Rosh Hashanah I 5783: Sweet as Honey

I was a sophomore in college when I had the most frustrating Jewish experience of my life. I finally worked up the courage to attend Shabbat services and dinner at Rutgers Hillel. Having grown up in the Reform movement, I attended Kabbalat Shabbat services with the Rutgers Reform community. When it came time for the entire community to join together for dinner, I was invited to sit with a friend with whom I had worked at a JCC day camp in NJ. I recall joining everyone else at my table as we stood for Kiddush. Then, everyone else at my table walked away from me. I was very confused, but determined to learn. When my friend came back to the table I immediately asked her what was going on. She was a kind soul, but politely put her finger over her lips to indicate that now was a time for silence. I felt awful, embarrassed, and confused. After the motzi, my friend explained to me that we have a custom to remain silent in between ritual handwashing and saying the blessing over, and eating, bread. We know more so now than ever that our hands are not always the cleanest. Even without a pandemic, our Sages were aware of this as well. They discussed that a priest should wash his hands prior to eating bread. As we are mention to be a “kingdom of priests”, they required that we all eat with clean hands. This reminds me of a funny sign I once saw in a restroom that read, “Employees must wash hands. If an employee is not available, please wash your own.” Our tradition puts such an emphasis on this mitzvah that it says that not washing our hands can lead to poverty and that washing ones hands offers protection for the entirety of the meal. Obviously, I was unaware of all of this at the time. My ignorance made me angry.

I’ve heard versions of this story told by many over the years. I am far from the only one. My culturally Jewish background and my supplementary religious education had ill prepared me for meaningful engagement with even the most basic of traditional Jewish observances. My family belonged to a synagogue. I attended Hebrew School as many as three days a week. My parents volunteered. I participated in youth groups, played in the synagogue band, and checked Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation off of the list. Yet, my first adult Jewish experiences left me feeling inadequate and angry. In my case, these emotions motivated me. I began taking Hebrew and Jewish Studies classes. I took every opportunity available to immerse myself in Jewish learning and community. I discovered the power of the Jewish classroom as a student and as a teacher. Ultimately, I fell in love with Torah learning.

We are meant to love Torah learning. In fact, the Talmud (BT Bava Metzia 85b) oddly argues that the First Temple was destroyed because we loved Torah so much and were so eager to learn it, that we would forget to recite a blessing before Torah learning. In our joy, we forgot to recognize the Divine who revealed Torah to us. It is worth calling our attention to the blessing we recite before we learn Torah. We are familiar with the first part of this blessing, “We bless You, Hashem, our God, Universal Ruler, who makes our lives holy with mitzvot and commanded us la’asok b’divrei Torah, to engage with the words of Torah.” The second paragraph of this blessing is a prayer that our mouths should be filled with the sweetness of Torah. That we, and our children, should enjoy Torah learning for its own sake, without fear of punishment or hope for reward. When I was in college, I discovered the joy of learning Torah in this way, and the sweetness it added to my life.

Stories are told, some as many as 700 years old, of young children who would be brought to the synagogue or to the home of their teacher when it was time for them to begin their formal learning. Tablets would be prepared with Hebrew letters on them. The children would repeat the names of the letters after their teacher and the teacher would reward the students by placing a drop of honey on the corner of the tablet for the student to taste. After this, the child would be given some cake with more honey on it and an egg, hoping the food would open the child’s heart toward learning. As they ate, the teacher would recite a verse from the Book of Ezekiel (3:3), “’Feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scroll that I give you.’ I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey to me.”

As a parent, I hope to pass the connection between Torah learning and sweetness on to my children. You may be familiar with the Hadar Institute in New York. Hadar’s mission is to empower Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of TorahAvodah, and Hesed. I had the honor of participating in a Hadar fellowship this past July. Last winter, my friends, Gussie and David Singer, introduced me to a wonderful resource that the Hadar institute produces called, “Devash.” This weekly parashah magazine for children and families is outstanding. “Devash,” meaning honey, is a reference to the sweetness of Torah learning mentioned in our blessing before Torah Study. It has become a necessary fixture as we set our Shabbat table each week. The magazine highlights texts from each week’s Torah portion. It introduces Midrash and Medieval Torah commentary. It provides an opportunity to get to know the personalities of our rabbinic sages. There are Hebrew lessons, opportunities for lively debate, interesting facts about Torah trope, and a parashah scavenger hunt. One of my favorite sections invites readers to participate in the halachic process.  Yes, the magazine uses an informal style, rich illustrations, and creates opportunities for engagement and interaction. However, that is not, in my opinion, why it is so successful. On the back of every magazine you will find its mission printed. This mission begins, “Devash is a weekly parashah magazine that makes learning Torah sweet. By engaging directly with texts and taking kids seriously as Jews, Devash helps children and grownups discover new ideas, values, and sweet morsels in the weekly Torah portion.” I can’t read the line about taking kids seriously as Jews without a huge knowing smile appearing on my face. As a rabbi and an educator, I have long witnessed the enormous disservice to our people in the way that we teach our children. Too often, we do not take our children seriously as Jews. Too often we do not take ourselves seriously as Jews. We teach our children watered down versions of our stories, we do not engage them in our legal process, and we separate them from our ritual and deprive them of their innate desire for Divine connection. Much of this presents them with a vision of Jewish life that is easy to grow out of and leave behind.

I was fortunate, that just as I was prepared to grow out of and leave behind my childhood Jewish education, I was given experiences that introduced me to vibrant, beautiful, challenging, affirming, and living Jewish life and practice. This just so happens to be central to our educational vision here at Congregation Shaarey Tikvah. Long ago, we left behind the supplementary school model which has been proven to do more to damage than support to long term Jewish identity. While we aim to provide thoughtful breaks and relationship building time to our youngest congregants, our true goal on Saturday morning is for them to actively participate in the vibrancy of our community. Our children learn from our community that it is important to be here. They see us shuckling with our faces pressed into our siddurim, yearning for connection. They see us taking breaks to kibbitz with each other! To be clear, I’m not judging and I spend a fair amount of time kibitzing myself during services. Once again, this is an opportunity for our children to see how we care for one another and to witness the strength of our relationships. Our children hear us asking questions, discovering answers, and see us embracing ritual. Many of you bring books to read during Shabbat morning services. Our children bring books, toys, and games, but their spongy brains are also soaking up the atmosphere we create around them.

Our tradition provides us with a model for revealing Torah that is both communal and individual. Among our most sacred communal experiences are the Exodus from Egypt and revelation at Mt. Sinai. The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:2:2) likens the moment of revelation to a kiss. It teaches that, “Each element of the Torah would make the rounds to each and every Jew and say to each of us: Do you accept me? I contain this set of commandments, these are the rules and the consequences I carry, here are the finer points of my observance and here are the benefits I offer.” At this point, each individual in our nation accepted each individual commandment. After doing so, the words of Torah themselves would kiss each individual Israelite and retreat. A kiss, of course, is an extremely personal and intimate act. This entire Midrash is in fulfillment of the verse in Deuteronomy 4:9, which reads, “…do not forget the words that you saw with your own eyes…” According to this Midrash, our revelation was much more than collective. Each of us were given the opportunity to become intimately and personally acquainted with the words of Torah. Our verse in Deuteronomy 4:9 continues, “…and make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” We are to be exemplars of serious Torah learning for future generations.

In our shul, we have a sense of ourselves as being a learned community. Each year, I look at the lineup of teachers at our Community Tikkun Leyl Shavuot and marvel at how our Shaarey Tikvah members generally make up some forty percent of those who teach sessions at that event. Please don’t get me wrong, this self-image is wonderful and it is true. However, I think there is an aspect of this self-image that is doing harm. How much greater of an impact could we have if we were known as much for being learners as we are teachers? What would our newer members and our youngest members learn from seeing us more regularly engage in Torah study together?

I was recently approached by some members of our newly-formed Shaarey Tikvah Young Professionals group. Many of them have been going to other local Young Professionals gatherings. The same old bar nights with an emphasis on finding other Jews to date. Our Young Professionals wanted something different. They took the initiative and scheduled monthly gatherings with potluck dinners and Torah learning. The invited me to come teach at the first one and to work with them so they could learn how to take charge of their own learning. I was so inspired by this vision and this invitation. I invite all of us to make learning Torah in this way a priority in 5783.

Over the past six years, I’ve experimented with various educational offerings for our community. Some have been successful and many have not. I am extremely proud to report that our Midweek Mishnah class has completed learning seven entire tractates of Mishnah and will soon begin our eighth.  I have another small group that spent a year learning every parashah in the Torah, continued to learn all the books of the Prophets, and is now making our way through the Book of Psalms. I’d like to invite all of you to join me in a new learning endeavor. Beginning next month, I will offer a monthly Shabbat Shiur, a Shabbat lesson late afternoon on Saturdays. We will gather at the shul to explore traditional responses to some of the pressing issues of our day. The first three Shabbat Shiurim will explore the halacha of gun control, welcoming the stranger, and the meaning of Tikkun Olam. Surrounding our learning, we’ll also do some singing and enjoy seudah shlishit, the traditional third Shabbat meal. Stay tuned for more info, I look forward to seeing you all there. I look forward to witnessing the fruits of our community engaging more in serious Torah learning.

The Bible gives us an example of what happens when we do not take our responsibility to learn Torah seriously. In the Book of Nehemiah, we read about Ezra, the Priest who reintroduced the Torah to the people of Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile. It was on this day, Rosh Hashanah, that Ezra stood all day at the Water Gate and taught Torah to the men, women, and children of Israel. Upon hearing of all the Torah they had neglected, and perhaps after learning that it was Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement, the people began to cry. A bit later on in the book, Nehemiah turns his attention toward the children. He comments, “The children speak the language of Ashdod and the language of various peoples, but the kids don’t speak Jewish!” There is something about this statement that strikes fear in my heart. I’m guessing that many of you worry about this as well. Almost without fail, whenever I’ve had the opportunity to speak to groups of older Jews I am asked the question, “How can we ensure that our grandchildren will be Jewish?” The Book of Nehemiah reminds us that this is a question that has concerned Jews for more than two and a half millennia.

A little over 500 years after Ezra taught Torah at the Water Gate, the Great Rabbi Akiva was teacher to tens of thousands of disciples. The Talmud relates a story of Moses, who began getting antsy waiting for the Master of the Universe to finish writing the Torah. Moses asks God why the Divine is painstakingly topping some of the letters in the Torah with decorative crowns. God explains that in the future there will be a man named Akiva who will be so intimately engaged with Torah that he will interpret laws from those very crowns. In that moment, Moses is transported to the study hall of Rabbi Akiva. Upon arriving, he is shocked to learn how little he understands of the discourse. Moses is finally appeased when he hears that Rabbi Akiva is teaching Torah and sourcing his teaching as the law that Moses gave at Sinai. The great Rabbi Akiva may have been handsome, but he was illiterate until the age of 40. Insisting that he become a learned man, his wife sent him to learn Torah for twenty-four years. At the age of 64, he became known as Chief among the Sages. (BT Menahot 29b and Nedarim 50a) Even at Mount Sinai Moses fretted that our tradition would be lost to future generations, only to be introduced to a man who engaged with Torah as an adult and surpassed even Moses in his understanding of Torah.

Today, nearly 3500 years after receiving the Torah, and almost two thousand years after the death of Rabbi Akiva, we honor Torah as we sing Deuteronomy 33:4, “Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehilat Ya’akov.” “The teaching that Moses charged us with, the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.” Yes, that same Torah that Moses impatiently awaited atop Mt. Sinai is ours. But that doesn’t mean that we should be complacent. The Mishnah in Pirke Avot pushes back on the idea that the Torah is simply something that each generation of Jews inherits. Rabbi Yose famously teaches, “Make yourself fit to study Torah for it will not be yours by inheritance.” (Avot 2:12) Loving Torah and experiencing its sweetness is not going to be our experience without our engaging with it intentionally and meaningfully.

If we want 5783 to truly be a sweet year, I encourage all of us to make it a priority to engage in serious and meaningful Torah learning. This is Torah learning that does not affirm our preconceived notions, but challenges us to consider different perspectives. This is Torah learning that invites us to seriously engage with prayer, ritual, and the legal process. This is Torah learning that challenges us to confront that which we do not know.

I have had the blessing to spend many hours in the study hall since the awkward experience of my first Hillel Shabbat dinner. Yet, I still do not know as much Torah as my greatest teachers have forgotten. And so I would like to conclude with another story of not knowing, one of my favorites from the Midrash on the Song of Songs:

Rabbi Elazar traveled to a certain community. When it came time to pray, the community invited the sage to lead them in prayer, to recite the Shema. At first, Rabbi Elazar chose arrogance. He argued that it was inappropriate for such a great scholar to spend his time leading a community in prayer. The community was not having any of it. “Aren’t you a spiritual leader? Haven’t you learned how to lead a community in prayer? Have we called upon you in vain?” In that moment, Rabbi Elazar’s face turned the color of saffron and he ran off.

Rabbi Elazar went to visit his teacher, Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva immediately noticed something was wrong with his student and inquired. Rabbi Elazar told his teacher the whole embarrassing story. The community had asked him to lead them in prayer and he did not know how.  As any good teacher would have responded, Rabbi Akiva said, “Would you like me to teach you?”

After a few days, Rabbi Elazar returned to that community. Once again, the people there invited him to lead them in prayer. This time, Rabbi Elazar did. The community gave Rabbi Elazar a nickname. They called him, “tempered,” for he had become stronger in the way a smith tempers metal to improve its strength and elasticity.

As we enter into 5783, may we be so tempered. May we embrace that which we do not know and engage in Torah learning with honesty, curiosity, and dedication. May future generations follow our example and work to inherit a legacy of Torah that is filling and sweet.

Shana Tovah u’Metukah. Tikatayvu v’tichataymu. May this year’s sweetness bring blessings to all of us.

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