Bring it close! I urge my students, reading from the prayerbook familiar words from the Torah service: “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.”
They look at me with a mix of wonder, uncertainty and straight-out stress. Do what? Write a d’var Torah – an interpretation of Torah. Yes, really, choose a piece of Torah that speaks to you or your life and write about it. Tell us what speaks to you personally!
And so the process unfolds, worried looks, emailed Google documents from an octogenarian, encouragement to talk to children and grandchildren. Go call that granddaughter in college – ask her what she thinks. Permission to take time out of a busy life to go sit in a coffee shop quietly and think and write. Frustration and even some anger shot my way. Throughout, I hold their hands as it were, and repeatedly remind, “You really can do this. I promise.”
Because they can. I’ve seen it a hundred times (actually). Adult students writing divrei Torah – short interpretations of Torah – as they prepare for their adult bar/bat mitzvah service. By the time we reach this point, they have studied for over a year, built a community together and learned to read Hebrew. They are preparing for a service in which they will, together, lead, read Torah and teach.
It’s my favorite time, because the (self-defined) writers and the non-writers, speakers and non-speakers realize that they have something to say about a word, a verse or a concept from Torah, and they say it! Accomplished adults in the rest of their lives, they are often more nervous than their 13-year-old counterparts in this setting. At first they hold Torah at arm’s length, not believing that they have a valid point or perspective.
Throughout, I remind them to hold Torah close, to bring Torah to themselves and themselves to Torah. We don’t need an academic treatise on the Ten Commandments. Please don’t pontificate on freedom from arm’s length. Think about what this portion – or one word, one verse, one concept – say to you? How does it speak, to YOU? The response? Uncertainty, doubt and protests.
And then, slowly, it happens. The adults bring Torah to life and life to Torah. Memories of a grandfather’s plum tree whose fruit became holiday wine. Reflections from a trip to Berlin and Prague resulting in the first commandment paralleled to a selfie-stick. Honesty about becoming a bar mitzvah at 95, because his father died young and the family couldn’t afford Hebrew school. Bravado about keeping up with her young granddaughters studying Hebrew. Remembering a deceased son who fulfilled his immigrant grandfather’s Ivy League dreams. Admitting real doubt about God after the Sho’ah, while maintaining awe at the sun rising each day. Confessing years of coveting what neighbors had and explaining how she found contentment. Laughing about early vegetarian Shabbat dinner adventures. Elderly students thanking much younger classmates who treated them lovingly as if they were mothers, providing rides to and from class to keep them safe.
Ultimately, after crumpled drafts, one-on-one conversations, late night panics, and early morning emails, the adult b’nei mitzvah students reach a personal place. To get there each has wrestled with Torah and been in conversation – with themselves, with family, with deceased ancestors, with whomever! My role? Challenge, cajole, edit, and enforce the one-page limit despite their grumbling. They do the work of it. They bring Torah close. It is theirs.