7.09.2008

Text Two: Torah's Relationship to Me

The second text that I shared in fulfillment of this assignment was much shorter. It was this:

יט הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ--הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed;

This is Deuteronomy 30:19. I was sitting and learning Tanakh on my own one day, when I was a senior in high school. It would be a severe understatement to say that I was going through a rough patch. Everything was hard. Nothing was going right. Life really sucked and throwing in the towel seemed kind of like a good idea.

And then I read this verse, and it was like God was speaking to me through the text. I saw, for the first time in my life, full acknowledgement from a source that I considered authoritative that there was both life and death in this world; both good and bad; both blessings and curses. God put both before us, and gave us death, bad, curses, etc. In my life at the time, it seemed that acknowledgement of the bad parts of life was forbidden. One should focus on the positive, be grateful for all that one has, etc. It's like people were afraid to acknowledge that sometimes life just totally sucked.

So to me, in 1996, this verse recognized that there was bad, death, and curses in the world, and that they were put before us by God just like the good stuff was. But the verse also recognized that God gave us the power to choose something else over death, bad, curses, etc. He gave us the power to choose life. God was telling me that I had a choice--that I had agency. This was the first time I understood, really understood, bechira chofshit. I felt like this idea--that I had choices in life and that God trusted me to make those choices--was new and exciting and phenomenal and comforting, all at once. Wasn't I seventeen? Wasn't my every move still controlled by an idiosyncratic set of rules contrived and enforced by adults?

No, this text said, no. You are a human being and you always have a choice. And this verse, with one word--"choose"/"וּבָחַרְתָּ"--both tells us that (a) we have a choice and (b) urges us to make the choice in one particular way--towards life. So I did. I chose life then and I chose life over and over again, every time I saw the choice between life and death, good and bad, blessings and curses, laid out before me.

I frame this not as my relationship to Torah, but the Torah's relationship to me. Time and time again (not frequently enough that I can expect or count on them, but not so infrequently that I lose hope that I will never have another moment like this), something--a verse, a mishna, an aggadata--reaches out from the page, picks me up, grabs me, and shakes me, and my life is changed forever for the better.

I chose to think of this as God speaking to me through text. I don't know where these texts come from, but I feel, from personal experience, that their holiness lies in large part in the messages that they transmit directly to our hearts. Forget all of the sturm und drang of my intellectual love affair with Torah, muddled as it constantly is by my concerns as a free-thinking, critical, post-Modern, feminist, Western, single, childless woman. Fuggedaboutit! These are texts that transcend those concerns and that, in a way, is what makes them most Godly. These are texts that I read in a particular time and place that flip a switch in my heart, in the deepest understandingest part of me, and make me love life.

I know, for a fact, that non-Torah texts have the power to do this to me, also. But there is something about these texts being mine, by dint of birth and 29 years of all-encompassing Jewish living, that makes them more valuable to me than non-Torah texts that flip similar switches in my heart.

This is much shorter than my Text One piece, but I think that's because it's really almost not about words at all, or at least not as much as Text One was. It's about words that quickly transmogrify into strong emotions. It's almost as if the less said about it, the better. I am sure that this is one of those things in life that would only get worse with more analysis, with more words, with more footnotes. Analysis is for Text One: My Relationship to Torah.

Text Two: Torah's Relationship to Me, defies words.

3 comments:

rivkayael said...

Nice one, ALG! Perhaps forcing people to think about this is the answer to "mah nishtana" about your yeshiva. I have certainly never encountered a serious yeshiva program that encouraged this sort of introspection (which can be so transformative).

Anonymous said...

I am at once both moved and startled by this post and how much I identify with it. It touches me because I also have internalized Nitzavim, more so than any other parasha. It startles me because ALG and I are affected in such as similar way by this text despite the giant disparity in the backgrounds between her and myself.

I am an am ha-aretz, born and raised Lutheran in North Dakota. I completed my gerut at age 30 with a Reform rabbi in another western state that lacks a kosher restaurant, where I still live. And yet, almost nowhere else I have read anything that so closely resembles the pull to the texts I feel, this love for them that is simultaneously intellectual and visceral.

ALG, whoever you are, I commend you for having the courage to follow your heart into yeshiva this year (...it is in your mouth and in your heart, to do.) Please, by all means continue blogging about it for those of us who want the vicarious experience.

Perhaps there is hope yet for Jewish unity if the writing of and observant, orthodox-day-school product in NYC can resonate so strongly with at Reform-affiliated giyoret living in a fly-over state!

alan said...

totally beautiful.
I do relate.
Its sorta what being Jewish means to me.