Shavuot 5778: Torah from the Heart

Our synagogue had a wonderful event on Shavuot eve in which people shared their personal Torah. Each person spoke from the heart, and we experienced learning about ourselves and each other as the community opened their hearts to each other and made a sacred and safe space to do so. I’m so grateful I was invited to be a part. Here are the words I shared.

Adele Faber, co-author of the parenting book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (among many others) explains how we often deny children’s feelings. “I’m tired!” they say. “But you just took a nap!” we respond. She taught me that both things can be true. And two things can be true for the same person at the same time—she explained how important it can be for a child to hear, “You love your new baby sister, and you also wish she would go away.” This non-binary way of thinking can be liberating.

Sometimes what is in our heart is conflicted. As the musical Avenue Q puts it, “The more you love someone, the more you want to kill them.” The Torah I have learned is not a Torah of either/or. It is a Torah of both/and, of holding two conflicting ideas at once.

Our tradition teaches us this. Shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad, we sing in L’cha Dodi. In one utterance, we heard both keep Shabbat and remember Shabbat. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chaim—both these words and those words (which appear to conflict) are the words of the living God. Biblical scholar Robert Alter explains that the contradictions in the Torah are not the result of messy editing or unsophisticated thinking but reflect an essential truth; like a “post-Cubist painting which gives us, for example, juxtaposed or superimposed, a profile and a frontal perspective of the same face.” This is the artist’s way of representing a complex reality. He goes on to explain, “the biblical outlook is informed, I think, by a sense of stubborn contradiction, of a profound and ineradicable untidiness in the nature of things, and it is toward the expression of such a sense of moral and historical reality that the composite artistry of the Bible is directed.”

The Torah of both/and teaches that we don’t only have the potential to be or feel or experience two things, but that we do perceive, feel and identify as two things at the same time. Let me suggest a few of these contrasts which I experience for you to consider for yourself.

I accept the truths of science and the truths of the Torah.

I am a part of a community and apart from it.

I am thankful for the time I have with certain people and in certain places, and at the same time I mourn what might have been when it turns out differently than I had hoped.

I both love Israel and am critical of it.

I can exert my power while at the same time I give it away.

I can be on a diet and feel completely satisfied. (Just kidding!)

I am simultaneously safe and vulnerable.

I am both productive and procrastinating.

I am certain, and I am open to having my mind changed.

I am both privileged and persecuted.

I am whole, and I am broken.

I am right, and I am wrong.

I am at once a teacher and a learner.

Embracing both/and is not trying to please everyone or a refusal to commit. It is rather an attempt to express a larger truth about the messiness of life, the diversity of experience, and our capacity to live with complexity.

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