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Toiling in Torah

Dvar Haftarah: Toiling in Torah

Rabbi Leah Jordan,  Conservative Yeshiva Student, 2019-20

“God yearns for us to toil in Torah. So says the Sifra about this week’s parsha, Behar-Behukotai, on the famous opening verse, “If you walk in My laws and keep my mitzvot.” (Leviticus 26:3)

We must be ” amilim ba-Torah.” The verb  ah-mal, toil, suggests physical labor, but perhaps also emotional or spiritual work. It implies, too, that the work might be hard, maybe even inherently a struggle. And God’s “yearning” for us to do this toil shows God’s own desire to be in relationship with us through it.

For the past two years, I forsook life partner, career, and home to toil in Torah in Jerusalem. So I’ve been asking myself if I might have any insight into what this toil might entail.

First, like any work, you need tools, teammates, guidance, sustenance. I have found that toiling in Torah can be lonely work. It is in some ways ascetic. Early mornings and late evenings. For me, a lot of oatmeal and no partner to come home to. Putting a lot of one’s physical desires (for the sun! outdoors!) on hold and living on a student budget.

The companionship of the beit midrash therefore is everything. And the devotion of my chevrutas, the expectation that they were waiting for me to start the work together, made plowing the furrows together possible.  And the mentorship of my teachers, who in the analogy of ‘toil’ are not the bosses but perhaps rather the foremen, set an example that we all strove to follow. Their one-on-one feedback, their care and relationship tending, made the toil worthwhile.

The Talmud says that the “competition of scholars increases wisdom.” In my experience, this is true, but also a difficult reality. One of the most paradigmatic yeshiva buchers I know, when I asked them what their main experience of toiling in Torah was, said they were angry a lot of the time. In my experience, toiling in Torah involves a lot of fighting one’s own demons of ego and intellect and expectation.

At the same time, if the toil  happens only in the beit midrash, surely it is not fulfilling the command of this parsha to walk in God’s ways, which must also be in the world. Life goes on. And as the pandemic crashing into us in the middle of our second semester at the Conservative Yeshiva proves, our toil in Torah is not an island outside of time, but intimately vulnerable to the world’s shared struggles. God’s yearning for us to follow in Their ways through this engaged struggle means questions of spiritual and moral purpose are real.

All of us who have sat in the Conservative Yeshiva’s beit midrash are lucky. We have had the privilege to meet God’s yearning for us through our toil.  I certainly felt so every day. I hope that our toil will bear fruit. Our toil in Torah must be translated into mitzvot, acts of toil in and for the world. Just like the toil in the beit midrash, this work is ongoing and requires many partners to sustain us. Walking in God’s laws in this way is intense and joyful and painful and necessary.”

In my work at Gentle Path Counselling, I encourage people to challenge themselves to create positive change in their lives. The change should be challenging enough to be personally fulfilling, but not so challenging that it will or cannot be accomplished. The Haftarah this week refers to actions requiring challenge and sacrifice as a means to fulfillment.

Shabbat Shalom/Gut Shabbas,

Bruce

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