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Interviews with God

A year of divrei Torah

This week, parashat Bo, marks a kind of anniversary for me: a full year of weekly divrei Torah posted at Radical Torah.

When I first received the invitation to contribute to RT, I demurred, afraid I was too over-committed to take on another writing commitment. But shortly thereafter, my rabbi went on sabbatical and I took the reins at my synagogue -- and found that writing a weekly d'var Torah for RT dovetailed nicely with preparing to read and teach the parashat hashavua at my shul.

Since then, I've written a d'var pretty much every week. Once or twice I've posted late, and when the rhythm of Torah readings has paused for a holiday I have also paused. But in the end, I wrote something about every portion in the cycle of the last year. Bo was an odd place to begin; Bereshit would have made much more sense! But I've come to find satisfaction in how organic this process has been, and in the fact that I've been able to keep it up despite starting in media res.

Writing a weekly d'var for RT obligated me to take the whole cycle of Torah readings seriously, to look even into parshiot I had previously found opaque (or painful) in search of meaning. The real value for me lies in the practice -- though some of the divrei Torah also please me as independent pieces of work, and in honor of that, I've chosen my five favorites to highlight here:

  • Walking the Walk -- parashat Haazinu. "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing, which means the only way to make Torah our lives is to dance with it, sometimes wildly and sometimes gently, sometimes furiously and sometimes tenderly, sometimes cradling it in our arms like a lover and sometimes passing it around the room like a bottle of wine."

  • Portable holiness -- parashat Bamidbar. "In the Israelites' journey through that wild desert we can see a metaphor for our own transformation. Our lives, like the desert, can be both harsh and beautiful. We don't always know where we’re going, nor how long it will take us to get there. And sometimes the voice of God is most audible when we create our own holy spaces, and when we make a practice of pausing in those spaces, surrounded by but separate from the hubbub of ordinary life."

  • Meeting "impurity," and being changed -- parashat Tazria. "Meeting someone who is sick obligates us to remember our own fragility, our own impermanence. I too could be in a car accident on a snowy night; I too could develop cancer someday. Even if I live a long and blessed life, I too will someday die. Which means what? Crossing the border into something we don't and can't understand. There's something existentially unsettling about these things."

  • What we crave -- parashat Eikev. "God doesn't imagine that the people will fall for the idols themselves. At this point God seems confident that the Israelites understand the difference between the Source of All and some shiny statue, no matter how many precious stones adorn the representations of local gods. But God warns them, through Moses' words, to take care of how they respond to the stuff the idols are made of."

  • Speaking from our soft places -- parashat Bereishit. "After a trauma -- a death, a loss, a confrontation with violence or tragedy -- we may find ourselves incapable of making the emotional and spiritual leap of reaching out toward God in prayer. But Torah shows us that this paralysis isn't permanent; we too are descendents of Adam, and prayer is open to us, as it was to the men of Enosh's generation."

This isn't the first time I've drawn sustenance from having a regular creative practice. Years ago when I was a student at Bennington I spent months writing daily poems, after the practice of my teacher David Lehman (and inspired by other daily poets, among them William Stafford and Robert Bly.) Writing a weekly d'var Torah is in some ways similar. Sometimes the work is pure joy; other times, I grind it out word by difficult word. But mostly what I take away is the value I find in the discipline, and the awareness that new insights may arise when I create a regular container to put them in.

You can read all of my RT posts here. My thanks to all of you for being on this journey with me, and especially to the folks at Radical Torah for giving me an opportunity to engage in this discipline, and to do so in the context of community and conversation.

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