My favorite book is The Little Prince. I've probably read this delightful book dozens of times. In high school, I was inspired to take French so that I'd be able to read it in its original. I wasn't that successful, as after three years I was just able to translate the title, Le Petite Prince.
If you have not read it, I urge you to pick it up. It's short, easy to get through, and has beautiful illustrations.
Antoine De Saint Exupery did not know that his book would be translated into over 250 languages and be considered a classic of children's literature. Many lines in The Little Prince may sound familiar to you:
- The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.
- A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.
- In those days, I didn't understand anything. I shnould have judged her according to her actions, not her words. She perfumed my planet and lit up my life. I should newver have run away! I ought to have realized the tenderness underlying her silly pretensions. Flowers are so contradictory! But I was too young to know how to love her.
- Grown-ups love figures ... When you tell them you've made a new friend they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies? Instead they demand How old is he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make? Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.
Again and again, the prince urges the adult to pursue matters of consequence.
During the course of my life, I would return to this gem of a book so that I could re-connect with my life's matters of consequence - friendship, laughter, love, learning, nature, spirituality ... I've probably given this book as a gift thirty times, mostly to girls that I wanted to date. I guess I should give Emily a copy, huh?
Each time I re-visit the book, I gain new insights and perspectives. I find myself reflecting on paragraphs and sentences that I had only glossed over in the past. Much of the narrative I know memorized, and I'll often allude to various scenes and illustrations in conversations with friends. Nonetheless, there's something special about sitting down with the book and re-reading it, discovering new insights, new perspectives, new matters of consequence.
What's your favorite book? Perhaps it's a classic of Western literature, along the lines of The Great Gatsby. Or maybe it's the poetry of a Shakespearean tragedy such as Hamlet or Macbeth. A quick search on google for "best books ever" lists other familiar, popular titles that may make your short-list: To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Animal Farm, the Sound and the Fury along with any of the massively popular Harry Potter titles.
I guess that you feel a similar relationship to your favorite book as I do with The Little Prince. The story is great, certainly, but it also leaves you inspired, joyous, appreciative, curious, sad, angry ... A great book, like a great movie or even a great song leaves us changed. Art and literature are a catalyst for our future.
In four days, we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, celebrating another piece of literature and art, the Torah. And on this Shabbat, I ask, what is the difference between the Torah and The Little Prince, or Shakespeare, or Harry Potter?
You could say that the Torah is holy. And whereas I agree, I also think that the Torah is holy partially because Jews have decided it was holy. Here's a thought experiment to illustrate my point ... You're in a bookstore and are browsing for something meaningful. You've never been taught about the Torah, you've never heard Bible stories before. But being open to new knowledge and experiences, you seek out wisdom from other sources. You come across a book called God's Rules for How to Life a Blessed, Holy Life. You open it to a random page, and you see that its chapter heading bears the word 'Leviticus.' You read about priests, the minutia of purity laws and the enumeration of various sacrifices. I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not you lunge for the chance to buy this book ...
So yes, the Torah is holy, but often times, its holiness is taught rather than experienced. The Torah and its messages are often a historical record of theological insight instead of being an inspiration for our own, first-person experience. The Torah is holy, yes, but it is not a substitute for life. For experience. For relationships.
This is why Judaism is not practiced while contemplating our navel. Judaism is not a monastic religion. Judaism is messy. Judaism essence isn't a picture of an idyllic sunset. It's a messy hodgepodge of us eating with our mouths open, contradicting each other, disagreeing with each other ... loving each other.
For thousands of years, our ancestors have decided to place a great, holy value on these collections of words. Sometimes the words don't make sense. Sometimes we may disagree with them. But they are a record of our ancestors' search for holiness.
In Pirke Avot, Rabbi Ben Bag Bag writes: Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion than it.
Bag Bag tells us that everything is in the Torah; all the answers. All the questions. Everything is in it. But note his command to us; we need to turn it over and over again. The turning is the intersection of Torah with life. The result is a living Torah that we give to the generations that come after us.
On this week of Shavuot, each us should reflect about the meaning of Torah for us. We should struggle to create a living Torah that is a first-person experience of religiosity. We talk about the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob so that we remind ourselves that each of us should have a different relationship with God than our ancestors did.
As we reflect on this gift of the Torah, let us live a life of Judaism. Let's embrace the messiness of a Jewish life lived, as opposed to a Jewish history studied. Let us take it for our own, continuing a link that started 4000 years ago. As we are given and re-given the gift of Torah, that indeed will be a matter of consequence.