One of the conversations that I had early in rabbinic school about how we connect to the wisdom of Torah has always stayed with me. While still in London, at Leo Baeck College, Professor Lisa Grant, Professor of Education at Hebrew Union College, New York, visited for a week and opened the doorway to a deeper kind of engagement with Torah for me. Perhaps it was because, at that early stage of rabbinic studies, we were deeply engrossed in trying to understand what the text actually said, or perhaps it was because we were immersed in the early history of our people at that time. But that kind of intellectual and academic immersion, while important, had distanced me from what, for me, were the more significant questions – how does the Torah of our texts connect to our lives today?
Dr. Grant asked us to be mindful of two different ways to make those connections. Both were legitimate, but our choice of which strategy to employ in different learning settings could make a huge difference in how we helped others connect to the wisdom of our tradition. “Do we start with life, and then seek to connect those life experiences to Torah, or do we start with the text of the Torah, and then seek to connect that text to something in life?” she asked. Over and over again, when seeking to make Judaism come alive for those to whom the text of Torah is too foreign and, perhaps, too frightening a place to start, I’ve found the way in through the Torah of our lives.
When I sit down with a bar or bat mitzvah student to begin to study their Torah portion with them, I always emphasize the importance of teaching both kinds of Torah to the congregation. That’s what we’ve always done – even when we read hard-to-penetrate ancient midrashim, we find Rabbis of old who were seeking to share observations about human nature, or the kind of world they lived in, and connect these observations back to Torah. Revelation continues to unfold, over and over again, when we are able to make those connections come alive today. And so, with those students, I usually begin by trying to get to know them a little better – to find out what they are passionate about, what activities they do, what issues they care about or organizations they have volunteered with so that, when we open the Torah commentary and start to read, we can do so with an eye out for those connections to the life of the student.
What does life to Torah look like? Looking back on your life so far, can you think of a conversation that you had with someone, or someone who opened the door to a new experience for you that sent you in a whole new direction? Or, looking back, you recognize that there was a time in your life when you were heading one way and, just because of a particular interaction – maybe a ‘chance’ encounter – you now recognize that there was a moment when you changed track to be on the path you find yourself now? I can think of many such moments in my life: the friend who encouraged me to go to my first Reform Jewish student event; the woman who introduced me to the music of Debbie Friedman; the room mate who asked me the right questions in the right way that, eventually, enabled me to come out as a lesbian, first to myself and then to others…
In the Torah, these kinds of experiences are moments of angelic encounter: the man that Hagar meets in the desert who, when she tells what she is running from but does not know where she is running to, tells her what direction she must go in next; the man that Joseph encounters in the field when he’s seeking his brothers, who points him to where he can now find his brothers, without whom the rest of his story with all its ups and downs might never have unfolded; the man who wrestles all night with Jacob, helping him to come to terms with his past and accept a new sense of identity… these are all understood to be “angels” in rabbinic tradition.
Why does it make a difference to teach and share about these connections between life and text? There are many answers to that question. For me, connecting to an ancient wisdom text that is part of my faith heritage has the power to enrich the meaning of the everyday events of my life. It also gives me a language with which to acknowledge the innate holiness of what otherwise might be dismissed as ordinary. We can simply speak of important influences in our lives, life-altering moments, and changes that we made. Or we can speak of “angelic encounters” – labeling the energy that was present in a particular encounter or experience as powerfully connected to the path of our life experience. I know that, for me, I’m more likely to feel and notice the spiritual power of those experiences if I have language to label them as something special and noteworthy. I am more likely to recognize that there is Torah in the ordinary, everyday of my life.
This is but one example of how, beginning by noticing the Torah of our lives we can find ourselves in the human drama played out in the Torah of our texts. There are so many more. When we can bring these two Torahs together, we see the power of Jewish wisdom to help us navigate and make meaning of our lives.
This morning I waited until the Supreme Court convened before posting here. Elation is the feeling that many of us whose marriages have not previously been recognized federally are feeling this morning. And for those in California, marriage equality can, at last, be celebrated. For sure, the work is not yet complete – 40 states continue to discriminate against their citizens. But there is no question that progress was made in civil rights and civil law today.
There is so much that could be said this morning. But for me, the blessing that I am recognizing this morning is the blessing of being seen. It is a blessing that each and every one of us, irrespective of sexuality or any other aspect of our identity, can bestow on others, understanding the incredibly powerful impact of receiving that blessing ourselves. It lies behind the central principle of all world religions, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
Each time I have filed my taxes separately from my spouse, each time I had to apply for the next round of immigration on my journey from rabbinic student to permanent resident and the love of my life was invisible … these were moments when an essential part of my self and my life was unseen. Standing in line to come through security on our way back from a trip and watching the married couple in front of us being processed together and then having a TSA agent insist that my wife and I be processed individually was a moment of humiliation that highlighted how something that is so precious to us is treated as unseen by others. And for anyone who has ever had the experience of being denied access to their loved one’s side in a hospital room, the experience of being unseen is excruciatingly painful.
As Jews, every Passover we announce how we will tell the story as if we, ourselves, personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt; we are called upon to get in touch with the experience and feelings of the journey from having lived a restricted life to entering a new world of freedom. Over and over we are reminded in the Torah to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt as we engage with others that we encounter. Our own experiences of being unseen can sensitize us to the ways in which others often go unseen too: the individual who is sitting alone in the synagogue sanctuary, the child who can’t learn in the same way as others but deserves the blessing of a bar or bat mitzvah and a meaningful Jewish life just the same, the homeless person on the street that we can always greet even when we can’t give, the person sitting in a wheelchair who would like you to look at them and speak to them directly when you are serving them in a store, the cashier in the supermarket who isn’t just another piece of the check-out machinery…
The experience of being fully seen is a holy experience. The philosopher, Martin Buber, might call it an ‘I-Thou’ moment. We often hold back from fully revealing ourselves at the deepest, soul level that truly represents who we are because we are afraid that our gift may be rejected. When another person responds in a way that makes us feel invisible, the pain that results is something that most of us, at some point in time, has experienced. But the blessing that comes with revealing our full essence and being received fully by another human being is a truly spiritual experience that brings wholeness not only to individual lives, but to communities and societies too.
For thousands of gay and lesbian married couples, today is a day when we can celebrate the blessing of being seen. May it propel each one of us to do our part to spread that blessing to all.