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6.2.2017 Weekly Torah Portion

PostPosted: Fri Jun 02, 2017 7:58 pm
by RabbiMark
Eitz chayim hi lamachazikim bah, v'tom'cheha m'ushar… “It is a tree of life to them who hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy”

We chant these verses at the end of the Torah service during Shabbat and Festival celebrations. And, this past Tuesday night, as our community engaged in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night study session, Torah was indeed a source of life and celebration as we welcomed the start of the Shavuot holiday. From 8pm until 6am, over twenty-five residents, staff, and community members served as our teachers, sharing personal stories and life lessons drawn from revelatory words of wisdom that have guided them… through struggle, loss, accomplishments, and celebrations.

I eagerly look forward to this annual event, as I find that it reflects some of the best attributes of our community. The evening is filled with moments of shared learning, often unscripted, that demonstrates the deep creative and insightful spirit which flows throughout our community.

This year a few of the highlights included a staff member stepping in as a last minute replacement and sharing how he’s learned how to “fail forward” in his recovery program, a primary resident talking courageously about his struggles to open up emotionally to others, and finally, an incredibly lively Talmudic discussion about the Torah’s prohibition against inappropriately inserting oneself into a disagreement between two brothers/neighbors.

To the newcomer and the uninitiated, I can imagine our Tikkun Leil Shavuot may have seemed disjointed, chaotic, and maybe even a bit irrational. And, indeed, staying up all night to share stories and learn together does require dedication, a certain degree of chutzpah, and a dose of insanity. We are a community held together by the commonalities of our personal brokenness, and our slate of teachers represented a diverse cross-section, with varying education levels, religious backgrounds, and length of sobriety. These individuals, in sharing their stories of deep struggle and pain - lessons that can only be learned through personal encounters with the brutality of the world – cast light upon and helped us to find a deeper understanding of ourselves and that world.

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, shares some of these same characteristics. This portion is the lengthiest in the Torah and we find a series of seemingly disjointed narratives, some of which focus on personal brokenness and deep spiritual longing. This portion contains a mash-up of anecdotes about the Israelites’ activities while in the wilderness in the desert, as well as a large, seemingly random collection of laws, mainly dealing with personal relationships.

One example of this apparently disjointed ordering occurs towards the middle of the portion, where there is a detailed discussion about an elaborate ritual to address a husband who accuses his wife of being unfaithful to their marriage. Immediately following this section are instructions about a lengthy set of personal vows, which a person who is moved to establish a closer connection to GD might make. These vows include such things as abstaining from cutting one’s hair, from coming into contact with the deceased, and from drinking intoxicants.

Commentators have found an interesting connection between these two sections: they see that both deal with issues of human behavior that run contrary to reason and custom. When dealing with issues of accused adultery, they find that there is often some degree of irrationality on behalf of the accuser and the accused – a case where our irrationality can draw us into darkness through doubt, skepticism, and blame. Similarly, they see that an eagerness to abstain from worldly involvements (i.e., cutting one’s hair, tending to the deceased, drinking intoxicants) for a higher purpose also involves an inherent dimension of irrationality that runs counter to our natural inclinations; that despite these natural cravings, we are endowed with the ability to prefer to act on choices made from the soul. And the commentators go on to make an important distinction: it is our choice to use our capacity for the irrational to either drive down or to elevate ourselves and the world.

And the vow-taker, whom the commentators see as a person who overrides their natural inclinations for the sake of a higher purpose - in this case, for a closer connection to GD - is not unlike the dedicated group of community members who persisted, against their exhaustion, to study and learn into the early hours of the morning for the sake of Torah and living well.

Shabbat Shalom,
Chaplain Adam