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This is Torah

Dear families and friends,

When teaching Judaic Studies to upper grade students, it’s important to select texts that are captivating, yet complicated enough that students at that developmental stage can wrestle with the content, and be impacted by a number of the big ideas embedded in the text.  This is especially the case if they can find personal meaning in it.  My litmus test when selecting a text or a topic to teach my students is if I am personally moved by what I’m learning, and excited about it, so I know that I can transmit it to my students.

Every so often, you come across a piece of Torah that stops you in your tracks, and gives you the chills.  This is one of those for me, an obscure aggadic story in the tractate Menachot of the Talmud, which we are currently learning together in grade 6/7.

In class, we are using a combination of old school tools like an actual page of Talmud, in all its Aramaic glory (above), and new tech tools like the amazing Sefaria app or  going online at www.sefaria.org to make our way through this particular piece of Talmud.

The teaching goes like this:

Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav:

When Moses went up on high, he found the Holy One sitting and tying crowns on the Holy letters [embellishing each letter with calligraphic marks.] He said to the Holy One: “Master of the Universe, who is holding back Your hand?” The Holy One answered: “There is a man who will appear at the end of several generations and Akiva the son of Joseph is his name and he will need these crowns, because from each and every thorn [calligraphic mark above the letter] he will derive scores and scores of laws.” He said to Him, “Master of the Universe! Show him to me.” The Holy One said, “Turn around!”

So, Moses went and sat at the end of eight rows [of students in Rabbi Akiva’s Beit Midrash], and had no idea what they were saying.  He became weak and disoriented.  Soon the class reached an issue and a student asked, “Rebbe, what’s your source for this ruling?”  He said, “It’s a law of Moses from Sinai.” Moses was relieved.

Moshe returned and came before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and said before Him, “Master of the Universe! You have a man like this, and You are giving the Torah through me?”  He said to Him, “Be silent. This is what I have decided.”

He said before Him, “Master of the Universe! You have shown me his Torah; show me his reward.”  He said to him, “Turn backwards.”  He turned backwards, and saw that they (the Romans) were cutting up and weighing Rabbi Akiva’s flesh in the marketplace.

He said before Him, “Master of the Universe! This is Torah, and this is its reward?”

He said to him, “Be silent! This is what I have decided.”

We went line by line, first in Aramaic, then in English.  It was interesting to see the reaction of the students to this piece.  Here was a story of the two top teachers in Jewish history, born centuries apart, with Moshe Rabbeinu (lit. Our Rabbi, our Teacher) unable to understand what the 2nd century Rabbi Akiva was teaching!  I asked the students: “Who here has ever been in this situation before, where you have no clue what the teacher is teaching?  Where you feel completely lost and don’t think you’ll ever be able to learn?”  Every single hand in the room went up.  So did mine.  The understanding that even Moshe himself struggled to learn from the master teacher Rabbi Akiva, he of the academy of 24,000 students, was a powerful moment, yet a hopeful one.  And the more we learned about Rabbi Akiva, who began life as an uneducated shepherd, and who only began to learn the alef bet at 40 years old, the more the students themselves began to relate to their own lives, with the understanding that Jewish learning is a lifetime activity, and that it’s never too late to learn.  For me, the story really resonated – learning Talmud has always been my Achilles heel in Jewish learning.  Never mind that I learned it throughout high school, devotedly in my gap year in Israel, and then on and off over the years, I have always struggled to follow its logic and reasoning.  To use the parlance of the yeshiva world, it was a rare occasion when I chappt (Yiddish for caught, i.e. understood) what was going on on the page of Talmud itself.  But the aggadic stories interspersed throughout the halachic debates and legal opinions, those were like oxygen to me, a lifeline – those, I really chappt.  And I always felt a little bit better about myself as a learner when making my way through those stories, which are always there to illustrate a legal or religious theme being discussed in the Talmud.

The student’s reaction to the end of the story was even stronger.

He said before Him, “Master of the Universe! You have shown me his Torah; show me his reward.”  He said to him, “Turn backwards.”  He turned backwards, and saw that they (the Romans) were cutting up and weighing Rabbi Akiva’s flesh in the marketplace.

He said before Him, “Master of the Universe! This is Torah, and this is its reward?”

He said to him, “Be silent! This is what I have decided.”

The image of Rabbi Akiva being slaughtered, his “reward” for teaching Torah, left the shocked students with much to think about.  There are no easy answers in Judaism, and understanding the ways of the world, of God, the high price of being Jewish, of justice and fairness here on earth are things we all have to grapple with as we grow and develop.  And it’s amazing how one small story, hidden away in a large tractate of Talmud like Menachot, can contain so much power and meaning.

Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach,

Mar Abba

 

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