I HAVE DISCOVERED A WAY OF RECEIVING TORAH that transforms each line, each word, each letter into a blessing that infuses every moment of my life. This blessing is so alive within me that it calls out to be shared. A young boy reluctantly studying for his Bar Mitzvah once complained to me. “Why do we have to read the same stories every year?” he whined. “What’s the point?” I undressed the ancient scroll and rolled it open to that week’s reading. “This is just the mirror,” I said. “The real Torah is the Torah of our lives. Every week I get to see another aspect of my experience mirrored here. And every year when I read the same story, something new is reflected back to me.”
TORAH, DEFINED IN ITS NARROWEST SENSE consists of the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This definition can be expanded to include all the holy books: the writings of the Prophets, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ruth, Chronicles, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Lamentations, and the Song of Songs. Torah is also understood to include not only the ancient writings, but also all the commentaries and responses to those texts, the commentaries on the commentaries, the laws that are derived from the text, the poetry and songs that have been inspired by those texts, and the stories that have emerged in the white spaces between the words that our ancestors have left us.
EVERY YEAR I read the same story again and something new is reflected back to me. I am continually amazed by this “something new.” The flow of blessing from Torah is nothing I could have imagined receiving. I grew up sensing that there was something tragic about being Jewish. I knew that my inheritance sensitized me to the suffering in the world and that there was something noble about this sensitivity. I knew that Judaism was so deep in my blood that it was useless to deny it or avoid it. So I accepted being Jewish as the work I was being given in this lifetime. Often I felt its weight as a burden that would either break me or teach me about some kind of strength that I could not yet imagine.
Judaism existed as the background to my spiritual search as I delved into the philosophies and practices of Sufism, Buddhism, Mystical Christianity, Native American Religion, Astrology, Tarot, the I Ching, Taoism, Yoga and various schools of Shamanism. I wasn’t merely a dabbler. I surrendered to the transformative force that moved through each practice. I sought out teachers, studied the ancient texts, engaged in the process of retreat, and listened to the voice of Truth as it was filtered through different languages and cultures.
WHEN MY EXPLORATIONS of these practices and teachings gave me wondrous glimpses of the whole and holy, when they allowed me an experience of Unity that satisfied my deepest yearning, I was oddly, disturbed. “What does this mean about being Jewish?” I wondered. If doing Sufi Zhikr led me to an experience of God, did that mean I must become a Muslim? If Vipassana Meditation opened up a great spaciousness inside me, must I become a Buddhist? This crisis of identity made me take long look at Judaism, my inheritance. I wasn’t ignorant of Torah, but its doors hadn’t opened for me.
From my experience with other traditions I made an assumption that the same riches that I found elsewhere were hidden behind the locked doors of Torah. Every Tradition, I reasoned, must contain the tools to expand consciousness, to become fully human, to know God. This assumption guided me, kept me looking. Because, thank God, I had tasted that expanded consciousness in the context of other traditions, I knew what to look for.
THOSE DOORS HAVE OPENED SLOWLY over many years, by equal measures of effort and Grace. Still, the transformation of Torah from burden to blessing seems nothing but miraculous. I am drawn towards simplicity and emptiness in my practice, and I struggled against what seemed like endless Jewish ramblings, thousands of years of accumulated clutter. I am an ardent feminist, and I struggled against the patriarchal and sexist attitudes behind the text. Having experienced the treasures of other spiritual paths I have become quite universalistic in my approach, and I struggled against the triumphalism and intolerance that I found in Torah.
Yet, here I am feeling completely blessed by my ancestors, feeling their permission to make the Torah my own. They accept my criticism with humility and ask for my compassion. And they invite me to dig deeper. “Whatever you find here in Torah is also inside you. This is the map. You are the landscape.” My ancestors call me back to Torah again and again, saying, “Do you want to know what it means to be human? Then look here.”
IT HAS BECOME OUR TRADITION to read the Torah publicly amid great ceremony. The scroll is brought out from its ark as if a grand queen is descending from her throne. When she is paraded around the Temple, everyone clamors to kiss the hem of her gowns. Then she is brought up to the reader’s table and delicately undressed. As the Torah lays there open, her robes are placed across her nakedness, and we are called for an aliyah — an opportunity to raise up our consciousness to the level of Torah and receive her blessing. In the traditions of Jewish Renewal, whatever text is read during your aliyahdetermines the nature of your blessing.
I WAS NEARLY 30 before I experienced my first aliyah. When I was growing up in New Jersey at a Conservative congregation, women were not allowed to come up to the Torah, so I felt somewhat of a distance from the whole ceremony of Torah reading. When it happened, my first experience of aliyah was one of the pivotal moments that allowed the door of blessing to open.
My friend Abigail asked me to come with her to a little shul in Petaluma, California. She described the people there as “old socialist chicken farmers,” which piqued my interest. When I entered, the first thing I noticed was that at the end of each pew, a beautiful woman’s face was carved. I imagined that the Goddess Herself was standing guard amid the worshippers. My friend and I were the only ones in the room younger than 70. A minyan of old chicken farmers looked at us with appreciation and curiosity. They soon determined that I would receive the first aliyah. I was the only one there who was a Kohen, which means that my father was of a priestly lineage.
I QUICKLY SCANNED the text that was to be read for my special honor, and my heart sank. Everything that I hated about Torah seemed to be crammed into those few lines. I can’t recall what the words were exactly; I only remember my response. I was cursing my bad luck when my name was ceremoniously called and the eyes of a dozen leftist chicken farmers were upon me.
I stood up beside the Torah and recited the opening blessing, numb with self-pity. The text that was chanted was filled with hatred and violence. Between the sound of those words I heard a loving voice whisper to me from someplace deep inside, “This is yours, too.” I was startled awake then, and my heart opened. For a moment, there was no one “out there” to criticize. There was no evil in the world, in history or in Torah that was not also inside me. I was being given the opportunity to wake up to the fullness of my humanity. This fierce blessing of Torah was being given to me as a gift to be unwrapped. Inside every blessing is a spiritual challenge.
MY ALIYAH, the raising of my consciousness to the level of Torah, freed me from the compulsion to reject what I didn’t like in Torah. I could accept all of it as flawed, just like me. Ahhh, but in the awareness of our flaws we can become fully realized, which means we can choose to live from the truth of our interconnectedness, rather than from the places of fear and separation within us. This was the spiritual challenge given to me inside the blessing of Torah. In receiving the blessing of Torah, we can, like our father Abraham, “become a blessing.” To be a blessing is to know and radiate the truth that our existence itself is holy.
Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land
©2006 Shefa Gold. All rights reserved.