Receiving Torah, renewing the soul

Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center

Shavuot Retreat

June 11, 2016 • 5 Sivan 5776

On this Shabbat flowing into Shavuot, our Torah portion readies us to receive Torah anew inהתחדשות הנפש / renewal of the soul.  The question is how: how can receiving Torah renew the soul?  How can standing at Sinai make us like new?

Shortly we’ll open Torah to Numbers 2, the ancient tribes assembled at the mountain and around the ohel mo’ed, central tent to witness the holy.  But today’s renewal journey opens in the beginning of Numbers chapter 1, במדבר /in the wilderness:

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָֹ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד

God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai in the tent of witness – 

Our ancestors tripped over this seemingly simple phrase.  After all, we know already that we’re in the wilderness, so why say it?  One answer was to arouse in us qualities of wilderness – wild, pure, beyond the hubris of control, owned by nobody.  Go into nature and feel what wild and pure are.  Drop the hubris of thinking we can make a leaf, or an ecosystem.  Melt into awe that such delicate, intricate beauty can exist.  Let the wild return us to our essential nature, which is nature itself.

So far so good. But what made midbar Sinai a wilderness was that nobody owned it: it was unpossessed and open – in Hebrew, hefker.  In Talmud something hefker is ownerless and can be claimed by the first to grasp it.  And as midrash puts it (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7), we ourselves can be hefker, unpossessed and open.  That’s just what today invites us to become, hefker, so that we can truly receive Torah tonight.

To receive Torah anew, we shed possessiveness, grasping, closed ways of seeing and being, what we think we know, who we think we are.  As we become hefker in these ways, naturally we open: inside we become pristine again – natural, wild, Sinai.

Anyone feeling wild and hefker yet?  Hefker isn’t easy: it’s even harder if we try too hard.  Trying hard often invests in the very patterns of self that do the trying, which defeats the point.  Hefker is more letting go and allowing than trying.  To be sure, in Mishnah’s days, letting go meant trying hard, which meant denying the body.  “This is the way to acquire Torah,” teaches Pirkei Avot (6:4): “Eat just a morsel of bread with salt, drink bits of water, sleep on the floor: live an ascetic life to toil in Torah.”

Any takers?  No?  Instead, let’s try this.  Cast off routine.  Ditch usual places.  Go on retreat, maybe somewhere rural.  Slow down.  Smell the air, fragrant with life and first fruits.  Feel the wild.  Sense the forest pulsing through your veins.  Let your gaze soften.  Breathe.  Let mind and heart open beyond themselves.  Let wonder and wow arise.  Lose yourself in this moment, and this one, and this one.

This weekend we aspire to become hefker – unpossessed and open –   the raw ready state to receive Torah anew.  And what’s more, this ready state itself might be receiving Torah anew.  In the broadest sense, that’s Torah – a wisdom naturally flowing into the spaces we allow, filling us beyond ourselves, inspiring us to do and be the blessings the world needs now.

To me, that’s renewal.  That’s התחדשות הנפש / renewing the soul.  That’s this weekend ofקבלת התורה / receiving Torah.  And if we really pay attention, this call for renewal beckons us every day.  In Pirkei Avot (6:2), Joshua son of Levi taught:

בכל יום ויום בת קול
יוצאת מהר חורב,

Every day a heavenly echo goes out from Mount Chorev, 

– Mount Chorev, another name for Sinai.  Every day heaven calls us from Sinai.  Every day, Sinai calls us to be hefker – open and ready – so renewal can claim us.  To Joshua the voice had more to say with a jeering tone: “Woe to you who disparage Torah!” – but for others the voice had a more positive message.

Here are two more positive voices.  Rabbi Jeff Fox is rosh yeshivah at Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox seminary ordaining women, which – like ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal – is renewing Judaism in its way, every day.  Maharat’s התחדשות / renewal is to renew and re-empower the leadership of women in Orthodoxy.  Maharat stands for Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit (guide in halacha, spirituality and Torah), but the title remains controversial, so I casually asked Rabbi Jeff,  “What’s your plural of Maharat.  Is it Maharats?  Maharatot?”  With a gleam in his eye, he looked at me and deadpanned, “Rabbis.”

A second positive voice comes not from Rabbi Jeff but through him.  After making that comment, he opened a book, the Afikei Mayim by Rabbi Moshe Shapira, an Israeli luminary who died in 2006.  The Afikei Mayim picked up Joshua’s sense that the voice from Sinai calls every day.  To the Afikei Mayim, the bat kol/ heavenly voice bonks us on the head –

שנלמד מדרשא שיהיו דברי תורה חדשים כאילו היום ניתנו. דכדרך שבאו למדבר סיני באופן של התחדשות, כך לדורות צריכים להתייחס לתורה בצורה של התחדשות.

So midrash should be taught, new words of Torah as if given today.  By means of coming to the wilderness of Sinai for the sake of renewal, the generations must relate to Torah in the form of renewal.

Reb Jeff looked up saying, “It’s all about התחדשות הנפש / renewing the soul.”  The whole point is renewal.  So however we feel in this moment – elated or sad, hopeful or dismayed, wise or confused – today we enter the inner wilderness of the midbar to be released, unpossessed and open.  By becoming hefker in that way, today we are renewed – and thebat kol bonks us on the head, and tonight new words of Torah can flow.

Today is an especially potent day of renewal for Matt Harle; his wife, Deb; and their son, Sam.  Yesterday Matt joined Rabbi Brent Spodek – and Rachel and me on his beit din – to become spiritually hefker and then take his place in the flow of Jewish life.  Today Matt comes up to Torah for the first time as a Jew, and all of us will enfold him – all of us in our tribes both native and chosen, joining together on this journey of renewal, that Torah will flow through Matt and all of us into the world.

On this Shabbat becoming Shavuot, as we become hefker to receive Torah anew, as we allow that magic to renew our souls, may what we do here hasten the flow of holiness through us and into the world.  And in that merit, we ask Matt, Deb and Sam to please stand so we can sing you a love song of renewal, as we transition to our Torah service –

Create a pure heart in me, Great Spirit,
Create a pure heart in me.

And renew a true soul within me,
And renew a true soul within.

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