Friday, October 12, 2007

Relighting the fires -- next week at Oraita

On Sunday I will be making the long drive to Northwood, NH, to take part in an exciting new program from Art Green and the other folks at Boston's Hebrew College, which has made a mark in recent years as one of the most dynamic institutions for educating Jewish leaders.

The program is called Oraita, which is the Aramaic word for Torah. But the word means more for me here: with the flames rising from the Alephs on either side of the logo above -- along with the sound "or" at the beginning of the word Oraita -- I very much think of the Hebrew word or, which means a light or a candle flame. And it is for flame that I am heading out to the New Hampshire woods for a week.

I, and the 15 other rabbis who will be there from across America, are coming in search of the flame that we know is in Torah, the flame that we need to light our heart and our spirits. The flame that is best found from studying together in pairs and in groups in the room we Jews like to call the Beit Midrash, or The House of Inquiry. In that place we can find like-minded souls and minds to inquire after the flame, together.

For us rabbis who are "out in the field" this kind of community can be very difficult to find close to our homes. And that is why a place like Oraita is so important. Our communities count on us -- us rabbis -- to help them light the flames in their own souls and to help them connect with their passion for Judaism and for the Jewish people. But if our own flames are not burning -- if we have not done the "self-care" necessary to keep our own spirit fires alit, we will have nothing to give our communities. And, so we go to places like Oraita not just for ourselves, but for our communities and for the Jewish people as a whole.

But, for me, Oraita is not just any retreat. For me it will be -- God willing -- the culmination of a long-held dream: the dream to study with Arthur Green. I have admired him -- and the great minds he gathers around him -- for many years, but have only had a chance to hear him speak once. Green is one of those rare folks (Dani Matt is another) who are able to bridge the worlds of 1) academic excellence and 2) spiritual inspiration. The project of bridging those worlds is one that is particularly important to me. One way I think of that now is to say that who I really want to be becoming is both a "Talmud Scholar and Spiritual Healer". Put another way, I want to live up to the words that my colleague and dear friend Rabbi Shawn Simon spoke about me when he introduced me at my ordination a little more than three years ago:

[I]n the book of Jeremiah we learn that the voice of the Lord is like a hammer shattering stone. In Talmud Sanhedrin this verse is explicated: Just as the hammer splits rock into many shards so too one biblical verse can project multiple meanings. Take the verse –split it, carve it, shape it – this is the rabbinic enterprise. Bamidbar Rabba idealizes a student who successfully derives 49 meanings from each verse studied. This Midrash concludes that the student himself is a chip off of Mt. Sinai. From this we learn that it is not an object we received but rather a process. In essence, what was received at Sinai was the obligation to constantly study text.

Tonight I am presenting someone who embodies this ideal. My own studies greatly profited from having learned with Alan in hevruta. Our sessions always distinguished themselves by being both intellectually vibrant and passionately religious. His approach posits that text study: is both a critical source of knowledge for personal and communal development and our most reliable interface with God.

Who could ask for more than a Hevruta who envisioned each and every session of our studying as an opportunity to renew the Sinai experience!

It is my prayer that it will be the will of the Blessed Holy One that I should have the privilege of having the flames of Torah kindled brighter in my heart and soul as I learn with my colleagues and blessed teachers at Oraita. And that this learning will move me closer to upholding the promise of the above words about me.


It is, by the way, an important time for me to focus on the part of me that is about finding inspiration in Torah study. The last month and a half or so has been an intense and exciting time for me in my work (and the intensity of that has been one reason I have not posted here much, the other being that with so many Jewish holidays over the last month there were many less days available to me when I was permitted to write).

The excitement has been about our chaplaincy students here at the hospital. We have four full-time residents who started at the beginning of September and four part-time interns who we started orienting in the middle of September. My passion for the work of spiritual care -- and for assisting others in taking this work upon themselves and building their skills at it -- has been alit by my interactions with these students, and that flame has been burning bright, oh so bright, for me over the recent weeks and days. It's been a great time, but caring for myself and my ministry means maintaining a balance. And so I'm off to the woods of New Hampshire! :)

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