These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Just Keep Learning

Posted on May 21, 2014 by Hannah Joy

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

From my blog:

Hannah(I know, I know. I haven’t blogged in months. And my year here will be over in less than three weeks. Unreal.)

This past Shabbat was the final Pardes shabbaton. Here are some thoughts I shared at the tisch Friday night.

Parshat Bechukotai deals with blessings and curses. It opens with the following:

אִם-בְּחֻקֹּתַי, תֵּלֵכוּ; וְאֶת-מִצְו‍ֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם

Im bechukotai telechu; v’et mitzvotai tishmoru, v’asitem otam
“If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them” (Leviticus 26:3)

In the subsequent verses, the Torah lays out the blessings and good fortune we will receive if we follow in these ways, and later lays out the curses that will befall us if we don’t.

The first part of the verse, “im bechukotai telechu,” caught my eye. Chukim, here translated as statutes, are laws that come with no explanation, that we don’t or won’t ever necessarily understand. This is hard, and perhaps foreign to us. What does it mean to follow in laws we don’t understand? Or worse, what if we find them troubling or morally problematic?

Rashi (quoting the midrash) says that “Im bechukotai telechu” actually means that we should be “ameilim ba’torah,” laboring in Torah study, so that we can guard and uphold the mitzvot. That we should learn and seriously grapple with and struggle with our tradition, especially the things we don’t fully understand.

Following in God’s ways does not mean blindly taking on every observance, but rather to learn, debate, struggle and search for truth. That’s what it means to be children of Israel, after all. Yisrael, literally meaning “struggles with God,” was the name Jacob was given after wrestling with the angel all night, and has become our namesake. It is also the name of the incredible place we’ve been privileged to live and learn Torah in all year.

A bit later on, the text states:

וְהִתְהַלַּכְתִּי, בְּתוֹכְכֶם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וְאַתֶּם, תִּהְיוּ-לִי לְעָם.

V’hithalachti b’tochecham v’hayiti lachem le’elokim v’atem tihiyu li le’am
“And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be My people.” (Leviticus 26:12)

This sets up a partnership: a joint journey between the Jewish people and God. This verse parallels the language of the first verse: “im bechukotai telechu and v’hithalachti b’tochecham.” Both use the word holech – to walk; also the root of halacha, Jewish law. This partnership demands serious engagement, commitment, and Torah learning. If we forge a path of being ameiling b’torah, laboring in torah study, God will dwell among us. If we walk in God’s ways, God will walk with us.

I think this is a fitting idea as we all prepare to finish off the year together. I also think it’s fitting considering today’s omer count: 32. Lamed bet in gematria spells lev, Hebrew for “heart”. I’ve been continuously amazed at how everyone at Pardes – teachers, students, staff – really puts their whole heart into everything they do, whether it’s helping a friend, organizing an event, volunteering, or just asking someone how their day is going. I think this especially comes through in all the Torah we learn and debate and question and struggle with and come to love. It’s so rare to find such a dedicated and supportive community, and I hope we will all continue to be able to surround ourselves with such incredible people. As ben Zoma says:

איזה הוא חכם-הלמד מכל אדם

Eizehu chacham? Halomed mikol adam.
“Who is wise? The one who learns from every person” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

I can think of no place that embodies this more than Pardes, and I know that I feel so lucky to have had the zchut (merit) to learn from and with everyone here. As we finish off the year, and soak in every moment of the last few weeks here, my bracha (blessing) for us all is that we always continue to learn from and with each other, with all of our hearts. May we take everything we’ve gained from our experiences here, and always push ourselves to learn things that challenge us and grapple with things we don’t understand. May we continue to grow and walk in the ways of God and create a world where God can walk with us.