These and Those

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


Posted on May 29, 2016 by Maya Zinkow

Tags: , , , , , , ,

When I thought about what I could say to encapsulate two years spent in this special place of learning and growth, I thought about the Maya of two years ago, how she might be unsure of where, even, to begin. There was always the parsha to look to, but if she were to close her eyes and try to visualize bookshelves full of wisdom to pepper a message of closure and gratitude with textual meaning, she’d see a blur of black and white, overwhelmed and stifled. Those bookshelves are still there in my mind’s eye, still overwhelming, and still capable of keeping me at a stand still. But now, the shelves are full of vivid color. They are within arm’s reach, they have meaning, an order, a rhythm, and a reason. They are mine to explore and discover, beautiful and full and decipherable.

So as I contemplated words of closure, when I closed my eyes and saw my bookshelf towering before me, where did I end up? The parsha, of course. Last week we read parshat Behar, yet as I head back to the states tonight, I will merit the fruits of parshat Behar a second time. I remain on the mountain, not quite ready for the midbar ahead of me, it’s wildness yet impenetrable. Given my personal Pardes path, I can’t help but revel in the poetic nature of my liminal lingering between two readings of parashat Behar.
In Vayikra כ׳׳ה, God blesses the children of Israel that their land be fruitful for three years; in the year before shmita, in the seventh year itself, and in the eighth year. My Pardes journey began in 2013 in the summer program, which also happened to be the year before Shmita. I returned to Israel for my first year at Pardes just as the shmita year was about to begin, and here I am: continuing to benefit from the fruits of shmita as the third year of extra blessings reaches its end. My Pardes journey has been intricately bound up with the holiness of shmita in both the literal and spiritual sense. For what is shmita? It is a release; it is letting go of something essential, the work of our hands, the guarantee of livelihood, in order to serve the greater purpose of allowing the land to breath and souls to be set free. We let the tools of our trade grow rusty with disuse, with the faith that God will sustain us with the Earth’s natural goodness.

Even without the cosmic chronological connection between Shmita and my own Pardes experience, it is clear that in coming to Jerusalem to spend our days in the Beit Midrash we’ve all taken our own Shmita. We’ve left loved ones behind, taken time from careers, shifted our paths of ambition, let relationships and bank accounts lie fallow with the faith that whatever might come of this release would sustain us for the now and beyond.

Vayikra Raba expounds on a verse from tehilim to explain the heightened consciousness Shmita demands of us:
“Mighty in strength are those who fulfill God’s word.” Who is the text speaking of? Rabbi Yitzchak says: It speaks of those who observe the Shmita year. It is common to find someone who keeps it for a day, for a week, for a month; but do we really find many people who keep the shmita for the entire year? Is there a mightier person who sees their field go untilled, their vineyard go untilled, yet still pays their taxes and doesn’t complain?

“Mighty in strength are those who fulfill God’s word.” Who is the text speaking of? Rabbi Yitzchak says: It speaks of those who observe the Shmita year. It is common to find someone who keeps it for a day, for a week, for a month; but do we really find many people who keep the shmita for the entire year? Is there a mightier person who sees their field go untilled, their vineyard go  untilled, yet still pays their taxes and doesn’t complain? תהלים קג: גבורי כח עושי דברו. במה הכתוב מדבר אמר רבי יצחק: בשומרי שביעית הכתוב מדבר. בנוהג שבעולם, אדם עושה מצוה ליום א’, לשבת אחת, לחודש א’, שמא לשאר ימות השנה?! ודין חמי חקליה ביירה, כרמיה ביירה, ויהבי ארנונא ושתיק, יש לך גבור גדול מזה

There is a bravery, a certain kind of might in what we’ve each done for the sake of learning and growing. Yet in our own vibrant orchard, there are those mightier than we who release our normative reality for a year or more. The giburei koach of Pardes, of course, are our inspiring, intelligent, funny, creative, and kind teachers. They enable us to keep our special kind of shmita, and even more than this; they help us plant more abundant fields and vineyards than we could have ever imagined possible, their wisdom bringing forth new, wild growth, covering our lives with blossoming color. As I face the reality of transition, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for these mighty tillers of Torah. Thank you.

Thank you, Meir, for introducing me to the minds who make meaning out of our people’s greatest story, and for enabling us to find meaning in places beyond our Beit Midrash.
Thank you, Leah, for challenging me to grapple intensely with the language of Talmud, for sharpening my textual eye.
Thank you, Elisa, for helping me strengthen my voice. For the gift of megillat Esther perek dalet, and beyond.
Thank you, DLK, for modeling meaningful Torah in 5 minutes. For coaching our somewhat lost souls as we find our way towards our respective paths.
Thank you, Daniel Roth, for introducing me to the much-needed concept of constructive conflict, for helping me to be more thoughtful in the manner in which I disagree with others.
Thank you, Dean Bernstein, for keeping us on time. For enabling us to learn safely, bravely, and boldly.
Thank you, Chef, for feeding our tummies as well as our senses of humor.
Thank you, Karen, for the often unsung symphony of work you do for this community. For enabling us to learn in an institution that cares not only about its students’ minds but also their hearts.
Thank you, Mike, for not just teaching halacha, but for cracking its nuance open, and enabling its inherent holiness to spill forth onto the pages of your source sheets.
Thank you, Michael, for always teaching Torah with humor, integrity, and meticulous care. For responding to questions by empowering us to seek our own answers.
Thank you, Zvi, for teaching and re-teaching me one of the most important lessons; to be kind to myself. For your sense of humor, for your calming presence, and for selflessly giving so much of yourself to your students.
Thank you, Neima, for teaching us how to be teachers, for helping us discover alternative narratives that exist in the white spaces between ancient black letters; for helping us find our voices among all those who came before.
Thank you, Howard, for the equality beautiful gifts of grammar and egalitarianism, for the confidence I now have to stand at any ammud. For your fierce dedication to giving time to anyone who asks for it.
Thank you, Nechama, for talking about the hard, important things with gusto, energy, and a passionate spirit.
Thank you, Jamie, for leading us over mountains, into valleys, across stretches of breathtaking land, for almost always keeping us hydrated, and for guiding us through the gorgeous history of this complicated, beautiful country.
Thank you, Tovah Leah, for helping me strengthen and beautify my relationships with textual depth, nuance, and meaning. For your soulful smiles and holy hugs.
Thank you, Hayim, for answering every question: from “what does this roshei tevot stand for” to “what’s your favorite line from Groundhog Day?” For your guidance, always given with a laugh or two.
Thank you, Joanne, for letting me kick you off your computer on a regular basis. For your smiles and for sharing yourself with us. To Louise, Debra, Donna, Arlene, Emma, Elisheva, Erika, Ilana, Judy, Aviva, Gail, Jackie, Mirta, and Adina for all the girl power you bring to the Pardes offices. And Joel.
Thank you, Levi, for illuminating the words of the Rambam, our Chassidic sages, and Midrashic meaning-makers, but even more; for teaching me not just to read a text; but to tell its story with energy, color, and life. Thank you for Turkey and for your trust.
Thank you, Meesh, for perpetually standing on chairs and throwing your hands up in excitement for Torah. And for teaching us to stand up and throw our hands up in the name of building a better world beyond the Beit Midrash.
Thank you, Rahel, for teaching me how to learn, for modeling a beautiful, fierce, and feisty feminist halachic existence. For feeling and showing a broad range of emotions in your dynamic relationship with our texts and traditions.

Thank you, all, for making my bookshelf increasingly more accessible. Thank you for helping me find the might within myself to see the abundant reward of the challenging yet incredible release of the last two years. Thank you to my friends for making Torah, Israel, and Judaism come alive with hearty laughter, unbridled joy, vivid color, and raucous and soulful song. Thank you to this community for allowing me to be my full self, unapologetically. As I collect the final fruits of this third year of abundance, my blessing for us all, and for me too, why not, is that the seeds planted here are rooted in this moment and in this place, but even more; that you take your Torah with you. Share the sweet rewards of your shmita wherever you go. Plant new seeds, find new farming partners, keep your tools sharp, and honor the might of Pardes’ giburei koach by aspiring to that might yourself. There’s only one Pardes, but the orchard of Torah is ours to plant, maintain, and care for wherever we find ourselves on our journey on this Earth.

Maya Zinkow