By guest blogger, Daniel Joseph:
אם אין קמח, אין תורה; אם אין תורה, אין קמח
Without flour there is no Torah. Without Torah, there is no flour. (Pirkei Avot 3:17)
Flour makes yummy challah, but I’m pretty sure you don’t need flour to write a Torah. However, you may have needed bread to fuel your all-night Shavuot learning session (or part-night!) this past weekend. In this passage, flour is a codeword for physical sustenance.
“Without flour there is no Torah”
We need physical sustenance so we have energy to put into our spiritual growth. Without physical sustenance to fuel us, we cannot engage in or receive the fruits of spiritual endeavours.
But, what can you do for physical sustenance if you’re gluten free?! How about chicken? Ok, but what if I am a vegetarian? Cheese! Ok, but not that type of vegetarian…if only our sages knew of our tribulations! Ancient Israel was an agrarian society, where people grew their own food. They needed to use their land to grow food that would meet all their needs – lots of energy and easy to store are two that come to mind. Bread fits the bill. Going on a long journey to Tzfat from Jerusalem? Bring some bread (perhaps find some olive oil on the way)! Bread is known as the staff of life for a good reason! For our ancestors bread was ubiquitous with physical sustenance. So much so, that our sages used it to indicate physical sustenance in this Mishnah..
Lets delve a little deeper. The twist comes in through the second section:
“Without Torah, there is no flour”
Torah represents both our spiritual endeavours and spiritual fruits. Without our spiritual endeavours/fruits, physical sustenance cannot be received or cannot exist. Perhaps more accurately, physicality is meaningless without a spiritual context. Another interpretation: without the laws of the Torah for living harmoniously with the environment, we will lose the ability to produce physical sustenance.
In summary: the first section says, without physical sustenance, we cannot engage in or receive spirituality. The second section is saying, without spirituality we cannot receive physical sustenance. So what comes first the physical or spiritual?
I believe our sages have created this contradiction to show us that neither comes first or last. Rather, they arise mutually. Physicality implies spirituality, and vice versa. Through physicality, spirituality is regulated; through spirituality, physicality is regulated. Can you think of examples for both situations?
I think the recent holiday of Shavuot encapsulates the lesson of this passage. Shavuot is known both as the ‘Time of the Giving of our Torah’ and also as the ‘Day of First Fruits’. Both names indicate the receiving of one type of sustenance. The Torah represents our spiritual endeavours and is the source of our spiritual sustenance. Shavuot is called the ‘Day of First Fruits’ because it is the day of the first barley harvest. Barley flour can make bread, physical sustenance in ancient Israel and the western world. Through both of these names, we can see how Shavuot celebrates and emphasizes harmony between the physical and spiritual gifts we receive.