In the bet midrash, in meetings, and in conversations with SVARA-niks and community members week after week, I hear a refrain: We are holding so much grief. But it is a stagnant and stuck grief. It is heavy in our bodies, lodged in our bones, and in our hearts. We are faced with a daily onslaught of information that traumatizes us, each day offering a new overwhelming tragedy or injustice to our hearts and bodies that are already overflowing. Our government attempts to normalize an oppressive and devastating status quo, which denies us the opportunity to fully register what’s happening.
Our usual mechanisms for feeling and expressing personal and collective pain aren’t available to us: hugs, communal song, public ritual, breaking bread with community, and sharing stories of our loved ones, along with so many of the ways our bodies rely on being witnessed and connected in order to move through and release our grief and pain.
Doing “teshuva“—making space for self-accounting, reconciliation, and presenting ourselves to those who have done harm to us—this season feels impossible: how can we do the sacred work of repair with so little space inside our hearts? I’m reaching the end of a year of personal loss—as y’all who have been in the bet midrash with me this year know, I’ve been dedicating my learning to the memory of my Bubbie, who passed during this season in 5780. As I grieve this personal loss and feel it compounded with collective grief and daily heartbreak, I am feeling the pieces of deep sadness that are lodged inside of me, inside of my body, halting and shortening my breath, tightening my stomach, shrinking my posture.
Everything is stuck, and we don’t have a way to let it out. This season I’ve been asking myself: How can I—how can we all—open? Without the practices we’re accustomed to, what can help us to feel so that we may begin to repair?
As though they knew this moment would come, the Rabbis offer us a powerful practice to nurture the softness and porousness we often need for connection and healing: learning. For me, learning Torah this year has worked my heart and helped my grief move through me.
Our sages demonstrate this power when they tell us about the origins of the prolific teacher Rabbi Akiva, noting that, according to tradition, he came to learn Torah at the age of 40. What brought him to this path?
פעם אחת היה עומד על פי הבאר אמר מי חקק אבן זו אמרו לא המים שתדיר [נופלים] עליה בכל יום אמרו [לו] עקיבא אי אתה קורא אבנים שחקו מים. מיד היה רבי עקיבא דן קל וחומר בעצמו מה רך פסל את הקשה דברי תורה שקשה כברזל על אחת כמה וכמה שיחקקו את לבי שהוא בשר ודם. מיד חזר ללמוד תורה
Once, he was standing at the mouth of a well and he said: Who carved a hole in this stone? They said to him: It is from the water, which constantly [falls] on it, day after day. And they said: Akiva, don’t you know this from the verse (Job 14:19), “Water erodes stones”? Rabbi Akiva immediately applied this, all the more so, to himself. He said: If something soft can carve something hard, then all the more so, the words of Torah, which are like steel, can engrave themselves on my heart, which is but flesh and blood. He immediately went to start studying Torah.
The story tells us that Rabbi Akiva immediately brought himself to his son’s school, and began studying the alef-bet. He learned each of the letters, according to the rabbinic legend, until he moved to start learning verses from Torah, and then eventually began studying mishnah, one law at a time. Rabbi Akiva tells us about the power of Torah to work our hearts; if water can erode a stone over time, how great an impact can Torah have on a heart?!
So, too, for all of us. Torah is here to erode the places in us that have hardened like stone. Letter by letter, word by word, teaching by teaching, our tradition is here to—in its best moments—soften our habituated callousness and bring us into deeper relationships with ourselves, our chevrutot, and the world.
Each time I pause to dedicate my learning, my heart opens just a little bit.
Each time I sit—virtually—across from my chevruta with an open masechet, my heart opens.
Each time I feel myself fully present, chasing down roots & exploring connections, my heart opens.
Each time I listen to a new insight from a chevruta or a student or a comrade, my heart opens.
Each time I lean into the vulnerability of sharing what a text means to me, my heart opens.
Torah, our tradition’s word for wisdom and collective teachings, is here to soften me and work my heart when it feels like nothing else can. Torah, which comes from the root ירי/ירה, meaning “to permeate” or “to penetrate” is here to crack us open, to permeate and pierce through the callouses we build. Learning Torah is about staying soft and porous enough that we can be open to teachings, insights, wisdom, and new understandings.
In our liturgy, we proclaim: פתח לבי בתורתך, patach libi be’toratecha / “open my heart be’toratecha,” often translated as “open my heart to your Torah.” Traditionally this line has been read as a plea to G!d to help us connect more actively to our learning. But y’all know that if we read this prefix ‘ב’ more sharply, we might translate this as “open my heart through your Torah.” Help us to—through our presence and connection in our learning—open our hearts more fully. Help us feel the power of Torah to work our hearts. Help us find the Torah we need to feel our grief. Help us to be vulnerable and present. Help us to be open enough to dislodge what is stuck and create space for repair.