La’asok B’Divrei Torah: Soaking Oneself In Torah

Dan Nichols’ sings la’asok b’divrei torah is as sweet as honey on our tongues. The ending of the traditional blessing for Torah study is translated in our prayer-book  Mishkan T’fillah as: “to engage in words of Torah”. We also might translate it as busying ourselves, or working with Torah. But most of all, I love Arthur Waskow’s wordplay: “to soak” (la’asok) in words of Torah. Torah for me is like taking a warm bath. It adds a comforting glow, provides a focus or refocus, so that I can approach the world with new vitality.

A confession: Torah for me has become an addictive regular habit. Every Wednesday at 1pm half-a-dozen women congregants gather in my office to become my study partners for an hour. This year we are slowly reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath.  The structure I have struck with these ladies is the same one that I have with my other Torah enablers, my one-on-one rabbinic study partners, the ones with whom I tackle Zohar or Hasidic Commentary or Talmud.

Such study is very different to “teaching” in the congregation, where I might be viewed as the “guide” or “expert” in the subject matter we tackle. That learning takes preparation and is goal oriented. Study is different.  I have fixed guidelines for study which have allowed me through the years to make this endeavor part of my daily routine.

My study rules are as follows:

  1. Study should be done in true partnership.
  2. Partners should agree on a topic to study that has an equal amount of unfamiliarity to all.
  3. Study is time limited to a regular hour or hour-and-a-half on a specific day of the week.
  4. Study should be viewed as a non-negotiable appointment, and the only reason not to study is in the case of a true emergency or vacation/conference time.
  5. No partner should pre-prepare to enter this sacred time. All learning is done there and then.

In study, we are all journey-folk , learning from one another, wrestling with the text and gleaning from its pages. Study in such a way means letting go and making struggle part of the process. The immediacy allows for first-time revelations and insights. The unprepared but open study table allows the text to speak to us and through us. The text becomes the direction and guide and a mirror.

I share this, because so often I hear from folk that they wished they had the time for Jewish learning. They lament they cannot because life feels more urgent.  Or they feel time poor. They are discouraged by the enormity of the task or their lack of expertise.

But all you need is an hour. A partner. A commitment. An openness to struggle. A willingness to learn.

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Today while studying Heschel with my half-a-dozen partners, we read a midrash depicting an old man, who engaged in the work-a-day world, also could find the time to greet the Sabbath with myrtle (a Jewish love symbol) in his hand. Of this balancing act Heschel comments, in reference to Shabbat, that it is for us, “not to flee from the realm of space; to work with things of space but to be in love with eternity.” Shabbat for Heschel is a time-out to fall in love with eternity.

For me, a rabbi whose Shabbat is often filled with spiritual labor, and running from one Shabbastik activity to another, soaking myself in Torah, helps me fall in love over and over with eternity.

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