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Teiku: A Helpful Idea for Elul 5778

A couple of weeks ago I traveled to a rabbinic conference back east, the Greater Carolina Association of Rabbis, which is one of the best rabbinic organizations I have ever experienced. Now you might well wonder just what it was that qualified me to attend a conference of rabbis from the Carolinas, since I have been a rabbi in Arizona for the past 19 years. I have to tell you the rules at the Greater Carolina Association of Rabbis are quite simple: if you are currently a rabbi in either North or South Carolina, or have previously been a rabbi in either state, or are or have been a rabbi in a nearby state like Virginia or Florida or Georgia or Maryland or Delaware, or happen to have close friends who are rabbis in one or another of those states, or have visited one of those states, or flown over one of those states, then you qualify.

Since I actually was the city rabbi in Spartanburg, South Carolina long ago and attended the conference regularly during those years, I clearly qualified to return to the Greater Carolina Association of Rabbis conference, with an emphasis on the word “greater.”

In any case, this particular conference focused on the Talmud, the great Jewish storehouse of law and its derivations. We studied with a fine scholar-rabbi named Amy Scheinerman who has a book on Talmud coming out in October from the prestigious Jewish Publication Society, JPS. One of the most interesting aspects of Talmudic study for most non-Orthodox rabbis is the interplay of law and lore, of Halakha and Aggadah that work together to help determine the right course of action in the extensive array of legal subjects the Talmud addresses. In other words, to know the right thing to do in any given situation according to Jewish tradition you need to both know what laws the Torah itself has decreed about a subject and also how the rabbis throughout history have explored the practical meaning of those laws and how they are best applied in a given situation.

And since this is a Jewish process of determining the appropriate way to apply laws, there is a great deal of arguing back and forth over the generations. Want to know how many times to blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah? You will find many opinions explored in depth in the Talmud, plus a number of stories about the shofar and some random tales about the rabbis who are discussing the question. There is something quite beautiful about the careful but free way the great scholars of the ages explore the meaning, implications and balance between various legal, personal, communal and even national needs in making decisions on everything from how to pray to how to cook to how to get married or divorced to how to properly repent from sin or honor a parent.

And although these were extraordinarily learned scholars and also extraordinarily opinionated people sometimes even they could not resolve a difficult Talmudic problem. Occasionally, in an act of quite beautiful and unusual humility, they will use a most interesting word—an abbreviation, actually.

That word is Teiku, which stands for four Hebrew words that mean, essentially, “When the Messiah comes Elijah the Prophet will solve all remaining problems and questions.” It’s a way of saying, “No matter how smart we are and how much Torah we know, no matter how carefully we have constructed our arguments or arranged our proofs, we cannot solve these challenges. Only God can do it, eventually, we hope and pray. Until then we must admit our failure and accept our limitations.” And then the rabbis move on to a different problem that they almost always can solve.

Wouldn’t that be an amazing thing to hear from, say, the President of the United States from time to time? “I tried but I can’t solve this. It’s nobody’s fault. I’m just not smart enough. I give up trying to control this thing I can’t control, and leave it in the realm of the Almighty.”

Teiku—this problem is beyond us right now. We tried very, very hard to solve it, but let’s leave it in God’s hands for the present. When the Messiah shows up we’ll get our answer…

I wonder if this Teiku idea also has a place in our own daily lives. Because we sometimes encounter problems or layers of complexity that are genuinely beyond our abilities to solve them, no matter how hard we try. We should, of course, try to fix everything we reasonably can, perform our own version of Tikun Olam. But we also need to know when something is beyond us, to let it go and move on to solving the things we can solve.

A beautiful message indeed in this month of Elul, this season of return and repentance. Let the impossible go, Teiku, and work on what you can fix in your own life.

Photo courtesy of Rabbi Lucy Dinner of me praying Shacharit (the morning service) at Wildacres in the North Carolina mountains

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