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"Embracing the Mysteries of Torah"

Michele Liedeker's Adult Bat Mitzvah Talk • June 23, 2018

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Michele Liedeker

It all began when I was told to kiss a book. As a child I had dropped the thick blue hardback with the shiny silk string that we opened during High Holy Day services in Presque Isle, Maine. It was a thing of mystery and awe. I was told that it had Hebrew letters in it and sacred text!  I kissed the book and thus began my wonder and fear of engaging with Judaism.


People over the millennia have fought and died over the right and pleasure to study Torah. What is so controversial about the first five books of the Hebrew Bible?  Surely I should take time to examine the contents.  I am grateful to Jewish Gateways for helping me start to unravel and embrace the mysteries and remain in awe.  Kadosh. Kadosh. Kadosh.

Let me begin by acknowledging that Torah reading can be challenging. The writing may be dense or at first glance seemingly nonsensical or profoundly irrelevant!  I find Torah study much like law school. Why study 18th century criminal codes? What does this have to do with the practice of law today?  What does Torah have to do with my life and how I choose to live it?


When I began Torah study with this lively, intelligent, sincere and inquisitive group, I approached it much like I did law school.  Much like law school, I had the false impression that I was entering with a relatively clear mind. It was law school that was turning the world grey, murky and left me untethered. So I tried to bolster myself against fierce winds and stay focused on the main points.


When I read this section, Parashat Chukat, I just steamed through it, trying not to get caught in the weeds. After all, the part I was assigned to study in Hebrew involved ancient rituals surrounding handling corpses, purification processes and even about putting lids on containers. 


The Rabbi’s guidance was foremost in my mind. This b’nei mitzvah study can help us explore our Jewish identity – asking questions such as:


What is my Jewish identity? 

How have I defined it? 

How do I choose to define it? 

What does it mean to me?


What came to me immediately in this section was the issue of Aaron handing down his vestments to his son.  


Here’s the context for Parashat Chukat, which appears in Numbers, the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible. The Jewish people have fled Egypt, where they had been enslaved for 430 years, and are on their way to the land of milk and honey.  While wandering in the desert for 40 years, they experience hunger and thirst and cry out for sustenance. They had been restlessness and questioning about this foolhardy venture, with some wanting to return to Egypt – a land of oppression vs a land of the unknown.


“Hashem spoke to Moses, saying 'Take the staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aaron, your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters. You shall bring forth for them water from the rock and give drink to the assembly and to their animals.'” 


Moses took the staff. He and Aaron gathered the congregation before the rock and he said to them, “Listen now, O rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock with his staff twice; abundant water came forth and the assembly and their animals drank.


Moses did not heed God’s word. Not only did he strike the rock when he was supposed to have spoken to it, but he hit the rock twice. In addition, before striking it, Moses referred somewhat mockingly to the people he was leading as rebels…. These and other aspects of this parsha involve whole other satellite issues to explore.  Just like in law school, with the study of Torah, one sees many issues to delve into and parse – much like our constitution, which I also like to think of as a living, breathing document in which volumes of discussion may emanate from short phrases like due process and the pursuit of happiness.


In any event, as a result of this episode, Moses and Aaron are told they shall not enter the land which God had given them. Aaron in particular was to be stripped of his vestments and to dress Eleazar his son in them.


What came to me immediately in this section was the issue of Aaron handing down his vestments to his son. Aha I thought! This I can relate to. This is a metaphor for my Jewish identity. No I don’t mean I need to be the long-suffering Jewish mother, giving away the clothes off one’s back. I mean this giving of the vestments is like handing down the Jewish traditions – warts and all. 


I feel those vestments upon me. I have been wrapped in a warm cloak of pedagogy that is both grounded and stretched. The baggage is there, yet so is the steadfast reliability of a garment created by others, preserved by others, tested over time, added to and subtracted from, embellished in a variety of tastes – fashion-forward and not so much…


Throughout this short-term Torah study I have been struck by how flawed our cherished heroes of Judaism are. Why would I choose to wrap myself in a vestment made ragged by flaws? Yes – in the Hebrew Bible, even God the almighty has piques of anger, smiting often and in large numbers with unwavering hand.


In this class we discussed the name Israel, as explained in the Torah as meaning “you have wrestled (or struggled) with God and people and been able,” or it can be understood to mean a person who wrestles with God or a people who wrestle with God, since “Yisra” is like the word for wrestle or struggle and El is a name for God. Yisra + el  is wrestle + God, or Yisra’el. 


Well, each of us strives and struggles to find meaning in our lives, in our actions, in our friendships, in our love. We don’t always make the kindest or compassionate decisions. However we may always look to the past for guidance – what works, what does not, and use that as a basis for moving forward.


No matter what cloak we wear, it helps to acknowledge that hand-me-down. You may choose to eschew the threads – an entrapment of sorts, but you may also choose to adorn yourself with it in any fashion that works for you. I choose to pass this cloak down in the spirit of sharing, questioning and eternal wonder.


It is my fervent wish that Elijah and Leonie shall take Judaism – examine it up close, recognize all the design qualities; try it on different ways for comfort but also for challenge and growth; struggle with it – to make it better for themselves, for others and for the world.

Finally, for me, the prayer work we also engaged in during this class speaks to me in this manner – again as handed down by our ancestors: Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh. Holy. Holy. Holy. I want to stay consciously grounded – letting those vestments of our heritage embrace me as I go about my journey in life, while choosing to remain in awe.

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