Last week, Elaina bookended her Hot Off the Shtender with the blessing for the study of Torah, la’asok b’divrei Torah, which ritually opens all of our learning at SVARA. In a siddur, when you look up the blessing for Torah study, you’ll actually often find three blessings, all derived from Masechet Brachot 11b.
On the daf, we learn the first blessing, the one we’re most familiar with in our batei midrash, from Rav Yehudah in the name of Shmuel. Then we learn that both Rabbi Yochanan and Rav Hamnuna each had a practice of reciting an additional blessing. They both bring their own personally crafted words to open the study of Torah. When you’re a scholar, tethering your learning to Holiness is pretty important. No wonder they couldn’t pick just one of these blessings to canonize in the siddur!
Here’s the second blessing in the sequence, in the words of Rabbi Yochanan:
וְהַעֲרֶב נָא יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ אֶת־דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָתְךָ בְּפִֽינוּ, וּבְפִי עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל. וְנִהְיֶה אֲנַֽחְנוּ, וְצֶאֱצָאֵֽינוּ, וְצֶאֱצָאֵי צֶאֱצָאֵינוּ, וְצֶאֱצָאֵי עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, כֻּלָּֽנוּ יוֹדְעֵי שְׁמֶֽךָ וְעוֹסְקֵי תוֹרָתֶךָ / וְלוֹמְדֵי תוֹרָתֶֽךָ לִשְׁמָהּ
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה, הַמְלַמֵּד תּוֹרָה לְעַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל
Please, G!d, make the words of Your Torah sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people. And may it be that we and our descendants, and the descendants of our descendants, and the descendants of Your people the House of Israel, will all know Your Name and be immersed in Your Torah / be students of Your Torah lishma. Blessed are You, Hashem, the One who teaches Torah to Their people, Israel.
I’m often struck when I recite this blessing by the musicality of the word for “descendant,” repeated four times in different forms: tze’e’tza’einu, our descendants; tze’e’tza’ei tze’e’tza’einu, the descendants of our descendants; and tze’etza’ei amcha, the descendants of Your people. צֶאֱצָאִים is derived from the root יצא, to go out, to go forth. On an etymological level, a descendant is one who goes forth from another–– an offspring or a sprout. As a queer person, I’m skeptical of encountering language in our texts that perpetuates biological-only definitions of family and lineage. Is there a way into this idea of tze’e’tza’im for me?
The Rabbis often considered their students to be their descendants, equal if not more important to them as their biological children, if they had them. Let’s flag here that they sometimes had problematic relationships to home and family, and would leave for long periods of time to study in yeshivot and disciple circles. In their absence, it was typically their wives, and other female caretakers, who would solely manage the labor of sustaining a home and raising children. This model, born out of patriarchy, is not one that I wish to uplift or promote.
And, as a queer femme who may or may not have children but who chooses and builds family in so many other ways, I often find glimpses of myself in this queer rabbinic notion of kinship and legacy. For chazal, our students and teachers are also our kin. When I read the word צֶאֱצָאִים in this blessing, I’m compelled to think expansively about all the ways we grow and nurture our family trees–– chosen and assigned; chevruta, rav, bestie, co-parent or comrade.
The root יצא rings powerfully for me this week, in its movement and dynamism. Our learning leaves us. It has to. It has places to get to. It didn’t start with us, and it doesn’t end with us. Our Torah learning, when it cultivates a legacy of descendants and beloveds, travels into the world and has an impact. It has movement, or, Movement. If it’s following the model of this blessing, it is moving us and others in the direction of Holiness, of G!d, of the sanctity and interconnectedness of all life.
We bless our learning that it move out into the next generations– the descendants of our descendants, the students of our students, and their students, and the great legacy of queer and trans, brave and compassionate, radical and transformative Talmud that we have and will cultivate together as a community.
Two weeks ago, we celebrated just that, as we graduated Cohort 2 from SVARA’s Teaching Kollel. Wrapping up two years of learning and training together, we looked at the cross-generational map of the ancient rabbis (see left), and situated ourselves on it, another generation carrying this lineage forward, growing a new branch on the tree. I found myself thinking about the end of this blessing.
Blessed are You, Hashem, the One who teaches Torah to Their people, Israel. In Rabbi Yochanan’s blessing, we learn Torah directly from the Holy One. We have been guided by something greater than ourselves, a life force that pulses through our learning and connects us back to the oneness at the source. Which means that when we teach, it is in the image of the divine, of the One who enables others to learn, grow and become more of themselves, through the teaching of Torah.
Torah is movement, and the intergenerational transmission of Torah can sustain Movements. May we learn and teach in respectful reflection of the Holy–– in our lifetimes, and in the lives of our kindreds and kin. And may it be so, so sweet, along the way.