Sometimes I am overwhelmed at how very fortunate we are. How many of the past forty generations would have given everything they had and everything they could ever be, just to live in our age for one moment. Just to read the last parshiot of the Torah and be able to say, “All this is behind us!” Just to see Jerusalem rebuilt and its streets filled with Jews going about their daily business. Just to see a fighter plane pass overhead piloted by one of our own.
How many of the previous generations would have given life itself just to live for one moment in our day!
And yet, we blithely live out each day as it comes, as is the way of human beings, worrying about our overdraft and whether the car will start in the morning and whether the leaky pipe can be left until next week to be fixed. We live fully in the moment because we are human, and living is our great talent.
Our talent for life ties us to both past and future. Tomorrow morning, I will sit with the rav and lose myself in the pages of Massechet Ta’anit. I have come full circle.
A memory of Saloniki. Before. I sat with others my own age in a tiny back room of the Bet Knesset. We read Massechet Ta’anit under the direction of a young scholar not much older than we were. We dipped into an ancient and deeply-buried river whose waters were continually renewed by the study and wonder of people like us. We went over arguments about when one should pray for rain, what it means if there is no rain, and how that becomes a matter of more than just the vagaries of nature….
How many others had gone over these things throughout the ages, each generation taking what it needed from that source and perhaps subtly altering the course of the river?
And I too took what I needed from it. What struck me at the time—about Massechet Ta’anit—was how the circumstances of calamity were to be met by the community. That impression has been overlaid by later knowledge. Tragedy–such as the harvest that would be lost if there is no rain–has the effect of splintering society. Suffering sets every man against every other. Famine especially does this, because if I eat, it means that someone else does not eat.
The message of Ta’anit is: We will not let this calamity splinter us into a group of disparate individuals, each fighting for his own survival. We will meet our fate as a community. We will pray as a community. We will fast as a community. Our strength is in our unity.
Too often, my dialogue with God has been in German. That at least is changing. Slowly, but it is changing, and this learning is part of that. I look down at the page of Talmud in front of me and feel only love. Where has my anger gone? Suddenly the dialogue is softer, the voice of the past less strident. The Sh’chinah sits with two who learn… Or even with one.
And then there is the wonderful free-style learning of Talmud class. Here, I can easily lose both myself and “my self.” The sheer diversity of minds and memories can make me giddy for joy. Over there, in the back row, is the very shy fellow who speaks softly and always with the correct form of address: “If the Rav will permit me…. But did the Rav not say a few minutes ago that…?” And then in the front row is the very smart fellow who barges in: “But Rabbi, you just contradicted yourself!”
And here in the middle row sits Ovadya who says nothing at all but feels totally, wondrously and deliriously bemused at diving into the very wellspring of our being, and who is in love with the entire world and forgetful of any reason for feeling otherwise.
Ezekiel spoke of the dry bones being once more clothed in living bodies. But I don’t recall him saying that they then go on to study Talmud in Eretz Israel!
I once told my friend Masha that if I could do anything I wanted with my life, I would sit and learn Torah all day. And as I said that, my eyes unexpectedly filled with tears. This from someone who had not set foot in a Bet Knesset in twenty-five years and who had not been on speaking terms with God for much longer than that.
Masha’s answer was equally surprising. “I think if you could study Torah,” she said, “it would be like you went to Israel all over again. Even though you are already living in Israel, you can still go home. There is still another kind of Israel and another kind of home.”
She was right; I was never home until I came here. I am more a citizen of time than of space. I am not a citizen of the world; the world is too big a place for me. I belong to a small people whose destiny I cling to with every fiber of my being. But to learn a page of Talmud is to be as close to home as I have ever come. In embracing our heritage, we gain more than the world. It is ourselves that we gain.