Sunday, June 08, 2008

689. The first time

Last week in a wonderful class about Shavuot, we read this passage from the Zohar (incredibly complex text at the center of the study of Kabbalah):

With love she approaches her lover to arouse love with him. "Come and see the way of Torah."

At first, when she begins to reveal herself to a human, she beckons him with a hint [
remez, also the word for the traditional second level of understanding of the Torah]. If he perceives, good; if not, she sends him a message, calling him simple [peshat, the first level of understanding: literal interpretation]. Torah says to her messenger: "Tell that simple one to come closer, so I can talk to him." He approaches. She begins to speak with him from behind a curtain she has drawn, words he can follow, until he reflects little at a time. This is derasha [a deeper level of Torah study: interpretation]. Then she converses with him through a veil, words riddled with allegory. This is aggadah.

Once he has grown accustomed to her, she reveals herself face to face and tells him all her hidden secrets, all the hidden ways, since primordial days.

Now he is a complete human being, husband of Torah, master of the house. All her secrets she has revealed to him, withholding nothing, concealing nothing.

She says to him, "Do you see that word, that hint with which I beckoned you at first? So many secrets there! This one and that one! Now he sees that nothing should be added to those words and nothing taken away. Now the
peshat of the verse, just like it is. Not even a single letter should be added or deleted.

This last paragraph, said the rabbi, is the most important. We can study a Mahler symphony, understand its complex interplay of theory, themes, and sound on an intellectual level, but do we think of these details when we finally sit down and listen? No--rather, we hope for an experience like the very first time we heard it, when the music was newly exciting and mysterious--when it seemed to flirt with us like the Torah peeking from her veil, a glimpse of boundless beauty yet to come.

When we pray the same words for the hundredth time, do we remember when they were also new to us, that first moment when prayer made sense? Or are they rote and repetitive, lost in detail, like a lover with technical prowess but no passion?

And when I chant Torah, do I worry so much about getting it right that I sometimes forget the awesome privilege of singing even just one of those words in front of my friends and teachers? Maybe I make mistakes for a reason--to remind myself of the peshat, a time when I had no idea what I was doing and could barely see the road ahead, but knew it would be amazing. This is the whole point of Torah study, suggested the rabbi--to get back to the beginning and do it all over again, each time with a different route and discoveries along the way.

Tonight I'll be at a tikkun leil Shavuot, a night of study, ending with sunrise services at which I'll chant three aliyot. Two years ago I read two of them; this time I'm adding another, including these words:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Me.
—Exodus 19:4

How I wish God would always carry me on eagles' wings! and that I could see the entire world spread out in front of me in one glance, nothing hidden, and be safe and protected as well. I think this line is my first promising, loving peshat of the year--a new perspective from a brand new Torah. Wishing the same to all who read this, as well.

No comments: