Shavuot: Jewish Education as a Living Torah
Rabbi Tom Samuels
The Talmud calls the Jewish pilgrimage holiday of Shavuot, Hag Matan Torah, literally, the “Holiday of the Giving of the Torah.” The rabbis of the Talmud mandated that on Shavuot, rather than blindly accepting God’s gift, the Torah, that we to do so Bechol Levavcha, Uvechol Nafshecah, with our hearts, our minds, our very souls.
The rabbis derive this ethos from the text in the Book of Exodus where God beckons Moses to ascend Mount Sinai: “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teaching and the commandments” (Exodus 24:12).
The Kotzker Rebbe, a nineteenth century Hasidic master, asks why God instructed Moses to “be there.” Wasn’t he already up on the mountain? The Kotzker points out that God was challenging Moses, pointing out to him, that to be in a covenantal relationship with the Divine, Moses needed to be fully present in the moment: physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.
And on this holiday, we read the Book of Ruth, about a heroine who is a foreigner, a daughter of Moab, the offspring of illicit relationship of Lot and his daughter. A people who are explicitly excluded from entering God’s community for forever. In other words, Ruth has bad yichus, Yiddish for bad lineage. And yet, Ruth will become the model for the voluntary embrace of God’s laws, of joining the Jewish people, Bechol Levavcha Uvechol Nafshecah, with all of her heart, mind and soul.
What does this mean then? To embrace the Torah, our tradition, fully, mindfully, soulfully? Let’s start with a beautiful Hassidic story.
Once, during the Days of Awe, the sainted Kabbalist Yitzchak Luria heard a Bat Kol, the Voice of God, telling him that for all his prayerful intensity there was one man in a neighboring town whose capacity for prayer exceeded even his own. As soon as he could, Reb Yitzchak traveled to that town and sought the man out. “I have heard wondrous things regarding you,” he said to the man when he found him. “Are you a Torah scholar?” “No,” the man said, “I have never had the opportunity to study.” “Then you must be a master of Psalms, a devotional genius who prays with great intensity.” “No,” the man said. “I have heard the Psalms many times, of course, but I do not know even one well enough to recite it.” “And yet,” Rabbi Luria cried, “I was told that the quality of your prayer surpasses even my own! What did you do during the Days of Awe that would merit such praise?” “Rabbi,” the man said, “I am illiterate. Of the twenty-two letters of the alef-beis, I know but ten. When I entered the synagogue and saw the congregation so fervent in their prayers, my heart shattered within me. I couldn’t pray at all. So I said: Ribbono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, here are the letters I know: aleph, beis, gimmel, daled, hay, vav, zayin, chet, tes, yud. Combine them in a manner You understand, and I hope they will be pleasing to You. And then I repeated these ten letters over and over again, trusting God to weave them into words.” (From Rabbi Rami Shapiro)
The great philosopher 20th century Martin Buber described the Torah is a mirror: that when we gaze deeply into it, it reflects back to us our own personas, ambivalences, struggles, and potential for growth. The challenge for us as readers, therefore, is to experience the text, to relive its stories - in essence, to become one with it. And, at that moment, when the sacred story of the Jewish people’s past melds with our own life stories, we will not only be touched by Torah, but transformed by it. (From Rabbi Jack Reimer)
This is a nice idea in theory, but how does it - indeed, can it - apply to, inform our everyday lives in the 21st Century? What are we suppose to do with with our Torah? Our traditions? Our wisdoms? After a 3,000 year chain, we are here because those before us made it a worthwhile tradition. Are we creating that depth on our own watch?
Jews from across the millennium have asked these very same questions, concerned about making Judaism relevant and meaningful within their own generation. How to view the sacred stories of our past against the backdrop of the issues of our own day? How to respond to the political, religious, and sociocultural conditions under which we live? The exigencies of our own life situations? (From Rabbi Daniel Gordis)
Over 2,500 years ago, for example, the authors of the Talmud debated on the retelling and transmission of the Exodus, the Jewish people’s foundational story, at the Passover Seder. No matter the breadth or depth of one’s knowledge, they ruled, it is incumbent on us to relive our ancestors’ journey from slavery to freedom. To feel as though we ourselves actually had gone forth from Egypt: “Even if we were all wise, all persons of understanding, all knowledgeable of Torah, we would still be commanded to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pessachim)
The same rabbis gave a name to this process of making the Jewish experience, dreams and aspirations, relevant across the generations: it is called Chinuch in Hebrew. Roughly translated as “education”, the Talmud associates this word with the word for grace, chen. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin) The Jewish transmission pedagogy, our very tradition, is thus the act of drawing-out, of revealing the unique inner beauty found in each and every student. And the Jewish educator’s job, Chinuch, is about creating environments that feed ideas. That foster personal growth. That, like a spiritual gardener, draw out something that is fundamentally already there. To expose our inner chen, beauty, grace.
Chinuch is both didactic and experiential. The Psalmist wrote that the Torah is called Sefer ha’Chayim, the Book of Life,. Judaism is not something you study: it is something you get intimately involved with. It is a relationship. A meeting place. Where you move poetically between modern literature and psychology, ancient Jewish mysticism, and the Midrashic art of reading between the lines of sacred text where we can discern its fullest meaning. It is where you can meet God. (From Professor Aviva Zorenburg)
And then there is the Chicken Story in the Talmud. Two rabbis are walking down a road, late on a Friday afternoon. An obviously poor, elderly woman approaches them with a chicken in her hand. “Rabbis,” she asks, “is this chicken kosher? I’ve just bought it, but I’m worried that it may not be.” The first rabbi examines the chicken very carefully, then hands it back to the woman and answers, “Yes, absolutely. This chicken is definitely kosher. Good Shabbes!” After the woman leaves, the second rabbi, incredulous, says to the first: “You know as well as I do that that chicken wasn’t kosher! It was obviously treif, not kosher! How can you be so makil (‘lenient’) about kashrut?!” The first rabbi responds, “I’m not lenient about kashrut. I’m stringent about love for my fellow Jew!” (From Rabbi Benay Lappe)
The ability to make that technically unkosher chicken halakhically (according to Jewish law) kosher comes from the rabbi’s use of his his moral intuition, his common sense, his S’vara in Aramaic. This is what motivates all Jewish legal and theological decision-making processes. This is the air that the Torah, Judaism itself, breathes, as a living, everyday, meaning-making experiences.
The Jewish pedagogy, Chinuch, is so very relevant to today when knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device. Where what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. Where the American Jewish community is in a time of unprecedented uncertainty and wandering. Where Jews of all ages and backgrounds crave to live a life as active participants and competent human beings. We don’t want to be a customer, a consumer or an audience member. We want to be co-creators and a co-owners of the world we inhabit.
Rabbi, theologian, and activist Jay Michelson describes the state of the American Jewish landscape this way: “Our mainstream institutions largely exist to cater to the lowest common denominator of disengaged Jews, and in so doing they immediately turn off anyone interested in more. Prayer services are dumbed down in the name of “inclusivity,” and whenever a lifecycle event comes up, someone calls a rabbi. American Judaism has created a class of professional Jews, notably absent in Israel, who sing our prayers, learn our scripture and perform our rituals for us. It’s infantilizing, and it’s alien to the very notion of Jewish religious responsibility.”
Michelson concludes: “A mediated Judaism, in which some ringleader stands between you and your Jewish experience, leads to a Jewish community of apathetic, undereducated and spiritually lazy consumers. A Judaism of participants rather than spectators, on the other hand, is one of active, engaged co-creators of sacred spaces and times. That’s a Judaism that will endure and thrive.”
Agree with him or not, (even offended by his perspective or not) the demographic numbers of a rapidly eroding and disenfranchised American Jewish population requires that all voices, especially those which we most viscerally react to, must be included.
Furthermore, and deeper, what Michelson is advocating is very much the Jewish way. First and foremost, an active, fully participating Judaism is the very entomological origins of the name “Jew.”
Rabbi Daniel Gordis points out that as Moses and his followers left Egypt and wandered for forty years on their way to the Promised Land, the Torah called them not Jews but the Children of Israel. Why the Children of Israel, Rabbi Gordis asks? Israel, the second name of Jacob, seems an unlikely names for our people. Jacob is, after all, not the best known of the patriarchs. Nor is he among the most heroic images in the Torah. Why not, then, the Children of Abraham? The Children of Isaac? Or even the Children of Moses? Why the Children of Israel?
According to the Torah, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel after Jacob fled from his brother Esau, who he believed wished to kill him:
“But during the night, Jacob arose and took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He got them safely across the brook along with all his possessions. But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint. The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.” Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go until you bless me.” The man said, “What’s your name?” He answered, “Jacob.” The man said, “Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.” (Genesis 32:23-29)
“Of all the many colorful and rich personalities described in the Torah” writes Rabbi Gordis, ‘the tradition named this people after the one who wrestled with God. The Torah did not name us the Children of Abraham, which might have been taken as a reference to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac upon God’s demand. Nor did the Torah see fit to name the Jews after Isaac, the meek, accommodating, and forgiving son who was bound on the alter and who throughout the rest of his life seemed the very embodiment of submission. Rather, the Torah saw fit to refer to the Jewish people as those descended from Israel, the one who wrestled with God, Yisrael.”
And as such, embracing Judaism Bechol Levavcha, Uvechol Nafshecah, with our hearts, our minds, our very souls, starts with engaging, integrating and inspiring our entire selves: the world we inhabit, and the world we would like to build. The Jewish way is, after all, an organic process, sharing the world of ideas, weaving life and learning together.