Our parasha concludes with the sweeping declaration that the “Torah” of “all life” is to make “havdalah;” to “distinguish between the impure and the pure.” Why is “havdalah” the essence of “Torah”?
The story is told of that the Lubliner Rav, Meir Shapiro, remarked upon returning to Europe after a fundraising tour in the US, “American Jewry has learned to make kiddush; it has not yet learned how to make havdalah.” To sanctify a day each week, shrugging off worldly distractions for rest and renewal, is an achievement in these transactional and practical times. But life is supposed to consist of more than satisfying our experiential capacity; we are also called upon to cultivate and exercise our analytical faculties.
To make “havdalah,” is to pierce a monolithic obscurity with the lance of a sharp distinction, and to reveal that what has been seen in a single way might possibly be seen in multiple, even contradictory ways. This is the virtue of discernment, which the Talmudic tradition recognized as the ability to “prove” that an impure thing is in fact pure. The sages established this skill as a prerequisite for serving on the sanhedrein (their highest court). Paradoxically, they made the test for being authorized to make the most important distinctions the ability to confound the most important distinctions.
The facility to discern (and embrace) conflicting points of view comes at a price. Distinction ultimately aims to decide upon a difference. Rabbi Meir reportedly had a disciple so advanced he was able to rule an impure thing pure back and forth again 100 times. His colleagues observed, “That disciple did not know how to decide.” (Yer. Sanh. 4:1) Doggedly seeing the wisdom in many points of view can make it agonizingly difficult to settle on any particular point of view.
If the Truth is on multiple sides and also on no side, where can we find it? The sages admonish us, “Fashion your ears a like a grain hopper, and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to listen to the words of those who say “impure” and those who say “pure,” those who forbid and those who permit, those who invalidate and those who validate.” (Hag. 3b) A Jewish “leap of faith”: coarse grain can become fine flour, provided we are resolute in grinding through every perspective.
Rabbi Mitch Levine