These and Those

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

The Nakedness of New: Opening up to true Encounter through Torah Learning

Posted on September 18, 2016 by Mira Niculescu

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Last Monday was our first day of class at Pardes.

I had just arrived from Paris the night before, and the landing hadn’t been easy. Within a few hours of a plane journey, I had transitioned from an intense network of love and relationships to an empty apartment in a new country where I knew almost no one – at least certainly no one close enough to be able to pour my heart out to, if ever needed. I remember arriving in my new street and stepping out of the sherut with a heavy heart, knowing that no one was waiting at “home” – that is, in the temporary sublet I had just found. It was already night in Jerusalem, the moon was shining in the black sky, and I suddenly felt the void.

I knew how promising this void was. That it was full of the future gifts of wonderful, intellectual human and spiritual encounters. That it was soon going to turn into a beautiful field of a blooming daily life I was already joyfully anticipating- Torah learning, Shabbat dinners, Shuk musings, Israel tiyulim, yoga relaxing, old city wanderings, and drinks with new friends from all over the world.
But for now, the beautiful field of promises was empty, and it was just difficult.

And then it became even more challenging: I opened my computer, in order to work on this article I had been trying to finish. And it just wouldn’t turn on. You have to understand. I’m an academic. This computer is ‘my life’. I’m working on a Phd while at Pardes, so the second I have free time, I am on it trying to attend to whatever scientific paper is in process- and there always are. As a consequence – and I think many readers, academics or not, may identify with this: my computer has become like an extension of my arms. It has somehow become, sadly but truly, an externalized part of my body.

So here I was, suddenly alone in the night of a new country, and not even being able to do the one familiar thing I had left: work- or for that matter, avoid work on Facebook. And here I was, facing a black screen, so much blacker that this new Jerusalem summer night. At that moment I really felt pushed far out of my comfort zone, of anything familiar I could hold on to. There was nothing. I was stripped bare.

This is how I walked into Pardes the next day. Our first actual learning class was a plenary session on Torah learning, taught by a wonderful woman who, as it happened, was to be my Gemara Teacher. She had us explore Talmud sources talking about what it meant to learn Torah. And when we got to this extract from Sotah 21b in the Talmud Bavli, and when I read it “ani chochma shachanti eruma”, ‘I wisdom, dwell in nakedness’, my heart opened. Here we were, Leah Rosenthal was pointing out to us how much Torah learning demands the courage of stripping ourselves bare of all illusion of knowledge, of all ego, all klipot (layers) that get in the way of a true encounter.

And how much, as in all relationships, it requires from us true openness, and true humility. This was the nakedness-nothingness- vulnerability that I was so afraid of the night before. This was the “nakedness” of all beginnings, which we tend to forget as we get accustomed to things. The nakedness of newness, which is also the fragility of the new born, of the immigrant, of anyone starting a new phase in their lives.

Yet it is this very vulnerability which allows for wisdom to flow, which allows for a true encounter.

Maybe this is the deeper reason why the highest goal in a Beit Midrash, in a house of study, is chidoush, “newness”.

In this moment my heart felt both so wide and so full, as on this first day at Pardes I was reading from Torah itself how much Torah learning is a living relationship.

And I smiled, thinking about this famous saying from a Midrash: “Gam ze le tova”, “this too is for the good”, as I realized how it was this lesson in “nakedness” that God, had been trying to teach me the night before. In Its infinite kindness, toughness, and humor, HaShem was inviting me to open up to true encounter -not theoretically: experientially. We’re not called “Experiential Educators” for nothing.

Mira Neshama Niculescu
PS: Oh, and in case you were wondering, my computer is working again.