…שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה
Shammai used to say: Make your learning fixed. Speak little, do much… (Masechet Avot 1:15)
Last Friday, SVARA’s Daily Mishnah Collective celebrated the completion (for now!) of our learning of Chapter 1 of Masechet Avot, where we found and explored this teaching from our sage Shammai, calling upon us to take action. And while we were learning it, extraordinary, inspiring, Black-led uprisings were taking place throughout our country and around the world.
Shammai uplifts the importance of doing more than we say—both doing more than we say we will do (perhaps under-promising and over-delivering) and also doing more than we talk. It’s not that Shammai intends to erase the power of speech here. We know that words are essential, that words create worlds. G!d famously speaks the world into being, and the rabbinic project is one of world-building through creative speech, giving us the “Oral Torah,” a Torah that is dreamed up and shaped by words. And we all know first-hand the pain of silence when our comrades fail to speak out about systemic oppression and harm done in our society to those like us. Speaking up is important, and is indeed a holy action.
But what we do is more important than what we say. We are, thank G!d, witnessing an uprising, one in which white & non-Black folks must act, right now, to do the sacred work of realizing our commitments to Black liberation. In this moment when many of us are exploring how to shape our behaviors and actions to align with the vision of liberation that we are all so desperately seeking, we have a timely reminder from our teacher Shammai about how this work happens. It happens when we do it. Read More
As I imagine many of you have, I’ve spent the week in alternating states of heartbreak, anger, and deep inspiration, as we live through a national uprising in support of the Movement for Black Lives.
This past weekend, SVARA participated in Up All Night: Torah for Liberation and Revelation, a nation-wide Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (a ritual celebration of all-night Torah learning) hosted by eight radical and leftist synagogues* across the country. Weeks ago, when the organizers of this event conceived it, they didn’t know it would take place during an uprising. As it turned out, it was incredibly powerful to gather with over 500 people across time zones and cities, an ingathering of the leftist Jewish diaspora in the United States, at a time of intense and igniting political action against racist police violence.
It was also deeply painful. In the opening session, Rabbi Ariana Katz named George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, as only the most recent of so many lost Black lives at the hands of police, and acknowledged our state of communal mourning. Later that night, while teaching a Talmud workshop, I found myself in a quiet moment while participants were off in breakout groups. A SVARA-nik from Seattle sent me a private greeting in the chat. I replied, excited to see her there, and as she turned on her video, I could see the weariness in her eyes. She explained that she was “stopping in” between her shifts supporting the Seattle George Floyd demonstrations. I asked her what she was doing in her support role, and she described tracking areas of the city where white nationalists were reported to be perpetrating violence against people of color, and communicating with other protest leaders to clear folks out of those areas or avoid them altogether. “A little girl was pepper-sprayed by the police,” she told me. “It’s been horrible out here.” Read More
There is no feeling like being in a full bet midrash. In the bet midrash I hear and feel the low hum of folks studying around me, and time is punctuated by the sound of chevruta high-fives and dictionary pages flipping. Surrounded by fellow seekers, tables of books, and unending snacks, pouring over open tractates of Talmud, the “house of study” has become a place where I come “home.” For me, this is revelation, and I think it was for the Rabbis, too.
The Revelation of Torah on Mount Sinai, our tradition tells us, was for all of us: we were all there– Jews of the past, along with all future Jewish people to come– at the foot of the mountain and we received Torah collectively. This is a defining feature of Torah, that we received it together, in community across time and space.
In the rabbinic imagination, studying Torah is a microcosm of Mount Sinai. Our Rabbis take this moment of collective revelatory experience and they tell us it is ours to access, whenever we want, whenever we take part in the central practice of the rabbinic project, the practice around which all others are shaped. Learning Torah becomes a pathway to bringing Sinai to us: in our daily lives we can manifest this moment into being: “each and every day the Torah is as dear to those who study it, as it was on the day it was given from Mount Sinai” (Berakhot 63b). Like the Revelation at Sinai, real learning happens collectively. Torah is acquired only in community (Berakhot 63b), the Rabbis teach. This feels so true to me—the learning that lives most deeply inside of me carries the energy of the bet midrash in which I’ve learned it. Torah is not an individual project; its unfolding teachings are shaped and passed down through relationships, through communities, and through chevrutot.
But now, as so many of us are heading into experiences of Shavuot in isolation, what are we to do without our communities? Knowing that the nature of Torah is to be learned in, with, and through a collective, what do we do when we are alone? Are we really learning Torah if we’re learning by ourselves? Read More