Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rings of a Tree

“Why is it important to know when one can say the Shema? Why isn’t it good enough to just say it?—and why not at any time you want?” Debbie asked the perfect questions when I told her with excitement about the first words of the Talmud that our study circle had gnawed on earlier in the day. I had left that session with such an extraordinary sense of connection and enrichment. The question I was asking myself was whether there was any way to convey to others the immense power of studying Talmud—how enriching, enlivening, how relevant it is to every moment, and to developing the kind of consciousness so many people I know strive for. These are huge questions that I can only imagine rabbis have been tackling for millennia. Now it’s my turn.
To set some context, let’s start with a beautiful lesson that I received courtesy of Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan via a recording of a recent virtual Talmud study session (Gotta love that technology when it serves to communicate something of real value!) Like John Madden using a football telestrator, Peretz traced on the screen for us the literal and figurative concentric circles that start with a snippet of Mishnah. Growing outward from that is a section of Gemara. Medieval commentaries ring around the Gemara. Words of later commentators ring around the Medieval commentaries, and finally, sitting around the table studying all of this are members of the Bay Area Community Talmud Circle —like rings of a tree.
As long as these rings are growing the tree is alive. The moment that there are no more rings—that usually means the tree is dead.
Torah forever grows, and depends on ever-expanding circles of study. I may not be Rabbi Gamliel, but, by opening these pages I am continuing his work with Jews all over the world of all times. This doesn’t directly respond to Debbie’s question, but in one sense it is the answer. It may or may not be important to know when to say Shema, but it is important to carry on the conversation about it that was started so long ago. (Nonetheless, as I hope to demonstrate, it actually is important to know when to say the Shema.) So this is important work—this act of study— almost regardless of what we actually discover or conclude about the content per se.

Our morning of study was like a piece of poetry, very densely packed with experience beyond its apparent size. (I almost used a “zip file” analogy, but that can be rationally unpacked, so fails to convey the true immensity of the experience.) Under the deft tutelage of Rabbi Lavey Derby we made connections that defy description—to text, to philosophy, to spirit, to ancestors, to people in the room, and to people not in the room. It's the flip side of the famous When Harry Met Sally scene—I really wish others were having what we were having! So here is just a glimpse….

The introduction to Perek I (Chapter I) states that the rabbis were looking at a different question than Debbie was, but one that is at the heart of hers—“What are the practical implications of the text of Shema? Particularly, how is one to understand the terms, ‘When you lie down, and when you arise….’” Let’s look at that.

To talk meaningfully about this requires awareness that there is a unique version of the Shema that one recites as “you lie down.” Who knew? I used to say Shema with the kids as we tucked them into bed just as my dad did with me, but it was just Shema. I didn’t know about the paragraphs that the liturgy provides before and after the Bedtime Shema. Learning this fact alone is immense, not as information in and of itself, but because these paragraphs are so beautiful and powerful in their practical benefit to one’s life. 

The practice includes ideas that I have heard talked about, but had not realized were so elegantly woven together in a succinct bedtime ritual. It starts with forgiveness—for those who may have wronged us. Then it addresses seeking personal forgiveness for our own sins. It petitions for peaceful sleep and the miracle of awakening in the morning. Only after these acts of granting and seeking forgiveness, after prayers that demonstrate appreciation for the gifts of rest and of continued life itself—only then do we utter the Shema acknowledging the unity of all that is. 

These words are followed by the familiar paragraphs from Deuteronomy commanding our love of God and our obligation to keep God before us through various acts including teaching our children and reciting Shema when “you lie down, and arise.” This is followed by psalms and the lovely Hashkiveynu prayer seeking God’s protective canopy of peace through the night. The archangels—Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael—are invoked for added protection. It concludes with a passage familiar to most synagogue service attendees—the Adon Olam—which until recently I only associated with the grateful awareness that a long Shabbat service was ending and a tasty Kiddush was about to commence. Sadly, that does this prayer such terrible injustice. It was a revelation to learn recently (on the first morning of Shefa Gold’s Kol Zimra workshop) the magnificence of chanting just two lines from Adon Olam and bringing full consciousness to them: “Into His hand I shall entrust my spirit when I go to sleep—and I shall awaken! ...God is with me, I shall not fear!”

Learning the significance of the Bedtime Shema helped make more sense out of the conversation of the rabbis. When they ponder whether you can just say it at the beginning of the evening, as rabbi Eliezer states, or until midnight as the Sages suggest, or until dawn as Rabbi Gamliel responds—this makes a difference. If nothing else, it demonstrates that there have been, and will always be, different points of view—all with some validity—that must be considered. Rabbi Eliezer is wise to create a sense of urgency and timeliness by insisting that we perform the ritual right away. The Sages are right in allowing some flexibility. Rabbi Gamliel is right in tying the time, as he goes on to explain, to the hours available for the priests of old to perform a particular holy sacrifice in the Temple. This helps make the point that in a post-Temple world our acts of prayer replace the ancient sacrificial rituals, and that we are still connected to their power and sanctity.

The practical application of this in my life is being able to open my eyes in the pre-dawn darkness and start my day with God awareness that I seek to carry with me throughout the day. How good it is to appreciate awakening itself as a miracle, to start my day in gratitude, to realize that I can still say the Bedtime Shema and grant and seek forgiveness. I am only scratching the surface of what a morning of seemingly irrelevant Talmud study can do. Consciousness like this, applied throughout the day, can only help one to choose words and deeds more wisely to help sustain oneself and one’s relationships with others. Why is it important to know when one can say the Shema?—in more ways than one can ever know!

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