Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon says:
If two sit together and there are no words of Torah between them, it is a session of scorners, as it is said: “In the session of scorners he does not sit” (Psalms 1:1).
But if two sit together and words of Torah are between them, the Divine Presence rests between them…”
This is not the same Rabbi Chanina as was quoted in Pirke Avot 3:2. Rabbinic tradition is that this Rabbi Chanina was martyred by the Romans by being wrapped in a Torah scroll and set on fire.
The opening portion of this verse might seem to be saying that whenever two people come together they must study Torah. I do not think we need to read it that way.
What are “words of Torah” anyway? Words of life, words and examples of encouragement, stories of our ancestors, words of guidance as we try to live today – all of this and much more! When we come together ought we not to always share some of this life together? And generally I think we do, perhaps without consciously thinking about it. “Did you hear the sermon yesterday? He/she made a great point about …” “When my son got sick I thought about that story in the gospels where …” “What a beautiful morning it is! Praise God!” and so on.
Do we need to do this a bit more consciously? I think that would help. As we gather for family meals, ride with our mates in the carpool or whatever. Not in a preachy sort of way but along the lines of “I’ve been thinking about …”. It sure would beat talking about the weather, that crazy driver that just zipped by, or a music video we saw last night. I think we are sharing “words of Torah” whenever we talk about things that really matter (life, death, birth, struggle, pain, love, ethics…) and bring our religious tradition into the discussion.
The full quote of verse 1 of Psalm 1 (New American Bible, the Catholic translation) reads:
“Happy those who do not follow the counsel of the wicked,
nor go the way of sinners,
nor sit in company with scoffers.”
One way to read the verse is to see three categories of people – wicked people choosing evil, sinful people who know what is good but have a hard time living out the good, and scoffers – those who waste their time (and yours!) with what is ultimately trifling stuff. One antidote to the time-wasters is to insist on talking about things that matter.
The verse goes on – when two gather and DO share words of Torah the Divine Presence rests between them. Is the Divine Presence always with us? Is it partly a matter of us paying attention to the Divine Presence in our lives and our world? And paying attention to what is real and of substance in our lives rather than the ephemera?
When Christians reflect on this idea I think that most of us will think of words from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 18: – “When two or more are gathered in my name there I will be.”