Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Cutting Room Floor

by Susan Weinberg

The period from Pesach to Shavuot is a time of reflection and study. This period lasts 49 days and traditionally is a time to study the Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers. These are the sayings of the rabbis, many of which we know well. Perhaps one of the best known is Hillel's statement "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" (Avot 1:14).

The section that we turned our attention to is called the Kinyan Torah which deals with the acquisition or receiving of Torah. It is from the time of the Mishnah, but was not included in the Mishnah. These are the clippings that ended up on the cutting room floor, but found a new home in the Pirkei Avot and form the last chapter of this section.

The Beraita introduces the passage by asserting that the Torah is greater than the priesthood or the kingship; for the kingship is acquired by 30 qualities and the priesthood by 24, but the Torah tops them all with 48 requirements (handout-Kinyan Torah). Not only do these differ in numeric count, but the nature of the requirements also differs. The priesthood and kingship are hereditary and are methods of political or religious control governing a finite period. The Torah has an infinite time frame, is subject to individual interpretation and represents collective knowledge and values. The priesthood and kingship requirements are relational in nature. The priesthood addresses what the people are required to give. The kingship speaks to the privileges of his office. The Torah by contrast addresses the things we must do to receive Torah.

With that introduction we began to explore this list of 48 criteria and identified some that we found particularly intriguing. We broke the group into two circles, one inside the other and facing each other paired off to discuss a selection of criteria through modern day eyes. Every time the rabbi shook a tambourine we changed partners.

It was only later that I took at look at what the Sages said relative to our understanding and I've included it below. Sometimes we focused on the same concept and sometimes our more contemporary perspective took us in another direction.

Ordering of the Lips - We saw ordering of the lips as choosing one's words with care, diplomatically and not in anger while the rabbis saw it more as practicing one's lessons until they came effortlessly.

Joy - We associated this with an openness and receptive state, one of listening. The rabbis spoke of enjoying one's studies as an incentive to continuing and saw joy as broadening the mind, sharpening the intellect and unlocking the memory. I rather liked the idea that joy precedes learning.

Long-suffering - we saw this as dealing with challenges without complaint and saw challenge and attitude as important attributes of learning with much of our learning coming from discomfort. The Sages saw this as avoiding anger.

One who recognizes his place - We added a caveat to this that it was true if the place was one of choice. Much of life is about finding one's place in the world, recognizing it and choosing it. We are all restricted to some extent, born into a particular body and in a particular country and we can choose to honor our body and seek to encourage wisdom in our country. We felt that recognizing one's place had to do with authenticity. The sages spoke of assessing one's own worth, knowing one's qualities as well as shortcomings.

Makes a fence around his words
- We weren't quite sure where to go with this one, but the rabbis spoke of expressing oneself with caution. We felt that words need to be part of a dialogue so our fence required a gate. Turns out that wasn't their interpretation at all.

Our final attribute was shunning honor which we saw as not being too full of oneself, not too dissimilar from the Sages who added that we should be studying Torah for love of Torah, not for our own reputation.

Rabbi Davis concluded by noting that there are many pathways to the Torah. The Pirkei Avot speaks of three crowns, the crown of the Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a good name excels them all. Hmm, three crowns, but the fourth is better? What are we supposed to do with that? It goes on to state that the crown of a good name flows from the Torah, thus wrapping it all together. Rabbi Davis summed it up with the statement that Menschkeit is the foundation for Yiddishkeit. Being a good person, a mensch, is at the core.

The second part of our session was led by Carolyn Light Bell and Leah Golberstein who began their session by distributing chocolate to encourage joy which we understand is a precursor for learning. They began by leading us in some poetic thoughts from the Kohelet and other sources (Poetry-Haiku Instructions handout).

We were particularly intrigued with a quote they provided from Rav Avraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) who wrote: "Literature, painting and sculpture give material expression to all the spiritual concepts implanted in the depths of the human soul and as long as even one single line hidden in the depth of the soul has not been given outward expression, it is the task of art to bring it out."

We explored a number of poetic expressions leading us into haiku and were given some time to explore our own creative talents at haiku. We spent a lot of time counting out the 5-7-5 syllables on our fingers to arrive at our creations. As I looked around the room, many hands were raised as fingers moved in rhythm.

Even as we sought to stay within the required pattern, Ann reminded us with a haiku that it was only a structure.

Forget this structure
It is only a construct
we keep for order

The very interesting expressions that we received can be found on the handouts page at Haiku, but let me close with:
Chocolate brings joy
We rejoice in our portion
And are enlightened

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