to Sifre Deuteronomy, this substitution reflects not only a different method for the transmission of the word of God to the world, but also a metonymy of God himself. Just as filth can cause him to absent himself from a military camp, so can a launderer’s tub cause the Torah text to absent itself if it is brought in close proximity to the tub.
In the biblical image of the proper attitude that should be shown to God in an Israelite military camp, the sages find a model for the outline of the proper relationship that should exist between centers of sacredness and the disgusting impurity of everyday life. From the prohibitions that are incumbent on such a camp, and which are intended to enable the Almighty to help the Israelites defeat their enemies, the sages deduce how to facilitate God’s revelation through his words.