It is not in heaven (Kreuzberg Kollel Commentary on Sukkah 56)

It is not in heaven

Jeremy Borovitz

Here is matza from the shewbread for you, and here is leavened bread from the two loaves for you

Every Shabbat, in the Temple, or so our memory of a time we never knew tells us, 12 shewbreads stood on the table in the Holy of Holies, an offering to God and to God’s priests. And they would sit there for a week, until the next Shabbat, when the old ones would be distributed to the working priests and the new ones would be placed on the table, a cycle that was repeated over and over again, a part of the minutiae of detail of the priestly work.

And once a year, on Shavuot, the holiday of the harvest and the celebration of receiving the Torah, we would place two loaves of leavened bread on the table.

And in those rare occasions when the calendrical cycles would clash and suddenly you have Shabbat and you also have Shavuot, and the priests come in to clear the tables and distribute this bread amongst themselves----which gets distributed first?

It’s a detail that no longer seems relevant, a choreography of a time that exists only in these books and our minds, but it is still there, waving its arms in the air, trying to tell us something about time, and memory, and priority.

And so as we debate which bread is distributed first, we match it up with parallel debates about Sukkot which pits Rav against Rabbah Bar Bar Chana: When we enter the Sukkah, do we say first the blessing over the Sukkah or the blessing over time (the Shehechiyanu) first?

And this, in turn, lines up with another parallel debate, that between the famed Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, about Shabbat and Holiday Kiddush: Do we bless the wine first or do we place the day first?

Beit Hillel and Rabbah Bar Bar Chana stand generations apart on one side, Beit Shammai and Rav generations apart on the other, and both have arguments and ammunition. Beit Shammai talks about holiness and obligation. Beit Hillel talks about the adage that when you have the frequent versus the infrequent, the frequent takes precedence. Shabbat comes every week. You have a relationship. Don’t forsake it just for the beautiful Shavuot that walks by your table once a year.

And yet the whole argument is moot, because we know, that when Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagree, the Shammaites don’t stand a chance. For in Eruvin 13b, a voice emerged from the heavens, a Bat Kol, to say that the law is always with Beit Hillel.

ANd yet we also have the famous story of the oven of Achnai, when a Bat Kol emerges and proclaims “The law is like Rabbi Eliezer in every case!” But Rabbi Yehoshua immediately retorts with a quote from the Torah: It is not in Heaven. Lo Bashamayim Hee.

It is not in heaven. The answers don’t lie in the heavenly voice, or in the sadness of the past, or in the great Temple of Alexandria. The answers lie here, in the choreography of the ceremony of the drawing of the water and in the choreography of the shrewbread and the loaves. It lies in the values we use to balance our lives: Halacha, modernity, God, suffering, Joy. It lies in the intersection of our identities. And it lies in these words, these texts, this Torah which is alive and which breathes but only through us, through our veins and lungs and mouths and pens and iPhones.

It is not in Heaven. It’s in these pages by these budding scholars, in between the Aramaic and the Hebrew, on the canal in Kreuzberg of Amsterdam, from Berlin to Dusseldorf to Zurich.

It is not in Heaven. It’s right here in front of you. For just as we digest the words of the Talmud so too did the Rabbis digest the words of the Torah and so too may you digest these words and come out with more Torah of your own to be digested over and over again.

It is not in Heaven. It’s inside you. And we’re waiting for you to let it all out.