An educator's experience
What Torah can I teach right now?
An answer comes to us from our past.
On the Monday after the news broke of the horrible attacks in Israel, I was scheduled to teach a monthly Torah learning session that meets in a community member’s home. When I emailed the organizers to check whether the group still wanted to meet, they responded with an unequivocal yes and asked me to switch my previously planned topic to “Torah that can help us with a crisis like this.”
This is the challenge that so many Jewish educators and professionals face right now. Our jobs and responsibilities haven’t been paused. Instead, our students and community members rely on us even more than in normal circumstances. We have to continue to teach, facilitate and inspire — but what Torah can we bring to speak to the unspeakable horrors and the continuing unfolding devastation happening in Israel? How can we sit in a comfortable living room in Maryland and talk about meaningful Torah while Israelis are shell-shocked on the other side of the ocean?
I opened the learning session by allowing people to share what they were feeling. They were sad and angry and devastated and bewildered.
We then turned to the writings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe.
Rabbi Shapira wrote from the Warsaw Ghetto from 1939-1941. If ever there was an example of Torah’s ability to speak to the greatest devastation, Rabbi Shapira’s Torah is that example. He teaches us that in moments of the greatest brokenness, in times of seeming helplessness and powerlessness, we can turn to Torah and, in doing so, draw near to God.
Rabbi Shapira speaks to the inability of one who is suffering directly to learn Torah, let alone teach it. He writes: “There are times when a person wonders about himself, thinking, ‘I am broken. I am ready to burst into tears at any moment, and in fact, I break down in tears from time to time. How can I possibly learn Torah? What can I do to find the strength not just to learn Torah but to discover new Torah and piety?’”
How can one learn Torah when all they are able to do is break down and cry? Like us in our time, he both feels inadequate to his task, and questions the impulse to do the work at all.
“Then there are times when a person beats his heart, saying, ‘Is it not simply my own heartlessness allowing me to be so stubborn, to learn Torah in the midst of my pain, and in the midst of the pain of the Jews whose suffering is so great?’ And then he answers himself, ‘But I am so broken. I have cried so much, my whole life is fraught with grief and dejection.’ He is lost inside, and does not find resolution.”
I told my Monday class that I was still OK to teach, but I was not. I was not OK to do much of anything that week. One day, I cried all day and accomplished little of my work. Another day was a productive work day: I accomplished tasks directly related to the crisis in Israel and work related to future programs, and I felt good about the work I did to support our community here and also to create more opportunities for Torah learning in the future. But I felt guilty, too.
I cannot in any way equate my experience to the experience of Rabbi Shapira writing from the Warsaw Ghetto, nor can I equate my experience in America with the experience of people right now in Israel. Like Rabbi Shapira, however, I wondered: Is it not simply my own heartlessness that allows me to teach now? Even if I can manage the mental and emotional capacity to do my work, is it appropriate to do the mundane tasks of sending emails, taking meetings and planning program logistics when so many innocent people are actively being held hostage and killed in Israel and Gaza?
But Rabbi Shapira’s record of his struggle is itself Torah that we can share. I brought these teachings to the learning group; despite my misgivings about teaching at all at this moment, this Torah spoke to them. They had a chance to connect with other people in the height of so many emotions and to ground their experience in Torah.
The fact is that people need Torah to help them, and they need to learn it together, in person, in this moment; and it is our role to facilitate that for them. All Jewish professionals, whether they are educators, data managers or bus captains, have an important part to play right now.
Going forward, there will be days when we are unable to do anything productive at all; when we think, how can we work in the midst of so much suffering? But there will also be days when, despite our heartache, we must and will do the mundane tasks that allow us to support our communities as Jewish educators and professionals. We will send emails, plan programs, manage logistics. We will do this life-giving work because it is crucial, even amidst the continued suffering. We will do this work because when we lean into Torah, we have and offer those we teach the opportunity to draw near to God and to each other.
In this moment there are so many needs: for logistics, for money, for blood donors, for political advocates. But there is also work that those of us whose job is Torah can and must do to support our communities. No Torah can erase the suffering in Israel right now; that is too immense of a task even for Torah. But even still, Torah is comfort. It is life-giving. Torah is the way in which we as Jews process and respond to the events of our lives. May we continue to find the balance of holding our own despair and the suffering of others while continuing to move forward in our work, as uncomfortable as it may feel and as necessary as it is.
Rabbi Avi Strausberg is the Hadar Institute’s director of national learning initiatives.