I sent out the first of these blog entries on October 23rd, 2015. Each and every week, since then, I have heard from people I did not realize were reading these messages. From faculty members to freshmen, from deans to people distant from Harvard, it has always touched me deeply to hear that these reflections have touched others in specific ways, or have contributed to a practice of considering our textual inheritance in relation to our present times.
Some of these weekly words of Torah have come in response to questions or suggestions, or have picked up on ongoing conversations here in the university or elsewhere. It is always most meaningful to me to know that I am relating to people in particular when I write, not merely musing in the ether.
So – as I take a hiatus from these weekly messages for the summer, to make room for another writing project – let me mention that I do take requests, in the sense that I will always be glad to have my thoughts set in motion by your thoughts, and just by knowing you are there. I am always most glad when Torah is a conversation. So long as people are interacting over Torah, our Sages teach us, the Divine Presence is in the world (Mishnah, Avot 3:3) – and that sense is all the stronger when interaction with Torah is a real interchange with one another.
So, if you will, do take a moment and let me know what you are thinking, what you are wondering, or just let me know that you, too, are out there. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org – and then, heaven willing, when I see you again (so to speak) in these weekly messages, at the end of the summer, I really will be seeing you.
For this moment, let me leave you with the thought of how, this week, we read about the service of the High Priest in the inner sanctum of the Temple, in the Holy of Holies. (We will see these passages again in the autumn, when we read from the Torah at the high-point of Yom Kippur.) The reading describes an ancestral concept of a close approach by the human toward the Divine. In the narration of the rite in the sanctuary of old, this happens amid the smoke of incense and with the blood of sacrifices, in special garments, with careful steps, and meticulous preparation – because such a venture is perilous.
Today we are left with the words – but there is perhaps no better and no more communicative imprint of the spirit. The wonder of any literature is the opportunity it affords to commune with those who have come before us. That sense is at the heart of my love of the written word – and when I look into Torah, I have the feeling of being in the presence of a Great Spirit. It is as often as terrifying and as puzzling a Presence as it is filled with compassion and love, and the responses it elicits range just as much and just as widely. If – to use the metaphor of a compass – the magnetic needle of our reading self gets pulled this way or that, to point toward the heart of an author when we read, then, when Torah is the text, in my experience, the needle seems to revolve as though one were standing at the earth’s magnetic pole, and sometimes to spin wildly.
Perhaps that is why we are urged to be with one another when we explore Torah – bechavruta, in fellowship, to use the Aramaic term for the traditional mode of study – so that the presence of another’s magnetic force can help stabilize or at least orient our own. The question of how one finds one’s way back out of the Holy of Holies, so as to stand meaningfully with a community once again, is a matter of some anxiety among the mystics. The urgency and importance of being present for one another helps greatly.
I remember one bright spring day, much like this day, during my years of teaching in rabbinical school, when the space of learning was particularly packed, when every table and every top of a low bookcase had pairs and groups of students gathered over it, working on this text and that, interactively exploring sacred teachings with one another. I remember saying to a colleague, “You have to come and see, the Shekhinah is in the Beit Midrash – [that is, the Divine Presence is in the Study Hall].” In social and spiritual ways, and in study, we work toward a similar reality in our community at Harvard.
So to those of you who – by reaching out electronically, or by mentioning one of these posts in a conversation, by asking a question, or by suggesting a theme – have become part of the companionship on this adventure in Torah, tremendous and especial thanks. It means the world to be on this path together. To everyone reading, I hope you have a sense of being in this fellowship. To those heading off from Harvard this spring, after Commencement, to parts beyond and to new endeavors – mazal tov and stay in touch (and make sure I have your post-Harvard email address). And to all – I look forward to continuing this exploration and this journey, with you, sometime around Parashat Re’eh in our cycle of Torah readings – which is to say, toward the end of August.
Enjoy the summer!