It’s Been 18 Years

A few years ago, we had a friend of mine, and her family, over for Shabbos dinner.  She was a friend from my book group, not Jewish, and over dinner, she casually remarked that she had often read quotations from the Talmud that were interesting, inspiring, thought-provoking.  Did I have a Talmud? she asked.  Yes, I said.  Because, she remarked, she had always wanted to read the Talmud. . . So I took her upstairs to my study and showed her the Talmud — the Talmuds, actually, the Yerushalmi, as well as the more popular and athoratative Bavli.  Oh, she said.  I guess not.

I have just last week completed my first Daf Yomi cycle (with the end of Masechet NIddah) on January 4, and began again the next day, on January 5, with Masechet Brachot.  The Daf Yomi cycle is an international Talmud study project, wherein one learns one folio — one two sided pages, a daf — of Talmud a day.  There are 2,711 dapim in the Talmud.  Learning one daf a day means it takes 7 ½ years to learn the entire Talmud.  

7 ½ years.  7 ½ years ago was 2012.  My daughter, Shira, now in law school, was entering 10th grade.  President Obama was still in his first term.  i was that much younger — we all were.  And I was that much less grey. . . 

People learn Daf Yomi in a variety of ways:  in hevruta — study partners — via podcasts, on the subway to and from work. . . I learn my daf yomi in the morning, alone, before my day starts.  It takes me around 30 -40 minutes most days (some days I skim more than others!).  I learn more regularly than I exercise, than I davan daily — as regularly as I brush my teeth!  And I am here to tell you, this is no way to learn Talmud.  It is a skim, a rush — not a deep understanding of what I read.  While I have made my way through the entire Talmud, I have also been learning Talmud, and other things, in hevruta, in the way one should — slowly plowing our way through the text, wrestling to understand the rabbis, striving to find meaning in it today.  I have read the entire Talmud in less time than it has taken one of my hevruta and I to get through ¾ of the first masechet of the Talmud, Tractate Brachot!

And yet, it is not לימוד לבטלה learning in vain.  By going through the entire Talmud, I have been exposed to whole topics I never would have otherwise known.  Some months and tractates were fascinating on their face:  during the months and years I was learning the “Babas,” Baba Kama, Baba Metzia, and Baba Batra, which comprise Masechet Nezikim, “Damages,” Law, my husband Ben and I would have a wonderful conversation virtually every morning as he got ready for work about Tort law — American and rabbinic.  Over the years, I would share fun, inspiring, troubling, and just odd stories with my daughter Shira;  be sure to ask her about Rav Safra near fiasco eating bad chicken.  I learned that one should put on the right shoe first, then the left; then, tie the left, then the right, hoping to invoke Gd’s mercy over Gd’s aspect of strict justice.  I discovered just a few weeks ago, in Tractate Niddah, that Rabbi Meir and the other rabbis, understood that women did not usually menstruate while nursing, because Gd turned the blood of menstruation into milk — a theologically, if not medically, satisfying construct.  And I learned to live, once again, with contradictory opinions, with arguments that may not be settled, with Teku, it is not resolved and may not be until Eliyahu HaNavi arrives (if then!).

Sometimes the the argument is the point.  The discussion, the holiness in engaging in the ideas.  Sometimes the law is what matters:  how to make a eruv, when to say the evening Shema (the sugiya with which the Talmud famously begins).  At times, the focus is on ethics, as in Pirkei Avot – the portion of the Mishnah which is often translated as “The Ethics of the Fathers,” but which more literally means “ The Verses or Chapters of the Fathers/Ancestors.”  Pirkei Avot, comprised of 6 chapters traditionally studied on the Shabbat afternoons between Pesach and Shavuot, is the source of many ethical sayings — but is also the source of the legitimacy of the Mishnah, the Talmud, and really the entire rabbinic enterprise itself:  Torah she ba’al peh — the Torah of the mouth, Oral Torah.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that the Torah is multi-vocal, that, in the words of the rabbis, it speaks in “seventy tongues,” that is, in an infinite number of voices at once.  To enter into the world of interpretation of the Torah is to enter into the PARDES, the orchard of meaning.  What is this Orchard? It is the layers through which we might understand the Torah she’b’ch’tav, the Written Torah:  P’shat, Remez, D’rash, Sod.  P’shat — the simple, plain meaning of the text; D’rash — to dig down into the text and interpret it, make meaning, story, midrash;  Remez — the hint, what lies beneath?; and Sod, the secret, mystical level.  Together, these comprise the fulness of Torah, the Torah she’ba’al Peh, the Oral Torah, the black fire burning on the white fire of the page.  

But where does this come from?  Turn to the first mishnah of Pirkei Avot, and we learn: 

משה קבל תורה מסני ומסרה ליהשוע, ויוהשוע לזקנים, וזקנים לנביאים, ונביאים למסרוה לאנשי  כנסת גדולה.  הם אמרו שלשה דברים: הוו  מתונין בדין, והעמידו תלמידים הרבה, ועשו  סיג לתורה.

Moses received the Torah (from Gd) at Sinai and transmitted it to Johsua.  Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets.  The Prophets transmitted it to the men of the Great Assembly.  They said three things:

Be cautious in rendering judgments.

Raise up many students.

And make a fence around the Torah.

This Mishnah explains it all so clearly:  Moshe’s Torah, the one we just read, is not all that Moshe brought down with him:  he also transmitted the Oral Torah — all the interpretations we have of it to this day.  

Because, after all, without the Oral tradition, how would we know how to understand the Torah?  What is the Scroll without its explanations?  without its subtleties?  Rambam, the great scholar Maimonidies wrote of those who would limit the Torah to its p’shat level, to a literal reading alone, and only one at that:  they ma’ab’din ha’drat ha’Torah u’ma’a’filin zohara— they destroy the beauty of the Torah and cast its splendor into darkness.  The text becomes static.  Torah is dead.

But the rabbis, the Talmud, Torah she’b’al peh breathes in new life, resurrecting it.  There is not just one meaning!  Read carefully, they say.  Put forth your view, and yours, and yours, and yours.  And we will keep all of them, write them down even, and preserve them.  The point is not just the resolution of the halachic argument; it is the learning.  The exploration of what Gd might want of us.  Be cautious in judgment — and raise up many students to help you be cautious in judgement.  With all those opinions, you will no doubt preserve Torah.

I am celebrating several things today:  completion of my Daf Yomi cycle last week (and beginning it again!); 18 years today since my major stroke; and, this spring, I will receive my DD, my Doctorate of Divinity from Hebrew Union College, marking 25 years in the rabbinate.  Some folks call it your “Didn’t Die” degree.  In my case, I am grateful for that fact. It has been 18 years for me of being acutely aware of gratitude for not dying:  18 years ago on January 11th, on a Friday morning, in the midst of writing a bulletin article for Temple Micah, I experienced a major stroke.  It is thanks to Ben, 911, the ER at Swedish, TPA and Gd’s own grace and mysterious way, due to hashgacha p’rati, Gd’s Providence (whatever that  means), that I am here today.  18 years.  Chai.  Life.    

What have i learned?  What wisdom?

As most of you know, my rabbinate has taken a turn recently. I left the congregational rabbinate soon after my stroke because I no longer have the sheer physical energy to do the job.  Much of what a congregational rabbi do is invisible, but it is amazing, taking physical, mental, and spiritual effort beyond belief — and we should all be grateful to our rabbi, and our rabbi emeritus, for all they do.  Being a congregational rabbi was a privilege for me and, to be honest, I still miss it at times.. 

So I try to do some of the parts of it that I love, that I am good at (hoping those are the same!).  I teach rabbinic texts in a variety of settings, I learn, not just daf yomi, but in hevruta with 5, 5!, different partners usually once a week.  What a gift, to have the time to do that!

And I work in mental health outreach — here in Denver, and, more and more, on the national Jewish scene.  I work to help shuls — and churches and mosques and organizations — be more welcoming to those with mental illnesses and our families.  Our families.

Because, as I have said before, from this bima, I have a mental illness.  Major Depression.  Bipolar Disorder.  With some anxiety thrown in the mix, just for the fun of it.  And along with chronic fatigue, chronic migraines (I’ve essentially had a migraine for the last 18 years!), dizziness and balance issues, and so forth, the stroke also made my mental illness much worse.

In preaching about mental illness, and my mental illness, from various bimot here in Denver and across North America (that sounds impressive, doesn’t it?  I’ve had a few scholar-in-residence gigs, including one in Canada. . .. ), the most interesting part, for me, has been the reactions I get at the kiddush or oneg Shabbat, after I speak. Invariably, ⅓, ½, the congregation, it seems, approaches to tell me of their own struggle, of the illness of a loved one — a mother, a son, a spouse who is in pain, who they want to help.  And yet they feel invisible.  If we could just talk to one another.

But there is another reaction I find interesting.  When I share my own journey of mental illness, it naturally triggers concern in those who hear me.  And that concern gets expressed in a few different ways.  Some people want to explore treatments I have tried — and have suggestions for what pill, what treatment I should try next, that will surely cure me.  Others, more forcefully, will often say (contrary to what I said in the sermon) “But you are fine now, right?” 

We are so uncomfortable with pain we cannot fix.  The desire to “make it all better” comes from a place of caring — we see hurt, we want to make it better — but also fear:  look, there is suffering and sometimes it just is.  Over and over, when I talk about mental illness, I try to preach, teach, discuss, and impart a few basic ideas, including these two:

First:  Mental illness generally does not happen with just one crisis and one cure.  Serious mental illness, like major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, addiction issues, and so on, these diseases generally will have dips and interventions, remissions, if you will, and recurrences.  This may, will, happen even when the person is fully compliant with the treatment protocol.  Sometimes drugs that were helping stop working so well.  Sometimes treatments fail.  Mental illness is like cancer, or like MS — a chronic disorder with ups and downs.  We speak of healing, not cure.

And second:  unless you are the treating professional, cure is not your job in any case.  What you can do to ease the suffering of someone in pain is to be there.  Full stop.  Sometimes, distraction will help — playing a game together, drinking tea.  Sometimes doing tasks is a big help, as in any illness or difficultly:  it never hurts to bring food or do laundry.  But when someone you care about is  hurting, just being with that person, calmly, patiently, not expecting anything from them, but being there is positively redemptive.  It tells the person that they are worth your time.  It says you value them and you see them.  It is a form of love.

So many of you here today have done that for me, are doing the for me.  And though I may not have answered you text or phone call, it doesn’t mean that I did not appreciate it.  On the contrary.  Your text, your call, your email — they remind me that I matter, that I exist, even when i don’t have the strength to interact like a person.  Thank you for persisting.        

Just a couple of thoughts about endings and beginnings today.   When we finish a book of the Torah, as we did today (when we read the 1/3rd shish) , we say “Hazak, hazak, v’nit’hazek,” be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.  

When we finish a chapter of Talmud, we say Hadran Alecha  and the name of the chapter — we will return to you, this chapter of Talmud.  

Here is what I hope for myself — for all of us.  We hope for more then the next 25 years being just DD—didn’t die.  We want chai, 18, life in those years.  It is not my stroke that has given my 18 or 25  or 50 some- odd years of life meaning —it was a not a “stroke of luck” or “stroke of insight” or any other clever thing I could say.  It was a stroke of really sucky luck.  

But my family and my rabbinate have persisted.  Through the gift of hesed and hen, of unanticipated human love and unexpected, undeserved Divine Grace, here I am — standing before you.

The motto of the Reform Movement in Israel is: 

יש יותר מדרך אחד להיות יהודי.  

There is more than one way to be a Jew.  My 25 years of being a rabbi, 30 years including being a student rabbi, has taught me the truth of that statemtent, just as reading the book of Bereshit might teach all of us that truth:  You can be a Jew like Avraham, Yitzchak or Ya’akov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel or Leah — or someone else — yourself.   

And 71/2 years of reading Talmud have taught me what you all have been saying to me these past 18 years:  

יש יותר מדרך אחד להיות רב

There is more than one way to be a rabbi  Thank you to all of you:  to Ben, to Shira, to my mom, Ann — and to you, my friends, my community, to all of you.  

I have been strengthened by all of you — my family, my friends.  Acting with the middah, the Jewish value of gemilut hasidim, of  generosity of spirit and kindness, you have gone lifnei  mesorat ha’din, beyond what was required by the law, and nurtured me into my new life.  You brought me and my family casseroles and kindness galore; you attended my classes and sat with me over coffee (and Fresca).  You believed I still had a rabbinate with something to offer, and believed in it so fully that I came to believe it –

You helped me see that the end of one chapter was not the end of it all.  Rather, you all helped me return to where I began:  hadran alecha Gd, Torah.  My own Talmud, my own oral exposition of the Torah, of my exposition of Gd in the world — I needed to return to it.  How to serve Gd, despite, with, because of my illness and limitations?  How to learn Torah, teach Torah, be Torah, now that I was no longer a congregational rabbi with a captive audience?  

Oral law, Torah she’ ba’al’peh unfolds naturally, humanly, as does a conversation, moving from one topic to another, in a kind of free association.  Studying it has taught me much about Jewish law, more about Jewish history, personalities, stories — and so much about myself.  It is a gift to return to study it again.  It is a gift to stand before you, to speak of Talmud, of Torah, of life.  My life has also unfolded, from pulpit rabbi to itinerant preacher, from congregational rabbi to teacher of rabbinic text (from time to time) — from kol bo (a solo rabbi who “does it all,” as though that were ever possible) to one who speaks of illness, limits, of those who are shut out and in pain.  Who knows what might be next.        

Thank you for helping me, at the close of the book of bereshit , to have been strengthened all these years — through my illness, through remissions and recurrence, through ups and downs.  You are my community, my family, my friends.  You have put my life, my chai, into these 18 years post-stroke that I am blessed to celebrate with you here this morning.  

hazak, hazek, v’nitchazek.  Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.

Shabbat shalom.                           

Published by Rabbi Sandra Cohen

I am a rabbi working in mental health outreach in the Jewish community both locally (in Denver, CO) and nationally. I use traditional Jewish values(middot/מידות) as a model for reaching out to those with mental health issues and their families. Those values, including compassion and respect, guide and inspire me. I am a determined advocate for those with mental illness and their families. My goal is to support and educate spiritual communities, encouraging them to be more welcoming to the mentally ill. I also teach in a variety of settings in both the Jewish and larger Denver communities. I love rabbinic text, especially Talmud, and that love is reflected in both my teaching and my personal learning (I learn Daf Yomi/a page of Talmud a day, as well as learning Talmud with three separate hevruta/partners each week.) I also offer pastoral care. I am available as a scholar-in-residence nation-wide, with a variety of programs and a flexible pay scale.

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