Receiving Torah with an Open Heart and Open Mind

May 31, 2024

Today is Day 38 of the Omer (the period between Passover and Shavuot; between redemption and revelation). We count 49 days as we prepare to celebrate the revelation of Torah, by engaging in Torah – in Jewish wisdom – in the broadest sense. I believe that it is our obligation to cultivate open-mindedness and open-heartedness to continually receive torah – wisdom and guidance – from the vast multiplicity of experiences, texts, and relationships we encounter. Everything can be a teacher. The ancient text Pirke Avot teaches: “Who is wise? He who learns from every person, as it is said: ‘From all who taught me have I gained understanding.’”(Psalms 119:99).

One of my great teachers is poetry. Whether the ancient biblical poetry of Psalms, the poetry of Rilke (19th/20th century, Austria), of Mary Oliver (20th/21st century, US) of Stanley Kunitz (20th century, US) (or Yehuda Amichai (20th century Israel), poetry opens my heart and allows new truth to enter and to emerge This Shabbat, as we march closer to Sinai in our people’s liturgical calendar and in our ancient, ever-renewing story, I invite you to consider what, and whom, are your teachers? From where do you receive torah? As food for thought this Shabbat, I offer one of my favorite poems by Yehuda Amichai. 

The Jews – Yehuda Amichai  

The Jews are like photographs displayed in a shop  

All of them together in different heights, living and  
Grooms and brides and Bar Mitzvah boys with babies.  
And there are pictures restored from old yellowing  
And sometimes people come and break the window  
And burn the pictures. And then they begin  
To photo anew and develop anew  
And display them again aching and smiling. 
Rembrandt painted them wearing Turkish 
Turbans with beautiful burnished gold. 
Chagall painted them hovering in the air, 
And I paint them like my father and my mother. 
The Jews are an eternal forest preserve 
Where the trees stand dense, and even the dead 
Cannot lie down. They stand upright, leaning on the  
And you cannot tell them apart. Just that fire 
Burns the dead faster. 
And what about God? God lingered 
Like the scent of a beautiful woman who once 
Faced them in passing and they didn’t see her face, 
Only her fragrance remained, kinds of perfumes, 
Blessed be the Creator of kinds of perfumes. 
A Jewish man remembers the sukkah in his  
grandfather’s home. 
And the sukkah remembers for him 
The wandering in the desert that remembers 
The grace of youth and the Tablets of the Ten  
And the gold of the Golden Calf and the thirst and the  
That remembers Egypt. 
And what about God? According to the settlement 
Of divorce from the Garden of Eden and from the  
God sees his children only once 
A year, on Yom Kippur. 
The Jews are not a historical people 
And not even an archeological people, the Jews 
Are a geological people with rifts 
And collapses and strata and fiery lava. 
Their history must be measured 
On a different scale. 
The Jews are buffed by suffering and polished by  
Like pebbles on the seashore. 
The Jews are distinguished only in their death 
As pebbles among other stones; 
When the mighty hand flings them, 
They skip two times, or three, 
On the surface of the water before they drown. 
Some time ago, I met a beautiful woman 
Whose grandfather performed my circumcision 
Long before she was born. I told her, 
You don’t know me and I don’t know you 
But we are the Jewish people, 
Your dead grandfather and I the circumcised and you  
the beautiful grand-daughter 
With golden hair: we are the Jewish people. 
And what about God? Once we sang 
“There is no God like ours,” now we sing, “There is no  
God of ours” 
But we sing. We still sing.

Rabbi Audrey Berkman