29 April 2010

Omer 30: Sacred Learning

Omer Day Thirty

Following my father's death in 1983, I began studying with the Wisconsin Hillel director, Dr. Irv Saposnik, of blessed memory. From June 1984 until the following June in 1985, we met to study Genesis for a couple of hours each week. At those sessions we tore apart the text in Hebrew and English; we brought to life several generations of the commentators in our own debates; and we interrogated the patriarchs and matriarchs, transported them, it seemed, into Irv's study, so that their motives and ideas and personal relationships with God could be understood in a scrutinizing light. Those Friday study sessions always ended late in the morning and then a few hours later I would be back at Hillel, participating in the Friday night minyan, saying Kaddish, learning to lead the service, and slowly, bringing my mourning to a close.

The journey into Torah study began as an intensely personal experience, mirrored, in a way, by the equally personal relationship that the patriarchs had with the God of Genesis. My own understanding was precisely that--my own. And looking back over nearly three decades, I have always understood that those first steps into Torah had to be the sacred steps of an individual. In some ways, it's the only way any of us can receive "the call."

But it was when Genesis ended that one of my first true sacred moments occurred. One morning, three weeks before I traveled to Hebrew University that year, I proposed to Irv that we start studying Exodus. "No," he offered. "Exodus is a shift into the communal. Here the People Israel are born. Here will be slavery and freedom; Sinai; the obligation to others and the stranger; and here we start a journey as a nation, to a land. This will require another year altogether, just to absorb this new perspective." I realized then that another "death" (that of the individual in radical, solitary relation with God) had occurred and that this would yield an even more profound sacred insight.

Though unlike the loss of my father's life that prompted the search into personal meaning and sacredness, this loss was the beginning of a new path on the journey as much as it was the end of one particular segment of my learning: from the sacred call of an individual in relationship with God to that of being a member of a covenanted community. That I can close my eyes today and in an instant be transported back in time to that office, to that speech, and see my teacher before, is proof to me that I had the good fortune of experiencing that sacred moment in time.

No comments: