On Wednesday morning I opened my front door, admittedly still wearing pajamas, with a rainbow alef-bet strip in hand. I was headed two doors down, to deliver the alef-bet strip to my neighbor’s front porch. Pulling open the door, I was startled and then delighted to find myself greeted by a loaf of sourdough bread in a bag. No bread fairy in sight, no note, just a loaf in front of my door. If this sounds like the beginning of a Talmudic legend to you, believe me, I also felt that way!
Allow me to offer some context. Over the past two weeks, across the country and the world, SVARA Faculty, Fellows, and Grassroots Leaders have begun convening online batei midrash (lit. houses of interpretation/study) as part of SVARA’s Spring Learning series, The Way of Talmud. These batei midrash are loosely local–– our intention is, whenever possible, to help folks connect to local networks in order to build relationships around mutual aid and ongoing coronavirus relief activism, and with the hope that when we are able to gather physically again, local learning communities will be even stronger. Of course, anyone is welcome to sign up for these batei midrash, which have become a hybrid of geographically local and geographically spread out. On Tuesday night, in the opening session of the bet midrash I’m teaching, I had folks learning with me from as close as my own block, and as far away as the Bay Area.
My neighbor Noah is learning in the bet midrash with me, and after our opening session he reached out to see if I had a spare alef-bet strip. If so, he asked, could I get it to him? Noah and I have been sharing all kinds of objects over these weeks of quarantine. I know where the basket on his front porch lives, where anything from face masks and grocery items to electric drills are borrowed and returned, delivered or traded, by neighbors in need. So I grabbed an alef-bet strip from my stash, and was making my way over to his porch when I discovered the loaf of bread. I didn’t know who had delivered the bread, and in fact I’d been on multiple text threads with neighbors who are baking, sharing yeast and flour with one another when needed. When I returned from Noah’s porch and brought in the loaf, I checked my phone, and saw a message from Sarah, also a learner in my bet midrash. The message read: “Check your front door before breakfast. It’s an old wives tale about the last Wednesday in April–I read about it in the Talmud last night 😉.” My heart filled with gratitude. She was joking about the old wives tale, but the underlying truth was our interconnectedness, facilitated by Talmud learning.
Scholar Daniel Boyarin argues that moreso than any particular physical location, the Talmud, and the modalities and practices with which we learn it, has been the diasporic homeland of the Jewish people across history. In his book A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora, Boyarin writes: “What renders Jewry diasporic are the connections with other Jews in other places all over the world, owing to common cultural discourses and practices, primarily the study of Talmud.” More than even the Torah, the Talmud has been the foundational text, the blueprint and launch pad for nearly all of Jewish practice as we live it today. And over centuries of diasporic migration, the Talmud has connected Jews. Even when we are radically different from one another, we have studied this text together, developing and exchanging discourse about it across borders and regions.
I felt this sense of Talmud as diaspora and homeland deeply last night, gathering virtually with learners both near and far, and knowing that in six other cities, similar hubs of hybrid local and distance learning were studying from the same text. In this historic time of physical distancing, I felt distinctly that the study of Talmud offered all of these different people, living in different circumstances, a shared place to dwell, play, explore and reflect together. A really big sandbox. And one that has played this role throughout many periods of suffering, uncertainty, and communal crisis throughout history. The Talmud itself is a diaspora– its pages full of voices across Palestine and Babylon, across the 1st through the 8th centuries, voices that were never able to speak to one another in person, but whose ideas are woven together to create an entirely new kind of conversation. A new place to gather and dwell.
In our bet midrash we’re studying a sugya from Berakhot 6a. It opens with Aba Binyamin, a 2nd century teacher, making a statement: “The prayer of a person is only heard in a synagogue.” Immediately, our group erupted into a collective: Really?! We’re praying for so much these days, and the idea that our prayers, needs, and longings would go unheard, because we can’t physically enter a synagogue, doesn’t make any sense.
The word for synagogue in Hebrew is bet ha’knesset, literally translated as “house of the gathering.” The root of k’nesset (כנס) has many meanings: to collect, gather, cover, shelter, bring home. One learner pointed out: “A house of gathering can be many things–– like gathering outdoors with other living creatures in nature, or gathering together over a Zoom call. It’s so helpful to use the inside translation. It shows us that the idea underneath ‘synagogue’ is much broader.” Another learner considered a different meaning: “I’m thinking about k’nesset as a place of shelter and protection. Maybe a bet ha’knesset is a place where we’re brought home to pray and advocate for one another, to intercede on our own behalf.” I was struck by this idea that precisely the places where we shelter are the places where our prayers for one another, prayers for protection and justice for our whole community, are heard.
There are so many ways to gather and to pray. There are so many ways to support each other these days. So many small and large gestures we can take to weave our lives together, to distribute resources, to advocate and intercede for those most impacted, to show kindness and generosity. And there are many modes of diaspora. Throughout our history, one of these modes has been the way of the Talmud. When we show up to the bet midrash we show up for one another’s growth, reflection and spiritual practice. We help each other crack codes, uncover meanings, and access ancient words. We offer each other a bit of respite from the anxiety of these times. We listen, witness, and share in the delights and struggles of our lives.
Our gathering in the bet midrash can yield other kinds of support and care as well. I was reminded of that on Wednesday morning, in a moment of simultaneous giving and receiving, with an alef-bet strip in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other. The bread of our homes and kitchens, the learning and teaching of ancient languages and wisdom, all linked by Talmud, our shared communal homeland, a place to dwell together and care deeply for one another. A place to be sheltered by our relationships and our learning.
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.
Passover’s over. Egypt is behind us. That first glimpse of liberation is exhilarating. You’re free! At least that’s the story we’re taught. But the journey to liberation can also be scary. Really scary. As every one of us knows, getting free isn’t a one-and-done. It never happens all at once. That first step is the most important, for sure, but then, after that, what’s next? How do we move from that first step to really rooting that liberation in our bodies, and in our lives?
This is where our stories can help us. This is where we can lean on the practices that our ancestors came up with to help us through those experiences that they knew we were going to have—because they had them, too. As the philosopher and Bible scholar Leon Kass says, “Our stories are so powerful not because they tell us what happened, but because they tell us what always happens.”
After leaving Egypt, our ancestors had no idea how long they would be wandering in the open desert—there was no way to count “down”–they had no destination. And our stories tell us that, when faced with the possibility of aimless, endless journeying, so many wanted to just go back because, well… that’s what always happens. That’s what people tend to do. It’s hard to be in the Wilderness. It’s a vast, empty place of nothingness, and there’s no map. No structure, no schedule, no end in sight. You’re not even sure what it’s going to look like when you get there. Sound familiar?
But our tradition knows how hard this desert moment is and that’s why, as soon as that first seder is over and we’ve left (our very own) Egypt, the tradition gives us a spiritual practice to hold onto until we get to our final destination—and even if we don’t. It’s a practice designed to strengthen our ability to take it one day at a time, and to use each day to get stronger and more resilient, and more loving, kind, and compassionate. It’s called “Counting the Omer,” counting the sheaves of the first grain harvest in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot.