Our sages teach us that we should say 100 different blessings each day (1). This invitation reminds us to drop into moments of sacredness, gratitude, connection, and transcendence throughout our waking hours, creating a posture of gratitude and attunement as we bless our world into being. Some of these blessings might be said over a meal or a treat, others over noticing the contours of the sky, and others over the experience of fulfilling a mitzvah. As my resilience wells become drier through the months and weeks of enduring this pandemic—and the trauma(s), anxiety, and exhaustion that comes with it—I’m noticing that it has felt some days like rather than making 100 different blessings, I’m racking up most of my bracha-points by reciting one blessing over and over, ‘la’asok bedivrei torah,’ which we recite to acknowledge the beginning of our learning.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעולָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְותָיו וְצִוָּנוּ לַעֲסוק בְּדִבְרֵי תורָה
Blessed are you G!d, our G!d, Melekh of eternity who has sanctified us through mitzvot and commanded us to immerse ourselves in words of Torah.
It’s a common practice to recite this blessing once a day rather than each time one learns, blessing the mitzvah of learning Torah as an ongoing practice that continues throughout the day. These days, I—along with many folks in our yeshiva—am finding grounding in the practice of reciting this blessing each time I sit, quiet my mind, and open my heart to learning Torah (2). Sometimes I’ll come to the end of my day and realize that I’ve said these words five or six times. I’ve explored this blessing dozens of times inside and out, every time feeling struck by the multiple textures and depth found in each of the words, and the phrase as a whole. Each of the words in this blessing is tremendous, and could yield hours of Jastrow exploration (which I highly recommend)!
One word in particular, though, has been feeling particularly juicy for me as we’ve been moving through Pirkei Avot in the Mishnah Collective: melekh, King, Ruler, Leader, with the root מָלַךְ, which means “to preside,” “to officiate,” “to rule.” King of the World, Ruler of the Universe. This word, in so many ways, is the nexus of patriarchal G!d-talk, which queer and feminist theologies and grassroots ritual-doers have done the sacred work of subverting and disentangling from our relationships to the Divine.
In Rachel Adler’s prolific Engendering Judaism she writes: “…in order to begin to create truly inclusive worship, we would have to acknowledge the extent to which our current services reflect masculine sensibilities, styles, and gestures and androcentric language and theologies. We would have to admit that the exclusively masculine language with which we currently refer to God is a metaphoric language that has been totalized. That is, selected metaphors have been taken to represent the totality of the God toward whom they point. Such an understanding is, at the least, inadequate and distortive” (3).
In Adler’s imagination, G!d’s Kingship is at best outdated and limited, and at worst harmful, reifying and reinforcing of patriarchal power. We know this in our kishkes, and we see it in the world around us. As we ground in and shape a world of Option 3 that takes seriously our CRASH-es and commitments to liberatory ritual and relationships with Sacredness, we’ve found so many new powerful ways to recover and reinvent our ways of speaking about G!d, ways that reflect the worlds we are trying to speak into being.
I know, though, that as I say this blessing in this form (בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעולָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְותָיו וְצִוָּנוּ לַעֲסוק בְּדִבְרֵי תורָה), I am making a liturgical choice that doesn’t fully capture the dynamic practices of our community. There have been times, even, when we’ve turned our microphones on to say the blessing together in the bet midrash, and as different words at different moments are heard through Zoom, we can notice and affirm the distinct liturgies that many of us use when speaking to and of G!d.
So why do I say melekh in this blessing?! When digging into one of the most accountable, relational, democratized mitzvot—learning Torah! —that represents the epitome of creative subversion, why praise G!d as a King?! Rabbi Nechunya shook my world several months ago when we encountered his teaching in the Mishnah Collective:
:רבי נחוניא בן הקנה אומר
כל המקבל עליו עול תורה, מעבירין ממנו עול מלכות ועול דרך ארץ
וכל הפורק ממנו עול תורה נותנין עליו עול מלכות ועול דרך ארץ
Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah says: ‘Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly cares are removed from him; but whoever casts off the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly cares are imposed upon him.’ (Mishnah Avot 3:5)
Rabbi Nechunya describes an immediate transformation that occurs when we fully receive Torah: once you take on a deep and full relationship to Torah, the yoke of government and “worldly cares” are removed from you. Malkhut, Kingship, which here means something likely akin to government, has no power over us when we are immersed in Torah. When we learn, we create a world that is free from Empires, free from dominating powers, free from the heaviness of external forces. The only heavy burdens we carry when we learn are those of Torah.
I’ve encountered readings of this text as demonstrative of the Torah’s rejection of worldly affairs, a defense of a secluded life that includes only learning. But to take on the yoke of Torah, to cultivate our resilience in and through our tradition, is not about mere escapism. It is about resistance: when we learn, the only malkhut there is, is G!d’s.
Being immersed in Torah is, most fundamentally, an opportunity to reclaim and reaffirm our commitment to that which transcends the world that is, allowing us to live into the world that can be. To bless G!d and acknowledge the Source of Life as the melekh as we begin our learning is how I remind myself in each moment that the project we are investing in as a community is one in which the malchut that is felt is the Ultimate Presence. We are, in each moment that we recite this liturgy, rejecting the power of nation-states, of rulers, of false governments and leaders, and instead affirming our commitment to sacred community, to learning, to new ways of being, and to exploring the depth of that which permeates our hearts. All of this can be translated “outside” as “Torah.”
An appreciation for this language must exist alongside the echoes of diverse liturgical and metaphorical expressions of G!d that help us resist the totalization of dominating patriarchal G!d language that Adler so beautifully cautions against. But it is precisely over this act—of studying, of being fully present in, of accepting upon ourselves the power of Torah—that I name G!d as Ruler. Before I learn, I declare G!d’s Rulership, and cast off the yoke of those who seek to dominate me, my body, my love, my self. G!d’s Rulership is one that sprouts forth from Torah, from the wisdom that permeates our hearts and penetrates our souls. G!d’s Rulership is where we find new paradigms for cooperative learning, accountability, empathy, and deep listening.
May our learning—and the way we bless it—support us and feed us as we seek to abolish all systems of domination in this world and experience new textures of malkhut that embody presence, love, and liberation.
(1) Talmud Bavli, Menachot 43b.
(2) For a neat discussion of this dilemma, check out Tosafot’s comment on Berakhot 11b (“שכבר נפטר באהבה רבה”).
(3) Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism (1998), p. 66.