Every Hebrew word is somehow derived from a two or three letter root, a combination of letters that can be conjugated and transformed to expand its meaning. One of the many reasons why Jewish tradition holds that the letters themselves contain mystical powers is because they are the source of all words of Torah.
Rabbi Mó and I are currently teaching a four-week Talmud class using the SVARA method. Perhaps the most unique pedagogical innovation of SVARA is the instruction to look up every word in the text, even if you think you know what it means. The goal is to understand not just the word, but the root of every word. To understand its essence, and from there, to reimagine its meaning.
This past week, we came across the word Torah in the passage of Talmud. And as you can imagine, most of us, once we decoded it, felt pretty sure we knew what Torah meant. Torah is Torah, after all. But determining its root requires something akin to grammar archeology. And what we discovered is that the root of Torah (ירה, ירי) means to permeate, to penetrate, to throw, to shoot forth. Torah is a path, it is an arrow in motion. This is why the first earth-soaking rain of the season is called yoreh, from the same root, for it shoots forth towards the ground.
When one digs a little deeper (in the dictionary), you can see that Torah means to point out, to direct, to teach and instruct. Which is to say, that Torah is not just any old kind of instruction. It is one that penetrates and permeates our lives, one that directs our actions.
It is a custom during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavout when we are meditating towards the revelation of Torah to study the six chapters of Pirkei Avot. Which is fitting for many reasons, not least of all because the final chapter is about Torah itself.
About the tablets that Moses received on Sinai upon which were engraved the 10 Commandments, it teaches, "Don't read the world חרות (charut, which means engraved), rather read it as חרות (cherut, which means freedom), because there is no freer person than someone who is busy studying Torah and all who study Torah will be raised up" (Pirkei Avot 6:2).
In this broken world (which contains our broken tablets), Torah is meant to be that which permeates within us a feeling of freedom, that which reconnects us to our instincts and our insights. It is from this sense of penetrating ease and purposeful direction that revelation is possible; in which we are reminded, again and again, we were all at Sinai. None of us are more or less entitled to Torah or truth.
This week in particular, as we have spent the past several weeks reading about the purity and impurity of women's bodies in the book of Leviticus, I want to direct our learning towards a world built on a foundation of reproductive justice. May we have the courage to reveal a Torah that manifests dignity and agency for all people, במהרה בימינו, speedily and in our days.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.