It’s hard to believe, but our study of tractate Berakhot comes to an end today. Today’s daf is short, but contains a number of gems, including this:
Rabbi Avin HaLevi said: One who partakes of a meal at which a Torah scholar is present, it is as if he enjoyed the radiant splendor of the Divine Presence, as it is stated: And Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God. (Exodus 18:12)
Rabbi Avin HaLevi quotes a poignant moment in the biblical text. Moses has led the children of Israel out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. His father-in-law Jethro (we’ve met him before), having heard of this remarkable event, brings Moses’ wife and two sons to him in the wilderness, where he experiences a kind of conversion: “Blessed be the Lord,” said Jethro, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods…” (Exodus 18:10-11). Jethro’s newfound fidelity to the God of Israel is not just words. In the next verse, the one that occasions Rabbi Avin HaLevi’s teaching, he acts decisively and publicly on his new faith by bringing a burnt offering to God, which then becomes a meal for all the leaders of Israel.
The text of Exodus says that the meal was eaten “before God.” As Rabbi Avin HaLevi notes, it cannot really be possible to eat “before God,” who is not physically present. (Of course, there is a tension between this idea and another one we encountered in Berakhot 6 that God is present whenever Jews come together in the synagogue to pray.) Rather, Rabbi Avin HaLevi asserts: This verse comes to tell you that one who partakes in a meal at which a Torah scholar is present, it is as if he enjoyed the radiant splendor of the Divine Presence.
In some small way, we hope that studying tractate Berakhot together has been something like partaking of a meal with great Torah scholars. In this tractate, we entered the world of talmudic thought with arguments that parsed the exact time one could pray the Shema. And though throughout the tractate we continued to discuss the ins and outs of various blessings and prayers, from the Amidah to the blessings before and after food to morning blessings and blessings for miracles and prayers said in the face of danger, we also ventured out into many other subjects. We’ve seen the rabbis probe the challenges of praying with intention, of making each prayer individually meaningful, and the possibilities of audacious prayer. We’ve seen them imagine that God also prays, and listens to human advice. We’ve explored the rabbinic principle of building a fence around the Torah, and rabbinic techniques for suppressing the evil inclination which is a part of all of us. We’ve seen rabbis modeling respectful argument, and we’ve seen them behaving badly, or just making fools of themselves. We’ve also seen that they can be outsmarted by each other and by their wives. We’ve watched them struggle with slavery and dream interpretation and finding the right words to comfort mourners. We’ve seen them wonder about the world of the dead. We’ve seen that the sages have no qualms about discussing the sometimes challenging physicality and fragility of being a human being, but that they also have great regard for human dignity and common sense. And all of this in just over 2% of the Talmud — it is humbling to know that there is so much more to learn!
Tractate Berakhot concludes this with a very famous teaching — the sort that is often inscribed on the walls of synagogues and Jewish schools:
Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Hanina said: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as it is said: And all your children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children. (Isaiah 54:13) Do not read ‘your children’ (בניך banayik), but rather ‘your builders’ (בוניך bonayikh).
These children, these students, these builders — may we be counted among them.