Increasing Our Days through Learning

by Laynie Soloman, Associate Rosh Yeshiva & Director of Transformative Leadership

A left hand points at a line in the Talmud, while a right holds a pen.

For me, each day feels like an eternity. The daily movement through weekday mornings that begin like weekends that blend into night feels like a pocket of timelessness, and like swimming in the mundane. We are wandering but going nowhere, it feels like, as our ancestors must have felt before us, and we are slowly counting up, one day at a time, without knowing what is next. Time moves, and we are unable to mark it, to truly feel the embodied impact of what happens to and around us. Birthdays go uncelebrated, yahrtzeits unmarked, and we yearn to find new ways to mark mourning without the tools that have previously held us. As the time moves and our lives are filled with the white noise of too much connectivity, and too little connection, what distinguishes one moment from the next? Where is creativity, texture, depth, transcendence to be found in this state of anxiety and static exhaustion?

As with so many of the plagues and painful moments we encounter throughout our lives, our tradition has been here before. Our sages have moved through the inescapable grief of plagues, destruction, devastation, and fleeing, in the midst of which they turned to new practices to help them both cope with and resist their new circumstances. One of the most powerful practices, the rabbis tell us, is “doing Torah.” In Masechet Avot (frequently referred to as “Pirkei Avot”) the Rabbis teach us:

גְּדוֹלָה תוֹרָה שֶׁהִיא נוֹתֶנֶת חַיִּים לְעֹשֶׂיהָ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וּבָעוֹלָם הַבָּא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי ד) כִּי חַיִּים הֵם לְמֹצְאֵיהֶם וּלְכָל בְּשָׂרוֹ מַרְפֵּא 

וְאוֹמֵר (שם ג) רִפְאוּת תְּהִי לְשָׁרֶךָ וְשִׁקּוּי לְעַצְמוֹתֶיךָ 

וְאוֹמֵר (שם ג) עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ וְתֹמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר 

וְאוֹמֵר (שם א) כִּי לִוְיַת חֵן הֵם לְרֹאשֶׁךָ וַעֲנָקִים לְגַרְגְּרֹתֶיךָ 

וְאוֹמֵר (שם ד) תִּתֵּן לְרֹאשְׁךָ לִוְיַת חֵן עֲטֶרֶת תִּפְאֶרֶת תְּמַגְּנֶךָּ 

וְאוֹמֵר (שם ט) כִּי בִי יִרְבּוּ יָמֶיךָ וְיוֹסִיפוּ לְךָ שְׁנוֹת חַיִּים

וְאוֹמֵר (שם ג) אֹרֶךְ יָמִים בִּימִינָהּ בִּשְׂמֹאולָהּ עֹשֶׁר וְכָבוֹד

וְאוֹמֵר (שם) כִּי אֹרֶךְ יָמִים וּשְׁנוֹת חַיִּים וְשָׁלוֹם יוֹסִיפוּ לָךְ

וְאוֹמֵר (שם) דְּרָכֶיהָ דַּרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכָל נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם

Great is Torah for it gives life to those who do it, in this world, and in the world to come, as it is said: “For they [my words, instructing you to learn and to live accordingly] are life unto those that find them, and healing to all their flesh” (Proverbs 4:22),
and it says: “She will be a medicine for your navel and a tonic for your bones” (Proverbs 3:8),
and it says: “She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and those who hold on/support her are happy” (Proverbs 3:18),
and it says: “Since they [these words] are an ornament of grace to your head, and a freedom-necklace around your neck” (Proverbs 1:9),
and it says: “She will give to your head an ornament of grace; a crown of glory she will gift you” (Proverbs 4:9),
and it says: Because through me your days will increase, and years of life will be added for you” (Proverbs 9:11),
and it says: “Length of days is in her right hand, and in her left hand, wealth and honor/dignity/weight” (Proverbs 3:16),
and it says: “For they will increase for you length of days, and years of life and wholeness” (Proverbs 3:2),
and it says “Her ways are pleasant ways, and all of her journeys are peaceful” (Proverbs 3:17).

The Torah is, quite literally, a life-giving source, the Rabbis tell us. How life-giving? Let’s count the ways. The mishnah begins with a powerful claim: Torah gives life to Torah-practitioners, so to speak—to those who do and embody what Torah is, means, and is trying to do—on two planes of existence: in this world, olam hazeh, and on a second plane of existence, olam haba, often translated as “the world to come.” Doing Torah, the mishnah says, brings healing and transformation in this realm of existence and the realm of existence that is yet-to-come.

To support this audacious claim, the Rabbis pull together a whole bunch of kra-proofs (verses from the Torah) that are all found in the book of Proverbs, and weave these verses into a story about the transformative, healing power of Torah. They explore Torah as a source of embodied healing, as a “tonic” or a form of “medicine,” with real healing powers. They explore Torah as an ornament, like a jeweled tiara or a necklace that symbolizes freedom, liberation and beauty. Weaving these texts together, the Rabbis create a multi-vocal argument about the many different ways that Torah can give us life, with each verse capturing one aspect of our relationship to Torah as a grounding source of power and connection. 

As we learned through this text in the Mishnah Collective this week, one of the verses felt challenging to feel bought into, which signaled to me that it needed some drash-ing:

וְאוֹמֵר (שם ט) כִּי בִי יִרְבּוּ יָמֶיךָ וְיוֹסִיפוּ לְךָ שְׁנוֹת חַיִּים

Because through me your days will increase, and years of life will be added for you” (Proverbs 9:11).

After a first read-through, I sat troubled by this verse and what it seems to be claiming. “Torah gives people long lives,” we might say, as a “way outside” translation for this kra-proof. Why is this what the rabbis want to tell us about Torah? As I dug further, I learned that some versions of the mishnah don’t include this verse in the lineup from Proverbs. So why is it here, and what is it trying to tell us? Is it really here to prove that the rabbis believed that learning Torah gives us a longer life? It is possible to read this verse at face-value, understanding this prooftext as explaining to us very clearly that Torah literally keeps us alive longer–for more days and for more years? But truthfully, that’s not how my svara wants me to read this text.

We know, as I assume the Rabbis did, that Torah learning does not actually increase the span of an individual’s life (and the Talmud in several places argues against people who believe this erroneous idea!). So how, then, how can we glean something powerful about the life-giving nature of Torah from this Proverbs quote? 

Through a closer reading of this verse, we can offer an alternative interpretation of the Torah as a life-giving source. When we learned this text in the bet midrash together, many brought out the texture of the word “increase” not as to literally lengthen or increase in number, but to add dimensions, power, meaning, excitement, joy. The root of the word “yirbu” is רבי/רבב, both of which have definitions that capture this complexity. These roots mean “to be large, numerous,” and also “to thicken,”  “to grow,” “to strengthen,” or “to line” (as in “to line a jacket, or a piece of fabric), signifying not only or necessarily a numerical increase, but an increase in texture, power, and potency. As one SVARA-nik wrote: “[I’m] thinking about ‘increase’ as being multidimensional. Not just longer on 2-D but thicker, deeper, and other dimensions beyond.” Torah is so great that when we learn together, it thickens the potency of our days.

As many of us are moving through an unprecedented experience of static and white noise, the texture that helps us define and distinguish one moment from another has vanished. A pervasive stale timelessness flattens so many of my days from moment to moment. Torah, the Rabbis and our bet midrash have taught me, can be a powerful antidote. Torah, whose root-meaning means “permeation” or “penetration,”  has enabled me to penetrate this static monotony to add dimensions and texture of living that are so hard to access. It has been uniquely through Torah-learning spaces that I’ve been able to find this multidimensional self and community. And it is through this lens, I believe, that we can read the Rabbis as claiming that this practice of “doing Torah” can truly “increase” our days. May we, now more than ever, draw on our tradition and our practice of learning together, to continue to support each other in adding texture, potency, and strength to our lives.

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