I went back to school last week. More accurately, I went to the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly – the professional organization of Conservative rabbis. I of course saw many old friends and colleagues, and we caught each other up on our lives and work, our successes and challenges and so forth.
And of course, what do rabbis do when they get together? Why, play poker and smoke cigars, of course!
They learn. Actually, in an ideal world, that’s what all Jews should do when they get together: Pirqei Avot tells us (3:3) that when two people meet and exchange divrei Torah (words of Jewish learning), the Shekhinah, God’s presence, hovers between them. (And I don’t know about you, but I could use a lot more Shekhinah in my life.)
You see, it’s not just 12-year-olds preparing to become bar / bat mitzvah that learn the words of Jewish tradition. On the contrary: the highest ideal in Judaism is lifelong learning. Why? Because study leads to action, and the lessons of the Jewish bookshelf continue to speak to us from across the ages.
Some of you may know that there was a movement in the first half of the 20th century to eliminate bar mitzvah at age 13 from Jewish life, and replace it with confirmation at age 16. (I’m told that Rodef Shalom Congregation stood by that policy deep into the 20th century (one of the current members of Beth Shalom is, in fact, the first person to have celebrated a bar mitzvah at 13 at Rodef Shalom.) And there was a good reason for it: a 16-year-old is better equipped to approach learning with more sophistication and nuance, and more ready to be launched into the Jewish world as an adult. There is a certain wisdom in delaying the major life-cycle event marking the transition from childhood to adulthood to a time when the candidate has a better sense of his/her relation to our tradition and to the world. (Plug: we will be celebrating the conclusion of our confirmation class in two weeks on the first day of Shavuot, Sunday, June 12th. Be there!)
But the larger point is that Jewish adulthood is not merely about receiving the traditions and mitzvot of Jewish life, but also about striving to understanding why Jewish tradition is relevant to us and how it frames our lives in holiness. I continue to answer that question for myself every day. It’s an ongoing project for me, and one that I hope you will join with me in furthering.
An essential part of that picture, of course, is Torah study. Not “the Torah,” the Five Books of Moses found on the scroll we just returned to the aron haqodesh, the ark, but “Torah” – the collective writings and brain power that yielded two millennia of commentary, interpretation, re-interpretation, and so forth; the halakhic codes, the midrashim, the liturgy, the poetry, even the music that comprise the entire Jewish body of text-based learning and transmission of our heritage from generation to generation.
We are still part of that transmission. We are each links in the chain that connects us back to Mt. Sinai, and the celebration of a bat mitzvah is merely a reminder that we continue to fashion the links that follow us.
I spoke last week about re-envisioning the idea of mitzvah as “holy opportunity.” This is, of course, an essential concept on a day that we celebrate the stepping forward of a young member of our qehillah, our community, into a complete, sacred relationship with the 613 mitzvot of Jewish tradition. The fulfillment of each mitzvah, which has been traditionally understood to be a commandment from God, is a potential gift to yourself and others, an opportunity to elevate our individual selves and the collective community by performing a traditional action. Examples are wearing a tallit, lighting Shabbat candles, sanctifying the holidays with family meals and abstaining from mundane activities, honoring your parents, and so forth.
So it happens that while I was at the convention, between cigars and counting my poker winnings, one of the learning sessions that I attended spoke exactly to that point. It was taught by Dr. Eitan Fishbane, a professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Fishbane’s research area is Jewish mysticism and Hasidic thought, and this particular session was (serendipitously) about the concept of mitzvah as described by a couple of medieval rabbis.
And one of these rabbis, a pre-Hasidic commentator from the turn of the 17th century known as (curiously) the Sh”lah (that’s an abbreviation for Shenei Luhot Haberit, suggests that every mitzvah has greater meaning than the action itself; mitzvot have a higher goal – the goal of devequt, cleaving to God.
Devequt is one of those mystical words that is hard to translate. While it literally suggests “adhesion,” as in, what glue or tape does. (The modern Hebrew word for glue is deveq.) But the image is a mystical one rather than physical. By acting on those holy opportunities, by taking the metaphysical gifts presented before us at the appropriate time, we are cleaving to the Divine, and thereby bathed in God’s love and light. Devequt is a kind of emotional journey attached to the physical fulfillment of mitzvot, and an essential piece of the Hasidic, kabbalistic understanding of Judaism. It’s an elevated state that we all strive for.
So, for example, let’s consider the mitzvah of the shemittah year, the sabbatical year identified in Parashat Behar today. The idea is that every seventh year in the land of Israel, the ground is left uncultivated. You can eat what grows naturally, from last year’s seeds, but otherwise you cannot till and tend the land and the plants.
Seems like an obscure concept, right? Especially to sophisticated urbanites like ourselves, who do not cultivate any significant amount of land, and even if we own patches of lawn do not really grow food for our own sustenance.
And yet, there are deeper meanings here, found in the mitzvah of shemittah, of not working your fields every seventh year.
One is the sense of respect for the land, for Creation. Just as we humans get a break from everyday business every seventh day, so too does the Earth get a break every seventh year. This heightens our relationship with what has been trusted to us for only a short time. But of course, for our agricultural ancestors, that must have been a very anxious year indeed. Today, we are mostly insulated from the vagaries of subsistence farming.
The Slonimer Rebbe regards shemittah as a challenge of faith and trust. By letting the land go untended for a year, we train ourselves to have some faith that we will still be provided for, that the Divine forces of nature will make sure that we will not go hungry. Unlike in the other corners of our lives, when more work, more development, yields greater profit, with the sabbatical year the reverse is true. Refraining from that development yields a spiritual harvest that brings us back to God. That is devequt. Our human experience is heightened by our trusting relationship with Creation, and we are drawn closer to the Qadosh Barukh Hu.
Shemittah (sabbatical year) and yovel (jubilee, when all the land that has been sold is returned to its original owner) may seem irrelevant to us today. But they help us cleave to God. They increase our sensitivity to the land, to society, and to our individual spiritual needs. We all benefit. And so we are elevated personally and collectively.
And with a little bit of study and reinterpretation of the curious laws of the Torah, we can be drawn closer in holiness through the performance of any mitzvah, the big ones and the small ones.
We need to strive for that devequt. We need to reach higher, however we understand God, or God’s role in our lives. And the mitzvot are a framework of holy opportunities to do exactly that.
In a rather well-known episode, the early 20th-century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was asked if he was putting on tefillin every morning, a particularly holy opportunity found in our tradition. “Not yet,” said Herr Rosenzweig. Not yet, because he was still on a journey, or because he was not ready, or because he had not found the motivation to act, or because he was afraid it would mess up his hair. We do not know why.
But we all have that sense of “not yet” about us. We just have to dig a little deeper to find the meaning, so that we may strive for devequt, cleaving to God. That will ultimately bring our relationship with Judaism and the mitzvot, those holy opportunities, into focus.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/28/16.)