Reaching for Torah

by Becky Silverstein, SVARA Faculty

Two people are seated at a picnic table, outside amid grass and trees. The person on the left is wearing a blue kippah atop short brown hair and the person on right has grey and blue hair and is wearing a purple tank top. The table is overflowing with Talmud learning tools like dictionaries, shtenders, and colorful SVARA materials. Behind them is a tent and a colorful sign attached to it.

Yesterday morning, I had the honor of sitting on a beit din for a conversion. It is always a blessing to be present as individuals commit themselves to our ancient and holy tradition. As I walked to the wet side of the mikvah and entered the area outside of the ritual bath, I was enveloped in warm, slightly humid air, and in quiet. My colleague offered the opportunity to give the person converting a blessing before they immersed and I couldn’t help but name in my opening that I was overwhelmed by the tranquility of the space we were in, by the calm, by the stark contrast to the world of war and protest and violence that I had been swimming in since the end of Passover. Images of the NYPD entering Hamilton Hall from an elevated lift, stories of students feeling unsafe, videos (which I verified) of Jewish ritual in Palestinian solidarity encampments. My heart could hardly hold the possibility of quiet. For a brief moment I was lost. If I had been alone I might have sunk to the floor and wept.

Rather than weeping, I grasped for the words of a blessing. Reminding myself that we are on a communal journey from liberation to covenant, from revelation at the sea to revelation at Mt Sinai, I reached for Torah. 

In the Talmud, we read an often-cited story about Moses being transmitted into the future and visiting Rabbi Akiva’s Beit Midrash (Menachot 29b):

הלך וישב בסוף שמונה שורות ולא היה יודע מה הן אומרים תשש כחו כיון שהגיע לדבר אחד אמרו לו תלמידיו רבי מנין לך אמר להן הלכה למשה מסיני נתיישבה דעתו

Moses went and sat at the end of the 8th row of Rabbi Akiva’s Beit Midrash. He did not recognize what they were saying. His strength waned. When Rabbi Akiva reached a specific point in his teaching, his students asked him “where is this from? Rabbi Akiva responded “It is halakha given to Moses at Mt Sinai. Moses’ mind was set at ease.

“His strength waned.” I imagine Moses sinking to the floor and weeping. And yet, his spirit is revived through the mention of the chain of transmission of Torah, despite it being unrecognizable to him.

Why did Rabbi Akiva attribute the teaching to Moses at Sinai? Akiva certainly wasn’t at Sinai to learn it, and even if he was, the rabbinic tradition teaches several different ideas about what exactly was given at Mt Sinai: one letter! Part of the Torah! All of the Torah that was, is, and ever will be revealed. Still, Rabbi Akiva is certain that he is teaching something given to Moses at Sinai. By doing this, Rabbi Akiva places himself squarely in the chain of transmission, without hesitation and without criticism, and reveals the power of doing so.  

Why does Moses believe him? What Rabbi Akiva teaches is unrecognizable to him! Did he forget it? Was he confused by his surroundings and that made it more difficult to connect to the teaching? Perhaps Moses suddenly understands the power of being a conduit for Torah–enabling the generations that followed him to create their own interpretations and understandings.  

This moment of acceptance that an unrecognizable nugget of Jewish law might be connected to revelation at Sinai is an idea that I think might help navigate the painful moment of Jewish communal conflict being made more explicit by the war and death in Gaza, by the absence of hostages and ongoing trauma in Israel. The word used to characterize Rabbi Akiva’s teaching is halakha, meaning how we live Judaism. What would it mean to believe that the ways we see each other living Judaism, even if they are unrecognizable to us, are still authentic expressions of Torah and connected to revelation at Mt. Sinai? What would it mean to be unequivocal in claiming each other as Jews, even across significant differences not just in religious and cultural practices but also political understandings and longings? Even across our orientation to big, worldview-level concepts like our understandings of safety, peoplehood, and the importance (or lack thereof) of the nation-state?

To be honest, peoplehood is not an easy concept for me. I have struggled to understand how a religious Jew could be at the center of so much hate towards the trans community. And I struggle to understand how a love of Torah could push a continuation of a war that has no end in sight and has yielded so much death, that punishes children for the wrongs of their parents.  

This period of journeying from Passover to Shavuot is characterized by counting the omer. This period of time is also characterized by mourning. We learn on Yevamot 62b:  

אָמְרוּ: שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר אָלֶף זוּגִים תַּלְמִידִים הָיוּ לוֹ לְרַבִּי עֲקִיבָא מִגְּבָת עַד אַנְטִיפְרַס, וְכוּלָּן מֵתוּ בְּפֶרֶק אֶחָד, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁלֹּא נָהֲגוּ כָּבוֹד זֶה לָזֶה. וְהָיָה הָעוֹלָם שָׁמֵם, עַד שֶׁבָּא רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אֵצֶל רַבּוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁבַּדָּרוֹם וּשְׁנָאָהּ לָהֶם: רַבִּי מֵאִיר, וְרַבִּי יְהוּדָה, וְרַבִּי יוֹסֵי, וְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן, וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן שַׁמּוּעַ, וְהֵם הֵם הֶעֱמִידוּ תּוֹרָה אוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה.

They said: Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students from Gevat to Antipatris and they all died in one period of time, because they did not act towards each other with respect. And the world was desolate, until Rabbi Akiva came to our Rabbis in the South and taught his Torah to them: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosei, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. And these are the ones who upheld Torah at that time. 

Rabbi Akiva’s students did not act towards each other with kavod, with respect or weightiness. The Maharsha, a 16th century Polish commentator, understands this to mean that they did not seek to learn each other’s Torah. They weren’t able, or willing, to recognize each other’s insights or practices as authentic expressions of Torah. As a result, not only did they lose their own lives, but the world was devoid of Torah learning. I dare not imagine such a world. 

As we count the omer, we move farther in our narrative from the experience of slavery and oppression and closer to adopting a covenant between us and G-d, and between each other. While the Israelites were wandering in anticipation of the unknown, we know where we are headed. Our experience is one of receiving Torah in the midst of lives filled with Torah, of balancing what we know with possibility of maintaining the covenant while also moving towards its renewal. For me, the central questions are: Who do we want to be as individuals at Sinai? And how do we want to relate to each other? 

This word, Torah, might be all we have. From the beginning, the sages understood that each of us was given different things and each of us understood those things differently. That is beautiful.

Part of what is so challenging in this moment is holding the multivocality of Torah while also seeing the way in which other people’s interpretations are doing harm.

Perhaps the best we can do is offer each other the blessing the psalmist places in Moses’ words in Psalm 90. The midrash understands this blessing as a sign that the holy one rests on our hands and it comes as part of the intention before reciting the blessing over counting the omer. May it serve now as a reminder that we must look for the Torah in each other’s hearts.

וִיהִ֤י ׀ נֹ֤עַם אֲדֹנָ֥י אֱלֹהֵ֗ינוּ עָ֫לֵ֥ינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָ֭דֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָ֥ה עָלֵ֑ינוּ וּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָ֝דֵ֗ינוּ כּוֹנְנֵֽהוּ׃

May the pleasantness of Adonai, our Gd, be upon us, and the work of our hands firmly established for us, and the work of our hands firmly established! *

( * Using Robert Alter’s translation of the Psalm as a starting point, some small adjustments were made)


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