By Robert Lichtman
As we sit together to learn Torah one of us says the blessing associated with the mitzvah of Torah-learning, a blessing found at the very beginning of virtually every prayer book, “Blessed are You, Lord, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us la’asok b’DiVRei Torah – to engage with words of Torah.” And then we learn.
This blessing is placed at the beginning of the siddur because in the seder, the order of things, it comes at the beginning of our day. It is not necessarily a blessing only about learning the Torah’s words (DiVRei Torah), it is about all the Torah stuff (D’VaRim), all the mitzvah-matters that we will be steeped in today for which there is no other mitzvah blessing. And that is why the language of the blessing is not about a mitzvah “to learn Torah,” it is “la’asok b’DiVRei Torah” which can be understood as a mitzvah to be “steeped – engrossed – immersed – saturated – soaked – drenched in Torah matters.” I take the liberty to consider this expanded interpretation for this blessing based on the mitzvot that are cited as Torah-matters (DiVRei Torah) following the blessing; the list begins like this: “Elu D’VaRim – These are the mitzvah-matters (D’VaRim) that have no measure … These are the mitzvah-matters (D’VaRim) for which a person reaps reward in this world and in the next…” And when I scan these D’VaRim I see our Jewish communal agendas:
Feeding the hungry through our Food Pantry; Personal offerings to support the community through grass-roots fundraising; Viewing the majesty of Jerusalem through the eyes of a student on Birthright; Acts of kindness through volunteerism; Honoring parents in our elder-care programs; Participating in Jewish learning through support for Jewish education; Hospitality to guests at a Moishe House; Visiting the sick through our chaplaincy programs; Supporting a newlywed through our Jewish Family Service; Escorting the dead through our Burial Society; Focus on prayer through our synagogues, Bringing peace among people through community relations activities. All this Torah stuff (D’VaRim), the list-maker concludes, are the equivalent of any Torah study (DiVRei Torah) that is sanctified by our blessing.
A lesser-known explanation for the destruction of the Temple which we mourn on the 9th of Av is that while we did learn Torah, we did not say this mitzvah blessing (Bava Metziah 85a-b). Or, shall we say, we were engrossed in Torah matters, but we neglected to sanctify our work as holy. This disconnect between our actions and our intentions severed the connection between God and us. For the 9th of Av to have meaning, we not only mourn, but we ask: What can we learn from our past to create the future that we want? We can learn to articulate the connection between our organizational passion and our holy purpose. We can learn to re-position our work not only as a responsibility, or as a privilege, or as bearing the mantle of citizenship, but as the communal expression of kedusha/sanctity that we invoke when we say “asher kid’shanu, who has sanctified us with the mitzvah to be steeped in Torah stuff.” These words adorn us in a canopy of kedusha / holiness no less when we gather around a conference table than when we gather around a Torah scroll. Every item on our agenda is a D’var Torah.