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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I wonder

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by Kari Tuling

 

[This blog post is also cross-posted as ‘Blogelul #16: Wonder’ — a series of blog posts created and moderated by my colleague and friend (and rabbinical school study partner), Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her wonderful blog, “Ima on (and off) the Bima: Real-Life Jewish Parenting,” may be found at imabima.blogspot.com]

 

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It has happened to me more than once in my lifetime that a person will come to me and tell me something about what will happen next. It is usually a very specific bit of career advice from someone I know but not well; it is normally not someone I would seek out for counsel. And every time it is the same thing: the person will see me out at a social gathering – often at a gathering in which it was not a given that I would be there – and announce to me ‘I have a message for you,’ as if they had just listened to a voice mail addressed specifically to me.

 

When that happens, I know to listen: the person will invariably tell me something that I need to know about what will happen next.

 

The most recent example occurred right as I started my job search last fall. At a Halloween party, an acquaintance came up and told me the following: “You will leave here; there is a move in your future. It will be some place – like Texas – that you’ve never considered before.”

 

“Texas?” I ask, wondering. “Why Texas?” As a matter of fact, I do have a list of ‘places where I would not want to live’ in my head, and ‘the plains of Texas’ is a location high on that list. As far as I am concerned, they call it ‘plain’ for a reason.

 

She shakes her head: “It’s not Texas specifically; it could be Texas or it could be somewhere else; I can’t tell you where exactly. But it’s a part of the world that you have never considered before. They need you and you need them. They need to hear what you have to say, and you need to have them hear it. You will both benefit.”

 

Okay.

 

At that point in the process, I had not even mapped out what precisely I wanted to do. So I took her comments under advisement.

 

A month (two months?) later, I had come to the (somewhat surprising) conclusion that I really wanted to go back to congregational work. I love academics, of course, but I realized that I missed that element of transcendence that hovers over the work of a rabbi.

 

So I called the Director of Placement and told him that I was thinking of returning to congregational work. After he quizzed me about my general background and interests, his first question regarding my search was: “Have you ever considered living in Texas?”

 

Okay.

 

“Texas is fine;” I tell him, “I am open to living in any location.” Yes, even the plains of Texas. Perhaps I would find something to love about the wide-open spaces.

 

As it happened, the place where I went to work was not Texas; it turned out to be a small congregation in a college town in northern New York.

 

Obelisk in downtown Plattsburgh, NY, by the Sa...

Obelisk in downtown Plattsburgh, NY, by the Saranac River where it flows into Lake Champlain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

And I love it.

 

I cannot give you a good reason why this phenomenon takes place; I simply cannot explain it. I can tell you that the Bible records several instances of a person – ‘ish’ – who appears mid-narrative with instructions as to what will happen next. Joseph, for example, finds his brothers after encountering such a person.

 

The person’s instruction is not necessarily one that makes the road smooth; rather, it is an announcement of what needs to happen next. And it has happened enough times now that I heed its call.

 

How does this relate to the month of Elul, and the concept of wonder?

 

Our perception of the world involves the interplay of presence and absence, of articulate speech and of silent wonder. But we do not capture its fullness; in truth, we simply cannot. As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:

 

We are able to exploit, to label things with well-trimmed words; but when ceasing to subject them to our purposes and to impose on them the forms of our intellect, we are stunned and incapable of saying what things are in themselves; it is an experience of being unable to experience something we face: too great to be perceived.[1]

 

I am, of course, an academic as well as a rabbi; I am nearly finished with a PhD; I value highly the work of the intellect. But, as Heschel reminds us, this emphasis on our capacity to name and categorize might at times push us away from apprehending the truth.

 

There are times when we best encounter meaning when we drop our categories and our names and simply abandon ourselves to wonder.

 

So, in this month of Elul, stop for a moment and listen; let an ish come and tell you what happens next. Maybe, the ish will tell you, it is time to let go, to forgive, and to move on. That is usually – maybe even always – the larger message to grasp, even as it is conveyed in these small, concrete steps: ‘you will leave here; there is a move in your future. It will be someplace you’ve not considered before.’

 

As I said: I cannot tell you why it happens, any of it; I can only stand in wonder.

 

Kari Tuling serves as the rabbi for Temple Beth Israel, in Plattsburgh, New York. Plattsburgh is in northern New York, not far from Montreal. Located on the shores of Lake Champlain, at the foot of the Adirondack mountains, it is also home to SUNY Plattsburgh. Kari plans to learn how to snowshoe and cross-country ski, two activities she had never considered before.

 


[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York: The Noonday Press, 1994), p. 36.