You Shall Pursue

May 30, 2012

Shavuot

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 10:38 pm

I went out to Fort Tryon for Shavuot this year. For those of you not in the know, Shavuot started out as a holiday celebrating the end of the harvest in ancient Israel, and was an opportunity for all sorts of ritual sacrifices. Today (since there’s no longer a Temple to sacrifice things in), the holiday marks the giving of the Torah at Sinai. It is celebrated by eating dairy foods and staying up all night studying Torah. Fort Tryon is full of cool cats in their 2os and 30s who learn like nobody’s business, and are almost always frummer than me (I was the only girl there in pants). I got the marvelous opportunity to do Judaism with good friends from college, and just generally to delve back into the sort of learning that I haven’t gotten to experience in far too long.

Formal Jewish learning is sort of ambivalent for me right now. On the one hand, I love love love it. It’s my favorite way of applying my training as an academic nerd, and there’s a certain degree of comfort in immersing in centuries-old text and applying them to real-world situations (Are bac-o-bits really kosher? It’s a complicated question!). On the other hand, it usually it gives me a complex, because I haven’t spent nearly enough time immersed in text in the past 2 years. Learning Jewish texts is a very specific art form, one which takes ongoing practice to really keep up. My Hebrew and Aramaic skills are rusty, and there’s a certain method by which you have to break down and dig into each proof text if you even have a HOPE of understanding what is going on. The beauty and the curse of studying with Jews who grew up going to day school is that so many of them started thinking like this in high school, whereas I didn’t start until college. Even as a future professional Jew who is planning to spend the next five years nose-deep in gemara, I am scared to death at not being good enough.

Interesting thing though. One of the better classes of the night was taught by my friend Josh (at the risk of giving him a complex, the man has a serious gift for teaching) and it detailed the earliest experiences of all night study sessions on Shavuot. The text tells the story of R. Joseph Caro, best known for his law code the Shulhan Aruch, who induced an angelic possession after a night of ecstatic text study. In the text, the angel commends Caro and his compatriots for their dedication to study, then gripes, “If only there had been a minyan (ten adults)!” The angel does not praise these rabbis for their erudition or brilliance. Instead, they are praised for showing up and making a solid commitment to the work. The only request that the angel has is that the men keep going, and that they bring their friends. And when they do round up a few more for the next night’s study session, the angel comes back again to praise them.

At the end of the evening (which was at around 5:30 in the morning), those of us who remained gathered together for morning prayers. There is something exquisite about davening the sun up. About standing in front of the Torah, mind blanking and coming back, sliding through prayers almost by instinct (because you are too tired to actually concentrate on the words on the page). I was given an aliyah a blessing over one section of that day’s Torah reading, which is a great honor. And even as I faltered in my exhaustion, it is a ritual that I know intimately from years of practice starting at age 14. And before, and after, as the sun rose, we raised our voices in song, singing melodies that Jews all over the world know as intimately and deeply as any song currently on the Top 40. That music, that ritual of prayer, and that ritual of learning, that is the inheritance of all Jews if they are willing to reach out and claim it.

In the text about Caro’s encounter with the angel, the angel claims that as the men prayed, all of the hosts of heaven were quieted to listen to their study. A similar story is told about the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. There is a profound mystical and worldly change that comes about through learning and entering into a specific relationship with God, whether seven rabbis or the entire House of Israel decides to open the gates. Judaism is deep and ancient. It is impossible to know it intimately; there are always a thousand new things to learn. But it is a birthright that has a profound ability to shape our lives, and the balance of power in the world. I may not yet be a Talmud scholar in the way that I would like. But on Shavuot I, and all of us, get credit for showing up with a willing heart.

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