Using Your Voice
By Heather Blake
During the opening session of Pardes Summer Program Session 1, Rabba Yaffa Epstein, my brilliant Introduction to Talmud teacher, introduced the text from Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 88b-89a. In this text, Moses ascends to the heavens to receive the Torah. Not only is God there but Moses is also surrounded by angry angels. These angels are mad because they are perfect infinite beings completely capable of keeping the Torah alive forever and God wants to give the Torah to humans, who are prone to make mistakes and who could forget the Torah and not pass it on. God’s response to the angels is for Moses to use his voice and answer the angels. Moses is scared, but God offers protection and Moses shares eight of the ten commandments showing that these commandments do not apply to angels: God took humans out of Egypt, angels will not sin, so they do not need to be told do not steal, commit adultery, murder and so on. The Torah is for people- it is not for perfect all-knowing beings, but for mortals who make mistakes. It is given to us and we have the important responsibility to preserve and pass it down from generation to generation. This opening session set the tone for my time at Pardes.
For the next three weeks, I would delve into the oral Torah, the Talmud, a text that I had no experience with, something that I was not sure I could grasp without significant prior knowledge. Yaffa helped us understand the important history of Talmud, both Palestinian Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. And then we went right into examining Babylonian Talmud in chavruta (partner learning). We studied Tractate Eruvin, which begins with rules about an Eruv, a ritual “fence” that distinguishes the boundaries of a community where Jews are allowed to carry items on Shabbat or Yom Kippur. We explored what sections of the community were included in the eruv. Since the Babylonian Talmud was taught orally for many years before it was codified in 220 C.E., it is not always clear how to spell every word and we looked at the case with the word Me’abrin. The debate ensues with Rav and Shmuel about whether we spell Me’abrin with an alef or ayin- both words mean to extend but with different roots and connotations. The text continues to emphasize the power of using exact language
Before I knew it, the Talmud moved in a new direction sharing about Rabbis journeys and lessons that do not necessarily seem to relate to the concept of Eruv. Yaffa taught us that these “tangents” hold great meaning and we delved into understanding them. One of these “tangents” in Gemara-Eruvin 53b-54a was particularly meaningful. פתח פומיך קרי פתח פומיך תני כי היכי דתתקיים ביך “Open Your mouth and read Torah, open your mouth and learn in order that your studies should endure in you…” This line perfectly sums up my experience at Pardes. I learned the importance of having a chavruta partner to discuss the Talmud. I could not understand all the different nuances until hearing different perspectives from my partner, classmates and historical significance and insight from my teacher Yaffa Epstein. Every class was a discussion. We used our voices and expressed our frustrations, our different viewpoints, and how the text relates to our daily lives.
This Torah was not made for immortal perfect angels, but for us and we all have a voice. It is our privilege, our responsibility to learn Torah, to use our voice to understand its meanings. It is never too late to learn Torah. There were students at Pardes ranging from 19-85 from all different countries and backgrounds united by the desire to study Jewish texts.
The Torah is a living document that can be understood in a myriad of ways as we age and grow. We will wrestle with challenging parts and we will be inspired by other parts, but ultimately it is our precious gift. We have the ability to use our voices, so that Torah endures in us and future generations.