“Bring it close!” I urge my students, reading from the prayer book familiar words from the Torah service: “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.”
They look at me with a mix of wonder, uncertainty and straight-out stress. “Do what?!”
“Write a d’var Torah– a short interpretation of Torah. Yes, really. Choose a piece of Torah that speaks to you or your life and write about it. Tell us what speaks to you personally!”
And so, the process unfolds, replete with worried looks, Google documents emailed from an octogenarian, encouragement to talk to children and grandchildren. Call that granddaughter in college – ask her what she thinks. Take time to sit quietly in a coffee shop to think and write. Frustration and even some anger get shot my way. Throughout, I hold their hands, as it were, and repeatedly remind them, “You can do this. Really. I promise.”
And they can.
I’ve seen it a hundred times. Adult students writing divrei Torah as they prepare for their adult b’nai mitzvah service. By the time we reach this point, they have studied for over a year, built a community together, and learned to read Hebrew. They are preparing for a service in which, together, they will lead, read Torah, and teach.
It’s my favorite part of the process, because the (self-defined) writers and the non-writers, speakers and non-speakers all realize they have something to say about a word, a verse, or a concept from Torah – and they say it! Accomplished adults in the other parts of their lives, they are often more nervous than their 13-year-old counterparts in this setting. At first they hold Torah at arm’s length, not believing that they have a valid point or perspective.
Throughout, I remind them to hold Torah close, to bring Torah to themselves and to bring themselves to Torah. We don’t need an academic treatise on the Ten Commandments. Please don’t pontificate on freedom from arm’s length. Think about what this portion – or one word, one verse, one concept – says to you. How does it speak to you? The response? Uncertainty, doubt, and protests.
And then, slowly, it happens.
The adults bring Torah to life and life to Torah. Memories of a grandfather’s plum tree whose fruit became holiday wine. Reflections from a trip to Berlin and Prague lead to a lesson in the first commandment, built around a selfie-stick. Honesty about becoming a bar mitzvah at 95, because his father died young and the family couldn’t afford Hebrew school. Bravado about keeping up with young granddaughters studying Hebrew. Remembering a deceased son who fulfilled his immigrant grandfather’s Ivy League dreams. Admitting real doubt about God after the Shoah, yet maintaining awe at the sunrise each day. Confessing how years of coveting what neighbors had led to a successful search for contentment. Laughing about early vegetarian Shabbat dinner adventures. Thanking younger classmates who treated them lovingly, as if they were mothers, providing rides to and from class to keep them safe.
After countless crumpled drafts, one-on-one conversations, late night panics, and early morning emails, each adult b’nai mitzvah student achieves a personal connection to Torah. To get there each has wrestled and conversed – with themselves, with the text, with family, with deceased ancestors, with whomever.
Challenge, cajole, edit, and enforce the one-page limit despite their grumbling. They do the work of it. They bring Torah close. It is theirs.
On Shavuot morning, May 20, 18 adults, ages 28-90, will be called to the Torah at North Shore Congregation Israelin Glencoe, IL, after a year and a half of study, exploration of personal theology, experiential learning, and supporting one another in their lives.