Making the Tradition What We Say It Is

by Laynie Soloman, Associate Rosh Yeshiva & Director of Transformative Leadership

A photograph of a field. There is a tall spruce tree framing the shot on the left side, and two cows can be seen walking up the slope of a hill.

Content warning: This piece names historical anti-Jewish violence and current violence in Palestine.

Earlier this week, Israeli settlers carried out a pogrom in the Palestinian city Huwara. (Pogrom, which means “devastation” in Yiddish, refers to an organized outbreak of mass-violence that targets a specific group or community of people, and was first used to reference the particular mass-violence inflicted upon Jews in eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.) The event in and of itself is horrifying and a viral video of the scene pierced a layer beneath horrifying that I couldn’t—and still can’t—find words for. In the video, Huwara is on fire, and the settlers who left almost 400 people injured and over 40 homes destroyed are gathered together…praying. And when I listened closely, I could make out what they were saying: 

יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא

yehei shemei raba mevorakh l’olam u’lolmei almaya

Let the great name be blessed for ever and throughout eternity.

I felt nauseous and enraged and numb all at once.

My great great grandfather survived a pogrom in Kishinev. He and his wife ran to a local farmer’s home where they hid together in an ice box while violence ensued. My great grandmother lived through a pogrom in Romania. When she was a little girl and her father had come to the United States to earn money to send for her and her mother, Romanian soldiers moved into her house and used it as an outpost. They made her and her mother cook for them when they came back to her home each day after violently raging through her town. These stories are part of my history, but you don’t need a family pogrom story to see the hillul hashem—the desecration of G!d and sacredness that is so deeply antithetical to everything I understand Torah and our tradition to be about.

For years at SVARA we closed our learning with Kaddish De’Rabanan—a long version of kaddish that celebrates and honors the lineage of learning in community—in its entirety. It’s a long Aramaic poem-turned-prayer, and it—just like the other forms of kaddish—is said, at least in part, in order to elicit the core refrain:

יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא

Yehei shmei rabah mevarach le’alam ul’almei almayah

In March 2020 when we began our daily learning practice, we started saying just this refrain together to ritually close our learning. For years now I’ve learned deep, gorgeous, expansive, rad, queer Torah with and from y’all, and when we come to our closing moments I’ve taken a breath and we’ve said these words together.

This week I’ve said this refrain almost every day as I’ve taught, and it’s felt different. I’ve felt different. The words are the same, but something in the world has shifted. CRASH. 

This refrain first appears in a CRASH: it comes from a story in the Talmud (Berachot 3a) about Rabbi Yosei, who is wandering in the ruins of Jerusalem where the Temple used to stand and begins praying. He hears a divine voice—a bat kol—emerging from the ruins, “cooing like a dove” in despair over destroying the Jewish people and sending them into exile. Rabbi Yosei ends up running into Elijah (yes, the prophet) shortly thereafter, who teaches him the following:

וְאָמַר לִי: חַיֶּיךָ וְחַיֵּי רֹאשְׁךָ, לֹא שָׁעָה זוֹ בִּלְבַד אוֹמֶרֶת כָּךְ, אֶלָּא בְּכָל יוֹם וָיוֹם, שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים אוֹמֶרֶת כָּךְ. וְלֹא זוֹ בִּלְבַד אֶלָּא, בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל נִכְנָסִין לְבָתֵּי כְּנֵסִיּוֹת וּלְבָתֵּי מִדְרָשׁוֹת וְעוֹנִין ״יְהֵא שְׁמֵיהּ הַגָּדוֹל מְבֹורָךְ״, הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְנַעְנֵעַ רֹאשׁוֹ, וְאוֹמֵר: אַשְׁרֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ שֶׁמְּקַלְּסִין אוֹתוֹ בְּבֵיתוֹ כָּךְ

“By your life and by your head, not only did that voice cry out in that moment, but it cries out three times each and every day. Moreover, any time that God’s greatness is evoked, such as when Israel enters synagogues and study halls and answers in the kaddish prayer, May G!d’s great name be blessed, the Holy One, Blessed be G!d, shakes Their head and says: Happy is the King who is thus praised in his house!”

The refrain appears here in an earlier form, but is understood as the refrain from kaddish that punctuates our learning. In this story, G!d is in anguish over having destroyed the Temple, and finds comfort whenever and wherever we come together to learn and pray and the kaddish is recited. When we say this refrain, G!d shakes about, מְנַעְנֵעַ, from the root נוּעַ which means not just “to shake,” but also “to stir up,” “to move,” and “to be tender.” G!d tenderly moves each time we recite this refrain when we learn and when we pray. This refrain is G!d’s way, in the midst of exile, of being close to us; it’s how we draw G!d near without being in Their former home—the Temple. 

To me, saying this “yehei shmei…” as we close our learning helps me feel the power that the Rabbis imagine they—and we—have to evoke G!d wherever we are together, and, through our learning make G!d’s home together. 1

I don’t know what to do with the fact that this refrain was also used to punctuate a pogrom. 

It presses on some of my deepest questions about Torah and its liberatory project: in our community we spend a lot of time swimming in the joyful, expansive, free-ing space of learning. In these moments, it’s important for me to hold and feel that Torah is not inevitably liberatory. I know this, because I, too, have been hurt by Torah. But sometimes when I’m with y’all, I forget. It’s on us—in collaboration with HaShem and each other—to make Torah the liberatory project we say it is. 

This week I’ve been dedicating my learning to a free Palestine, and to Torah herself—that she may find herself—through each of us—expressed in ways that magnify sacredness, dignity, and justice.

1 I am grateful to SVARA Fellow Emet who offered a powerful teaching about this refrain earlier this week which helped me remember how it feels in my body to say this phrase every time we learn.

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