What do you know to be true?
What have you learned about how to be a human being in this world?
What has life taught you that you’d want to pass on to those you love?
Taken all together, these truths are your “torah.” (Torah, in Hebrew, means “teaching.”)
Every person writes a Torah with their life. It’s a personal collection of wisdom gathered from our experiences and stories.
The great Hasidic master Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, known as the Sfat Emet says it like this:
Every person has his or her own piece of Torah. The complete Torah was given to the Jewish people as a whole. However, each person has a personal teaching, his or her own Torah, inside them. This is hidden within the soul. There is a piece of Torah that can be learned from every person.
As we get ready to celebrate the giving and receiving of our collective Torah on Shavuot, I’m reminded to revisit what I believe to be true. The rabbis believed that the Torah that was given and received on Mt. Sinai revealed wisdom that is ongoing and living. It’s what we “know to be true” as a people.
I have found it instructive to think about HOW I came to these truths as well.
My torah is not simply made up of platitudes found in a book.
No, these truths are hard-won, often the result of difficult experiences, trial and error.
Yet – those are the best kind of lessons because gaining wisdom from pain is “wrestling a blessing” like our ancestor Jacob did when he struggled with that man ( the ish.) After that night of wrestling, he gets a new name – he is forever changed.
Here are a few bits of wisdom from my own life. What are yours?
- In order to grow a beautiful garden, I need to build the soil. And this takes time. I need to assess the state of the soil so that the roots can grow. The invisible is as important as the visible: the microbes and earthworms and minerals need to be tended so that the showy flowers and vegetables put into the soil will be solidly rooted.
- And how did I come to this piece of wisdom that I have not only applied to gardens, but to relationships and groups and raising children…? By failing at my first garden attempt. And then, seeking out books, classes, and experts to learn how to do it right.
- When I feel unhappy or lonely, reaching out to help someone else really helps me! When I extend my hand to others who are in pain, I’m lifted to a new consciousness. I can’t stay stuck when I am being present for another human being.
- This insight came to me when I was a freshman in college, going through a spate of depression. I remember distinctly the moment when one of my dorm mates was going through an even harder time. I sat with her, listened and when I got up from that conversation, I felt my own depression fade. And I remember saying to myself: remember this: when I’m in a bad place, reach out to help someone else.
- Pay attention to how I feel inside when I’m in a friendship. If I find myself judging my words and actions, or feel “less than”, or worry about my value when I’m with another person, I need to re-assess the relationship. Real friends lift us up. Real friends like us just as we ARE and help us remember who we are.
- I learned this after several friendships in which I did NOT feel good about myself. I stayed too long in some of them. This was such a huge learning for me that I taught my kids when they were little to make sure they checked in with their own hearts when they were in a friendship: did they feel good about who they were when they were with a particular friend? did they feel put down or devalued in any way? If so, that person was not worth their energy.
When I officiate a funeral, I always meet with the family of the person who has died. Essentially, I want to know what that person’s torah was. And so I ask: What did you learn from him or her? What did she stand for? What were his deepest-held beliefs? What legacy did they leave for you?
Each person has a Torah, unique to that person, his or her innermost teaching. Some seem to know their Torahs very early in life and speak and sing them in a myriad of ways. Others spend their whole lives stammering, shaping, and rehearsing them. Some are long, some short. Some are intricate and poetic, others are only a few words, and still others can only be spoken through gesture and example. But every soul has a Torah. To hear another say Torah is a precious gift. For each soul, by the time of his or her final hour, the Torah is complete, the teaching done. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993, 177
And because I can’t help myself – I have to add a few lyrics from the Broadway musical, Hamilton. From Alexander Hamilton as he lay dying: “Legacy. “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see…” and his question to Aaron Burr: “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” (lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
Please share from your own torah:
What do you stand for?
What are your deepest held beliefs?
When I really got this, it also made me appreciate the torah of others and to hold their stories with reverence.
This Shavuot – find a place to study our collective Torah, and to be in community where our individual torahs are shared.
Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman
May 29, 2017, revised