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"Renewal" and Open  Beit Midrash  Announcement

08/02/2017 12:39:49 PM


By Rabbi Zach Sitkin

“These are the words that Moses addressed to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” (Deut. 1:1)

No matter how hard I try to live in the moment time always manages to slip by too quickly. It is hard to believe that the summer is already approaching its midway point and that Tisha B’Av (the fast of the 9th of Av) is right around the corner. Some may even find this stressful, especially since many consider Tisha B’av to be the start of the High Holiday season. Traditionally, on this day Jews around the world mourn the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, but over the past few hundred years, Tisha B’av has become a stand-in for all Jewish suffering. The destruction of the Temple mirrors our own broken hearts, which we slowly begin to repair over the course of the holidays. As Rabbi Alan Lew writes in his book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, “the journey from Tisha B’Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from birth to death and back to renewal again...will help you chart the course of your own spiritual evolution. Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. Every one of us needs to move from anger to healing, from denial to consciousness, from boredom to renewal.” In the holiday cycle, Tisha B’av serves as a reminder that we too may be broken and in need of repair, and that this is the starting point but not the end.

If the High Holidays are about spiritual renewal then we ought to consider what we can do in order to begin that process. It isn’t realistic to expect that we can simply show up on Rosh Hashanah and expect a major transformation to occur. Renewal happens gradually and often requires a lot of hard work on our part. For me, a lot of the spiritual work I do during this time involves learning Torah. When I carve out time for Torah study I often find answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. Sometimes, but not always, I find that learning expands my mind and opens my heart to the wisdom Judaism has to offer the world.

At Beth El we believe that Limmud, or Jewish learning, can change lives and lead to renewal and transformation. This is why in November we are launching our Open Beit Midrash program. Traditionally, the Beit Midrash (“House of Study”) is the place where rabbis and scholars would congregate and pore over the Torah and other Jewish texts in order to better understand the essence of Judaism. The Beit Midrash is a laboratory of questioning, in which, we develop the tools to more effectively communicate the essence of Jewish life and values. In our Beit Midrash, it won’t matter if you grew up going to Jewish schools or whether you are just picking up a Jewish book for the first time; everyone is welcome. We invite you to be a part of our laboratory of question asking. The Open Beit Midrash is an opportunity to be a part of a non-judgmental space in the hopes of finding answers to questions we didn’t even know we had.

One night each week Rabbi Schuck, Rabbi Ethan Linden, the executive director of Ramah Berkshires, and I will each teach a class covering different areas of Jewish literature. The classes will cover everything from Chassidic thought to Jewish law to biblical commentaries. There will be food and drinks provided free of charge so we can begin each night of learning by sharing a glass of wine, or a l’chaim, and breaking bread with one another. On the last week of each month, instead of having three separate classes, a scholar will come and teach everyone something related to their field of expertise. Learning can also be a good way to honor the memory of loved ones who are no longer with us. As Jews, when someone we love passes away, there is a tradition to learn a text in their memory. Therefore, we are looking for people to sponsor nights of learning in the memory of their loved ones. It is our hope that we can continue to build a community of seekers and questioners, and that through the study of Torah, we can even begin a process of renewal and transformation.

A great example of the transformative power of Torah can be found in this week’s parasha, Devarim. The Israelites’ journey through the desert has come to its end, and now the time has come for Moses to say goodbye to the people he has lead for over 40 years. Setting the scene at the bank of the Jordan River, the book of Deuteronomy opens with the following verse: “These are the words (Devarim) that Moses addressed to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan”. Unsurprisingly, the rabbis find this opening line peculiar. “How is it” the Midrash asks, “that Moses is able to speak so freely to the Israelites given his difficulties with speech in the past? Yesterday you said to us, ‘I am slow of speech and slow of tongue (ex.4:10)’ but now you have so much to say!” The Israelites notice a significant change in Moses and they wonder what happened between here and the exodus from Egypt that allows Moses to speak with such ease. The Midrash answers with a teaching from Rabbi Yitzchak: “Rabbi Yitzchak replied, ‘when you are slow of speech, learn Torah and you will be healed, just as Moses learned Torah in the desert.” The Midrash believes that the solution to being slow of speech is learning, but how exactly does that work?

The Meor Einayim, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, teaches that when the Israelites were in Egypt their knowledge of God was in exile. As long as the Israelites suffered at the hands of the Egyptians, constrained by the narrow straits of Egypt, they had very little knowledge of the God of their ancestors. Since Moses was in Egypt with them, he too lacks any knowledge of God, which limits his ability to articulate his mission. When he says that he is slow of speech what he means to say is that he lacks the words, or the wisdom, to lead. However, over the course of 40 years Moses continues to learn from God, and through God’s revelation of Torah, Moses gains the tools to be able to communicate with his community. Moses transforms himself from an Egyptian, who is slow of speech, lacking any knowledge of the Hebrew God, into the greatest teacher in the history of the Jewish people. I imagine most of us can think of moments where learning something new expanded our understanding of life. But what the Meor Einayim wants to teach us is that when we take the time to learn Torah, we may find that it has the power to truly change our lives. What the rabbis wish for us to understand is that learning the wisdom of our tradition can become a pathway to renewal and transformation; it can give us the tools to communicate with one another in ways we never even considered. Like Moses, we too can be empowered to find our voice. We all ought to consider giving ourselves the gift of learning, because we may find that Torah really does have the power to change our lives.


Sun, March 29 2020 4 Nisan 5780