Rabbi Arthur Waskow
What the Rabbis taught about teaching and learning was that all Torah study should begin and end with blessings, just as eating does. Often, in liberal Jewish circles today, these blessings are not done. But without them, it is easier for Torah study to feel like a mere academic discussion, devoid of spirit. And where the blessings are said but only by rote, it is easier for Torah study to feel merely antiquarian and automatic. In Jewish-renewal style, how can we bring new kavvanah --- spiritual meaning, intention, focus, intensity -- to these blessings -- and therefore to the process of Torah study itself?
When I go out to speak and to teach, I define Torah study broadly to include not only traditional text study but also all serious examination of emerging Torah -- where we are going into the new world of the next Judaism, and how it might address such down-to-earth questions as food, money, sex, the earth, rest. So it is not only when we gather in a circle to study a text but also when I am giving a talk or lecture on these subjects, to be followed by a discussion, that I explain this is a process of learning Torah together, and therefore I will begin and end with blessings.
I start with an untraditional version of the traditional brocha. It is in the "asher kidshanu" form ("who makes us holy through mitzvot... "), and ends, "La'asok b'divrei Torah" -- literally, "to involve ourselves with words of Torah." My form is untraditional in that I use "YAHH" instead of "Adonai" and "ruach ha'olam" instead of "melech," explaining that these are aimed toward experiencing God as the Breath of Life rather than King and Lord; and I usually suggest that for me, "mitzvah" means not "command" but "connection." (In some Semitic languages, the cognate verb means "connect." Hassidic teachings often viewed a mitzvah as a connection. With or without this "etymodrushic" connection -- if an act does not help connect the world into One, it isn't a mitzvah.)
I often, teasingly but also seriously, draw on a bilingual pun I learned from my friend and teacher Rabbi Max Ticktin -- to translate "La'asok" as -- "to soak ourselves in the living waters of the Torah." Sometimes I will add that Torah itself means not "the Law" or even "the Teaching," but is a word that comes from archery and means the process of aiming toward the target. (From the same root, "moreh/ morah" is a teacher who aims or points toward the truth; "yoreh" is rain that comes down like arrows. "Cheyt," usually translated "sin," is also an archery word; it means "missing the target.")
So I will explain some of that, say "Blessed are You, Breath of Life, Who makes us holy through connections and breathes into us the wisdom to connect by breathing together with each other and with all of life; bt shaping our breath into words; and by shaping our words so that they aim toward wisdom, becoming words of Torah." [or, " soaking ourselves in the living waters of Torah,"] and then say the brocha in Hebrew with "YAHH" and "ruach" and sometimes feminine verbs, and with "b'mitzvot" rather than "b'mitzvotav" or "b'mitzvoteha," so as to avoid the masculine or feminine "his" or "her."
Then when the class or discussion is over, I will ask people to stand -- if possible, in a single circle. I explain that I see "smei rabbah," the Great Name, which is the main Name of Goid in the Kaddish, as that Name that has within it all the names, all the indentities, of all the beings in the universe -- every galaxy, every quark, every quirk, every frog, every human. The I invite the fellowship to lift up the names of some of their etachers -- human and other -- into the Great Name; then to add the names of those (humans and others) whose lives they themselves have changed; and finally to lift into the growing pattern of the Great Name their own names. I may invite them to place this pattern of a part of the Great Name within themselves. Then I may proceed, mostly in English:
"Al Yisrael v'al rabbanan v'al talmidaihon v'al kol talmidai talmidaihon...
For the people Israel and
for all who wrestle with God;
For our teachers the Rabbis and
for all our teachers;
For their students --
including ourselves -- and
for the students of their students --
including those whom we go forth to teach --
[and I literally, physically, look around the circle, making eye contact, as I say this]
For all in any language, any culture, who come together
to breathe and shape their breath, their words, to aim toward wisdom
in this place
and in every place --
[and I will usually make two strong gestures, one to encompass this very place and one to reach beyond it]
For all these may there be ...
peacefulness within and peace in the world,
a healthy and a healing life,
an honorable and sufficient livelihood
that comes from working with the earth, as part of it,
not from it or upon it --
and above all, a sense that all these blessings
come not from our own efforts only,
but from our efforts as part of the great
weave of Unity -- the Breath of Life.
v'nomar .... ameyn."
I'm not suggesting that these words be what always get said. I vary them depending on what is uppermost in the learning we have just done together. I do suggest that some version of the paragraph in English, said "freehand" out of clear and direct intention (kavvanah) be said at the end of study. Not necessarily instead of the Hebrew, but for sure as well, in order to ensure that the blessings and the sense that learning is a holy act become actually and totally present in the real world of the very people and place of this particular time of study, as well as to all others. (Sometimes for the same reason I pause at the list of blessings besought, and ask the people actually present to name the blessings we need.)
Let me add that in regard to Mourners' Kaddish, for myself and sometimes for sharing aloud if I happen to be leading davvening, there is great spiritual power in focusing on what it means to "Magnify and sanctify the Great Name." For me the Great Name, the "shmei rabbah," is that Name that has all names within it. -- When we focus on the dead, that Great Name has as part of it a newly bright name, the name of the one who has just died or is being remembered. The name of our beloved dead has of course been a part of the Great Name all along. What is new is that in remembering the dead, we magnify and sanctify that Great Name by shining new light upon this name within it -- a name that in our own lives may have become dimmer, but in the Great Name can now become far brighter.
*Waskow is the founder and director of The Shalom Center -- a prophetic voice in Jewish, multireligious, and American life.. He is the author of Godwrestling -- Round 2, Seasons of Our Joy, and Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life as well as author, co-author, and editor of many other books..