Receive the Shimmering Dynamism of Torah this Shavuot
In the spirit of the season of Sivan, we decided to combine our Rosh Chodesh monthly blog with our below community survey because of the particular spiritual qualities of Sivan. Can you help support our work by filling out this brief survey?
The main feature of Sivan is the holiday of Shavuot (this year Thursday night May 25-Saturday night May 27 in the Diaspora), which celebrates the giving of Torah at Sinai over three millenia ago.
A few points about the nature of Torah will make the connection to the survey clear:
Torah is not a static document that can be reduced to simply the written words on the parchment that make up a Torah scroll. Rather, Torah, which literally means, “teaching,” is a living organism with infinite potential for generative meaning and interpretation. For the past 2500 years the transmitters of Jewish lineages have related to Torah in some of the following ways:
️🔥 As black fire written on white fire, meaning as a completely dynamic entity that warms and illuminates as well as burns
️🔥 As inviting four levels of interpretation for each word: The plain, straightforward contextual meaning (Pshat), the playful associations hinted at by the shapes and numeric values of the letters (Remez); the contemporary meaning based on gaps in the narrative or the unusual placement of words and letters (Drash); and the mystical, hidden meaning, (Sod), that hints at the great unity nested within reality but invisible to the untrained eye. These four levels are operative at all times and reveal a sense of the textured, multi-layered depth of each word and letter of Torah.
️🔥 Jewish tradition mourns the day of the Torah’s first translation, into Greek 2300 years ago. The translation into Greek froze the ever-shimmering, dynamic Hebrew letters into the language of Empire, which sought to control and dominate by domesticizing this wild, unpredictable document. The Hebrew alphabet is seen by the Jewish mystical tradition as the building blocks of the universe. Translation is Empire’s attempt to neuter that creative, disruptive force.
At least as important to the dynamism of Torah are the human beings who receive and metabolize Torah. At Sinai these were the millions of Israelites who camped in the plains around the mountain, awed by the fire and smoke that accompanied the communal revelation. The oral tradition teaches that each person heard the revelation in their own particular way, giving Torah hundreds of thousands, if not millions of interpretations.
Torah lives through the ways we, as unique individuals, hear it, interpret it and speak it.
Using a related metaphor, the 18th-century mystical ethicist, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato, taught that the words of Torah are like embers that still retain heat but don’t produce light on their own. They need us to engage with them and, metaphorically, blow on these embers to light them up and create a flame. It is us, the people who learn Torah, who make the fire illuminate and generate warmth. We do that by bringing our unique perspectives to Torah and finding our voices in Torah.
Here at IOWA, we are dedicated to sharing Torah that integrates Jewish spiritual practice lineages and longings with the passionate desire for social justice. You are our fellow travelers. We want to know you better and how you receive and interact with the Torah that IOWA shares. How do you metabolize it and contribute to its growth? Just like the Torah itself, our efforts will only produce light with your unique engagement.
With blessings for receiving the Torah you need for this coming year.