Friday, May 25, 2012

Guest Blogger: Receiving the Torah...again?

By Esther Golam
Esther is a massage therapist and reflexologist. She lives in Gush Etzion, Israel with her husband and baby.

"Shavuot was approaching again... Although I had gone to them previously, this year I was ambivalent. A voice kept complaining inside of me: Another all-night learning program? The truth was, I had changed."

Receiving the Torah... Again?
One woman’s perspective on why we need to accept the Torah anew each year

It’s almost here. Shavuot, the Jewish festival which celebrates perhaps the most momentous occasion in Jewish history: Hashem’s giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. This set of laws would change our lives forever, by enabling us to connect to Hashem on the highest and most intimate levels possible.
And more than this, Shavuot celebrates the Jewish people’s full acceptance of this invitation to connection with the words “Na’aseh v’nishma” – “We will do and we will hear”. We trusted Hashem so much and desired this relationship with Him so intently that we were willing to commit ourselves to 613 rules and regulations before knowing what they were. No reading of the small print, no discussion with their lawyer. Only acceptance, pure and simple.

There is a well-known idea in Jewish thought that Shavuot is not merely a commemoration of a historical event that took place thousands of years ago. Rather, each year at this time, Hashem gives the Torah to the Jewish people – and we receive it – anew.

This begs the question: if Hashem already gave us the Torah three thousand years ago, why does He need to give it again? Isn’t it already ours? The Torah is not an IPod, with a new and improved version coming out each year. In fact, it is forbidden make any changes to the Torah whatsoever.

One answer could be that although the Torah is unchanging, we are not. Each year we bring a different, more developed self to Shavuot, and we need to ensure that this new part of us also receives the Torah. Through looking back on my own past experiences of Shavuot, I was able to see how I had changed, and how I needed to discover different ways to connect to Hashem and the Torah based on the person I was becoming. I hope that by sharing some of my Shavuots, the reader will also be encouraged to think about how he or she would like to receive the Torah this year.

Seven years ago, I was newly religious and studying Torah at a post-high school seminary in Jerusalem. Surrounded by inspirational teachers and motivated students, I had the chance to explore classic Jewish texts, and learn the basics of Jewish philosophy and law. At that time, I had an intense desire for knowledge, and I was in the right place to quench my thirst.

Shavuot that year was exhilarating. There was an all-night learning program which included stimulating classes and study sessions with a partner. A while before sunrise, we put away our books and started the six mile trek to the Kotel. This is a long-standing custom in Jerusalem, and as we journeyed, we joined a stream of thousands of people, all heading for the same destination. As my friends and I walked, we discussed the concepts we had been learning that night: Why did Hashem create the world? What is the importance of learning Torah? How does one become a good person? Even though the walk took almost two hours, it felt like a number of minutes - so involved were we in our conversation. I remember my mind being very focused, even though I had not gone to sleep that night. Everything seemed so clear. All the points we were talking about fitted together. We let our legs carry us forward, knowing exactly where they were taking us. We were going to receive the Torah.

At that time in my life, the way I understood receiving the Torah was to become absorbed in its study, and to learn the laws of its practice. Growing up, I had attended academic schools, and was naturally intellectual, so this mode of connection made sense. In fact, I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. What I didn’t realize then, though, was that there were other elements of my personality waiting to be developed, which also needed to receive the Torah.

Five years later, and I was still in Israel. I had made Aliyah, and was living in the Old City of Jerusalem. I kept up my learning after seminary by going to classes, studying with friends, and reading on my own. But over time, I started to feel that something was missing. It was no longer enough just to study the Torah and amass knowledge; I had an overriding urge to put it all into practice, to do something with it – to live it. And I knew how I wanted to go about doing this: through marriage, building a Jewish home and helping another person reach their potential.

When I was at seminary, I had felt sorry for the wives and mothers who couldn’t join us on our all-night learning program. I thought it was a shame they had to miss out on so much, just because they had to take care of their families. Now, I realized that they weren’t missing out at all – in fact, their connection to Torah was just as strong as mine, if not stronger. Supporting and encouraging a husband in his Torah learning, bringing up Jewish children in the ways of Hashem and creating a happy home environment where everyone is physically, emotionally and spiritually nourished – this was a 24/7 involvement in the Torah. And I wanted it.

But even though I felt ready to get married, it seems that Hashem had other plans for me. For after dating for several years, I still had not found the person I wanted to build a life with. And putting aside all the loneliness, disappointment and confusion of this period, I still needed to find a way to connect to the Torah on a practical, experiential level.

I realized that I needed to start giving more. Chesed, lovingkindness, is one of the foundational mitzvot of the Torah. I also knew that focusing on giving to others would force me to look outside of myself and protect me from falling into depression and self-pity. I enrolled in a course for reflexology and massage at a Jerusalem college. There, I learned how to help people heal physically and emotionally. I also gained a much deeper appreciation of the mind-body connection.

Shavuot was approaching again, together with the large selection of classes taking place throughout the night in the Old City. Although I had gone to them previously, this year I was ambivalent. A voice kept complaining inside of me: Another all-night learning program? The truth was, I had changed. I wasn’t thirsting for knowledge anymore, or even inspiring ideas. I had had my share of that in seminary and the years after. I was restless sitting through classes and learning theoretically. All I wanted now was the chance to make it real.

As I lit the candles on the eve of Shavuot, I offered a silent prayer: Please Hashem, let me receive the Torah this year in the way that You choose.

I resolved to go at least one class that night; afterwards, I would decide if I wanted to stay for another one or go to sleep. Not ten minutes into the class, someone tapped me on my shoulder. It was Liora*, the live-in nanny for Tamar*, my friend and neighbor. I hadn’t seen Tamar that night, probably because she was in her ninth month of pregnancy and needed to take it easy.

Liora motioned to me to leave the crowded room. When we got outside, she told me, “Tamar’s waters just broke. She can’t get in touch with her birthing coach. We heard you did reflexology and massage – would you be willing to accompany her to the hospital and help with the birth?”
Of course I was more than willing – as well as extremely nervous – to go. Moments later, Tamar, her husband and I were riding in an ambulance to the hospital. (Although driving is normally forbidden on Shavuot, it is permitted in the case of saving a life, which includes taking a woman in labour to the hospital.) I had never ridden in an ambulance before, let alone on a Shabbat or festival, and was surprised at how normal it felt. The special atmosphere of Shavuot was still there as we drove along the empty roads of Jerusalem. I used my reflexology and massage techniques to help Tamar relax and get through the contractions, which were coming closer and closer together.

I did stay up all night that night. Not because I was learning Torah, but because I was helping my friend through a difficult labour. And although I wasn’t sitting in a class or pouring over books, I was definitely learning. I learnt about giving and being present for someone. About stepping back when there’s nothing left you can do and realizing you have to let the person you’re trying to help do it themselves. About watching someone go through the most excruciating pain, and then experience sublime joy moments later.
Tamar gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Right before I went to sleep that night, I realized that Hashem had answered my prayer. He had given me the opportunity to celebrate Shavuot and receive the Torah in the way I needed, through chesed, helping another person. This was my way of showing that I accepted what the Torah stands for, and that I wanted not only to study the mitzvot, but also to do them.

A couple of weeks after this, my life changed drastically - for the better. I met my husband. After years of waiting, everything suddenly happened so fast. Finally, there was someone with whom I shared the same goals, and felt comfortable around, and whom I actually really, really liked! We got engaged after a month of intense dating, and were married right before Rosh Hashanah that same year.

So what happened the following Shavuot? Did I lovingly encourage my husband to stay up all night learning Torah? Did I talk about Torah concepts with him and work out how I could practically integrate them into my life? Did I create a festive environment at home by preparing a sumptuous meal and baking cheesecakes?

Actually, I was too overcome by severe morning sickness to do any of these things, and I ended up spending most of Shavuot lying in bed! But I knew that I was doing something extremely important with my body; I was enabling a Jewish soul to come into the world. I prayed that I would be able to help this new little person lead a joyous life and always feel loved by Hashem. That Shavuot, I tried to receive the Torah by appreciating how it had brought so much happiness and meaning to my life, and how I was committed to passing its values on to my children.

And now, it’s that time of year again. I have been blessed with an amazing husband and baby girl. I want to show my acceptance of the Torah in the ways that I can. I have more energy than last year; enough to make a nice meal in honour of the festival, and maybe even to study some Torah. I will not be staying up all night learning– although I will probably have to get up once or twice to feed the baby. But I definitely want to take time throughout the day to think about how grateful I am for the opportunity to build a deep relationship with Hashem through learning and living His Torah.  

Our situations vary so much from year to year, as do our levels of growth and personal development. Our relationship with the Torah is not static; we must continuously search for the way we can attach ourselves to it in the here and now. Every Shavuot, we are called upon to ask ourselves, “How can the person I have become this year receive the Torah?” And the answer will be different for each individual.

This year, may we all receive the Torah in the way that is right for us!

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