“torah” from Everywhere and Everyone

J Street

I’m honored that J Street asked me to write this month’s “The Two-Way Street”, a d’var Torah about Shavuot. I hope you enjoy it. Shabbat Shalom and Moadim L’Simcha. – Rabbi Neil

“torah” from Everywhere and Everyone

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels

Years ago, I was taught the difference between “Torah” and “torah,” the former being a subset of the latter. Torah is a noun. “torah” is a verb. This beautiful notion is one of the most attractive things to me about our heritage and the way we study — “Revelation” is a fluid notion; the idea that the first nugget of Jewish interplay with the Universe was just the beginning of a never-ending unraveling. 

On Shavuot, we celebrate “torah” rather than “Torah” — the beautifully complex, exhilarating, sometimes frustrating, limitless process of “receiving.” Our tradition sees Shavuot as z’man matan Torahteinu, the season of the giving of our Torah. “torah,” on the other hand, is different. The emphasis of the process of “torah” is receiving. It is also searching. It is a journey of the heart, a journey for sincerity — for the emotive over the intellectual. “torah” is not the speaking, but rather the hearing. Better yet, it is the listening to what is spoken. “torah” assumes the boundaries of “Torah” are porous; a continual flow of perspectives and ideas going in and out. “torah” assumes the “Torah” was not given pre-formed and rigid, but rather as clay that bids the receiver to begin kneading and molding. “torah” never dries into inflexibility. “torah” is open and inviting. “torah” includes all knowledge and all quests for understanding. 

I began engaging with “torah” just weeks after I became Bar Mitzvah. I was following along with the Hebrew when I decided to scan the English at the same time. What I read was phrase after phrase of a theology that I could not believe. I didn’t know what to do. As the years went on, I began a wrestling match that was both difficult and fruitful. I began to say one thing and think another (or several “others”), trying to put into words what my heart was feeling. The struggle has continued to this day, and it is my comfort zone. If I’m not struggling, I don’t feel as though I’m receiving “torah.” That initial experience when I was thirteen was a Sinai moment. I was there, at the bottom of the mountain, being handed a small piece of my tradition — a taste of being inside the wrestling matches that had gone on before me, and a still-small-voice was saying, “Here, Neil. It’s your turn. What are you going to do with this?” The vision appeared to be about giving, but I felt it much more as the process and responsibility of receiving. 

There have been many Sinai moments since then, and I am grateful for them all. I welcome them. I seek them out. I realize it is the sacred task of every Jew to be in that process, that “discussion,” as my teacher Dr. Larry Hoffman says. 

We can seek understanding of the Palestinians through the lens of a Sinai moment. We who are passionate about a two-state solution being the only dignified and respectable outcome for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must look to Palestinian texts as part of what descends from Sinai. In 1974, I found some early Palestinian poetry about “The Land” that sounds just like early Zionist pieces. Such love, such yearning, cannot come from a different mountain. This must be “torah” too.

Have a “receptive” Shavuot.


I saw you on thorny hills
A sheepless shepherd — chased 
I saw you on the ruins and once
You were a green orchard 
I stood a stranger 
Knocking at your door
The doors, the windows, the cemented stone 

I saw your face in the wells
In the granaries — torn 
I saw you a waitress in the night cafes 
I saw through the tears and wounds
And you are the words on my lips 
You are the fire
And the water

I saw you at the mouth of a cave 
Hanging your orphan’s rags
I saw you in the stalls, in the streets 
Warming yourself by the fire
I saw you in the lamentations of misery 
In blood dripping from the sun
In the salt of the sea and the sand 
And yet 
You were as beautiful as the earth
As children

I swear
From my eyelashes I shall weave you
A kerchief
With words sweeter than honey 
And kisses I shall write: 
Palestinian you were
And so you will remain

 – Mahmoud Darweesh

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels is the spiritual leader of Beth Shir Shalom, the progressive Reform synagogue in Santa Monica/West Los Angeles. He facilitates spiritual celebrations and observances that are tapestries of music, poetry, meditative moments, learning and reflective translations of traditional prayers from a non-dual theological perspective.

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