Torah Study: Judaeo Habilis

Neal& Ann’s Torah Study
Saturday, May 21, 2011 10 am-noonish (RSVP)
Torah Portion: Bechukotai (Deuteronomy 26:3-27:34[end])
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

LET’S BE HONEST: THIS WEEK’S Torah portion is not a favorite of many, containing as it does a long string of violent curses brought down on the hearts and homes of those who reject Torah.

It’s grim stuff, even for the rabbis who ordained that this part be read quickly and quietly. And it makes us uncomfortable on several levels: the specificity, the cruelty, the seemingly primitive tit-for-tat which embodies, for many of us, the worst aspects of religion. It’s tempting to ignore, delete, or gloss over this bit of text and read only the “good parts” (whatever that may be to each of us).

But that’s not really the Jewish way. We can no more deny the uncomfortableness of Torah than the uncomfortableness of life. To do so would be less than honest; less than G?d, custom or conscience asks of us.

Fortunately, we have tools.

The classic approach to understanding Torah is fourfold, acronymized as PaRDeS (yes, “paradise”): Peshat (literally), Remez (allegorically), Derash (analytically), and Sod (mystically). Rabbi David Cooper, in his concise and thorough “Handbook of Jewish Meditation Practices,” respectively demonstrates:

“1. Read the literal meaning. Try to imagine that you are a participant at the event about which you are reading; experience what it feels like to be present at this event. What does this new perspective mean to you once you have set aside your modern critical and judgmental mind? Pretend to yourself that this was a meaningful and moving event that you personally experienced. Relive it over and over in your imagination.

“2. Now, consider that this message actually represents something else; it is a teaching about one of life’s truths. Imagine that a teacher whom you deeply respect has said these words to you and you must discover a profound message within. Look for the hidden message.

“3. Imagine that you can take the words apart, introducing new ideas by manipulating the letters of the words or by reversing the apparent meaning through word substitution. Change the scene entirely in any way you wish. Keep bring in new possibilities that may even develop a thought that directly opposes the literal meaning. Let your imagination have free rein and see what happens.

“4. Assume that a universal truth applies to every aspect of creation, that every molecule has a spark of holiness, and that wherever we look we can find a reflection of the Divine. Sometimes it is hidden in the most obscure places; sometimes we can experience its presence without understanding how it has manifested in this way, but we know for certain that it is here. Approach your reading from this perspective, knowing that the Divine spark is present in everything, and experience how this viewpoint opens new insights.

“5. Repeat steps 1-4 each time you come to a new thought or idea in your reading.”

Remember, these are only tools. Our tradition can only put them in our hands — it’s up to us to use them.

Shabbat shalom,

Neal.

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