I can conjure up many different memories that have to do with the High Holidays. I remember being a kid and choosing the overflow room to sit with my friends and pass the time during services, the grainy video playing on the rollaway television stand. I remember the 110-degree heat of El Centro, CA, the site of my first student pulpit where I led Rosh Hashanah services. I remember the selichot service where I met my partner one year ago.
This year things look quite different, and there is no precedent for what we are about to experience this season. As I prepare myself for this uncertainty, I’ve found it helpful to spend time learning and engaging with the texts of our tradition, which contain examples of unprecedented circumstances that not only call for innovation but also provide the delightful, knowing sensation that we have been here before and there are texts to prove it.
In SVARA’s daily Mishnah Collective we have been looking at the following teaching from Rabbi Chaninah found in Pirkei Avot 3:2:
רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶן תְּרַדְיוֹן אוֹמֵר, שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְאֵין בֵּינֵיהֶן דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, הֲרֵי זֶה מוֹשַׁב לֵצִים…אֲבָל שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְיֵשׁ בֵּינֵיהֶם דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, שְׁכִינָה שְׁרוּיָה בֵינֵיהֶם
R. Hananiah ben Teradion says, “If two [people] dwell together and there are no words of Torah between them, behold, this is bad company’s meeting”…but if there are words of Torah between two that dwell together, the Shekhinah dwells between them.”
Rabbi Chanina teaches that “bad company” is when two people are in relationship and there are no words of Torah between them. The Hebrew for “bad company” is moshav leitzim and literally means “a dwelling of scorners.” In other words, this is an environment rife with speech and behavior that leaves you feeling undignified and hurt. We might think, then, that when two people do have words of Torah between them, they would be seen as “good company.” But this is not so! When two people sit together, in a relationship, and there is Torah between them they are, according to Rabbi Chanina’s teaching, joined by the divine. The alternative to “bad” here is not “good,” it is Divine as the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, is presented as being deeply steeped in that relationship.
The text doesn’t actually say if people who have words of Torah between them can be considered “good company.” Having words of Torah is simply the opposite of not having words of Torah, and so “bad company” in one place is “good company” in another. But it doesn’t say so explicitly. Perhaps there is something to learn beyond whether one is in the midst of “good” company or “bad.” In a relationship where divrei Torah are breathed into being, the Divine Presence lands squarely in the middle. As the mishnah teaches: Shechinah shru’yah beinehem, “Shechinah takes lodging/dissolves between them.”
The core meaning of the root in sh’ruyah is to dissolve or to soak. I am picturing an Alka Seltzer tablet dropped into a glass of water: after a few seconds, the sizzling subsides and there you have a glass of infused water. Dissolution doesn’t necessarily mean disappearance. When the Alka Seltzer dissolves, it is nonetheless present in the glass of water. Understanding the root ש-ר-י to mean “to take lodging, dwell” it isn’t a hardy material dwelling. The word sh’ruyah signifies the absorption of the Divine into the space between two comrades talking Torah. Like the Alka Seltzer dissolved in water, the space in which you engage in words of Torah is effervescent, divine.
This teaches that when there is a relationship lacking divrei Torah – words, utterances, attempts of breathing Torah to life – that space is filled with “bad company.” Our Sages say that you shouldn’t lust after “good company,” but rather fill the space between you and your comrades with words of Torah. Shechinah will grace that space between you and steep into the very essence of your being. Even in the most difficult moments of the pandemic so far, I have experienced the divine not always by being in good company. When I lost my grandmother and when my expectations of a spring and summer were squashed, I positioned those experiences in my place in the chain of tradition, by speaking divrei Torah, a way of arranging words to restore a sense of honesty and wholeness.
As we move into a period that is so often punctuated by connection, I am feeling so aware of the huge spaces that have grown between myself and my comrades and loved ones. The conditions of distance and isolation that have emerged in this moment have created huge spaces within our communities and in our lives. Rabbi Chanina’s teaching reminds me that these spaces, though wider than ever before, can be filled in with words of Torah. I experience the divine every time I learn with SVARA on Zoom and when I wave to neighbors from a distance. Even when the space between us is widened by fiber-optic cables or a six-foot distance, I hear and speak words of Torah. As we allow our Torah to fill these spaces, I know the Shechina will join us and our connections to each other will be anchored by that.