This week, as we all navigate a constantly shifting landscape of change, uncertainty, and global pandemic, SVARA began convening a daily Mishna Collective. It has been incredibly grounding to plug in daily to the diasporic SVARA learning community during such an overwhelming time. The opportunity to move slowly and methodically through a rabbinic text, aka Talmud Torah as a spiritual practice, has been an anchor in this storm.
We opened with the beginning of the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot, which explores the merits of studying Torah. We learned beautiful and hyperbolic things, for example that, according to Rabbi Meir, “every person who is involved in the practice of learning Torah… is deserving of the entire world,” and that Torah study makes one into “an ever-flowing spring, like a stream that never ceases.” From where we sit today, the claims the rabbis make in this text about the merits and benefits of Torah study might feel obvious to us. I mean… duh! Torah study is one of the most essential and valued elements of Judaism. What’s so compelling about finding out from Pirkei Avot that studying Torah distances us from wrongdoing, increases our strength and wisdom, or even gladdens the Holy One? I would have assumed as much from our ancient texts.
“They were replacing the logics of sacrifice with the logics of study, and embedding the DNA of Judaism with a new set of practices and priorities, to help us survive as our best, most spiritually and morally resourced selves in the generations to come.”
However, considering the Mishna’s historical context reveals just how bold its claims actually are.
Chanukah is filled with miracles—long-lasting surprise pockets of oil, an unexpected military victory, the legacy of zealous resistance in the face of hegemonic powers—but one of the most miraculous aspects of this holiday is how we even came to practice it at all.
Many scoff at the popularity of Chanukah, noting its religious insignificance when compared to other moments in the Jewish calendar, such as Yom Kippur or Rosh HaShanah. But despite its cosmic irrelevance, this tiny holiday has been reclaimed, remodeled, and re-imagined by Jewish communities throughout history.
Okay, so WTF is Chanukah and why is it such a thing?! The Talmud asks and answers this very question:
When the Greeks entered the sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were there. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the menorah for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holy days (yom tov) with recitation of Hallel and special thanksgiving. (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Shabbat 21b)
The origin story of this holiday is clear: it is instituted by the Sages to mark the miraculous victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greek army, along with the discovery of pure oil in an otherwise desecrated Temple. Here the Talmud’s authors draw our attention to the fact that the Sages themselves instituted Chanukah, making transparent the very human (and seemingly therefore not divine) establishment of this post-biblical holiday. Read More
The Jewish new year season tends to have one “star of the show”—teshuva, the practice of recognizing whom we’ve harmed and repairing that harm, addressing where we might have fallen short in becoming the people we want to be, and returning to right relationship with ourselves, with God, and with others. Resolving our relationships tends to take a front-row seat during this time of year. But it is often the case that the places in our lives where resolution is most difficult to achieve are not where we need to do teshuva with others, but actually where we are waiting for others to do teshuva with us. We assume that it is the other person’s responsibility to do the teshuva-lift, so to speak, and to approach us. And it is.
But it turns out that the tradition has another spiritual technology available to those of us who have been waiting—maybe with anger, or resentment, or maybe just with a hurt heart—for the person who hurt us to come and do teshuva with us, a teshuva which has not yet come, and which, otherwise, might never come. It’s called tochecha (Leviticus 19:17), typically translated as “rebuke,” and what I sometimes translate as “compassionate critique,” but, when done well, is much less confrontational and self-righteous than either of those translations make it out to be.
It’s the act of creating space for reconciliation when we are the harmed party, into which the one who harmed us and needs to do teshuva with us, but has not yet, might enter. It’s basically the process of helping them get on the teshuva train—primarily so that we can off-load the resentment and hurt we’re carrying. But also because, well, we’re supposed to care about each other’s well-being, and helping someone else do teshuva helps their well-being, too. Read More