Imagine a woman in ancient days
courting a man. Like the singer of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, this woman knows the mans she wants and is ready to act within the behaviors of her time to reveal herself, to attract his attention, his interest and his passion.
At first, she arranges herself so he will see her in her window as he passes by. Perhaps she makes a trip to the marketplace designed for him to see her more closely. At such a time, she may even share a few words with him, or only a glance.
The man’s interest is awakened by these tantalizing glimpses. He sees her once, speaks to her, and now wants to learn and know more of this fascinating woman. He initiates a courting process and finds chances to see her, to get to know her, to learn who she is. He gazes into her eyes in the pursuit of true, intimate knowledge.
In the fullness of time and passion, they are wed. And now all is revealed fully. Only there is still the joy of discovery. Even later, after years of sharing a bed and themselves with each other, there are still moments of intimacy and surprise. Sometimes they play a game of discovery again, imagining those beloved days of their youth.
This is the metaphor the Zohar uses to describe Torah study: The Torah herself becomes the woman, tantalizing us with glimpses of meaning. Perhaps we are at a service and hear “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” And those words are a revelation and a challenge. Or at home we open up our Bible and read about the struggles of Abraham and Sarah and their families and realize: Yes, that is about me.
Each little glimpse, each tantalizing revelation, hints at more and encourages us to take up our suit. The metaphor need not be gender-specific, either. Rather, it invites us to see that our most passionate self can be awakened by Torah.
Shavuot, the festival that celebrates receiving the Torah, invites us into its hidden chambers. Many have the custom of studying all night, learning about the mysteries of Torah, as we ready ourselves to receive her. Each moment of study has a potentially erotic quality as we are turned on to the possibilities that Torah offers us in our lives. And then, after a night of learning, of intimacy with Torah, we celebrate anew our wedding vows as we read again of the revelation at Sinai, the giving of the Ten Commandments.
The rabbis ask: Does Torah speak in the language of God, or of men? Well, she appears differently to different people. And her clothing, the reified words of Torah that we read and experience today, are not her true essence. So like all great debates, the answer is yes: Torah is both human and divine, like any lover fully present and fully hidden.
The Zohar promises that Torah is trying to invite and entice. When moments of inspiration or discovery come to us in surprising ways from Jewish learning, they are Torah’s way of standing in the window, or casting a glance our way in the marketplace. They are an invitation to pick up our suit, to seek her out as well, and uncover the hidden mysteries of meaning clothed in her deep inner beauty.
Even later, after years of study, she continues to enthrall and enchant. A passionate marriage may see the intimacy increase over the years; even the physical experience may become more intense and pleasurable. So also with Torah. Her words delight and inspire. There may be moments of struggle with what Torah offers, but they are followed by uplift and joy.
I once had the fortune to study the ethics of Torah with Rabbi Saul Berman. The learning was so well crafted, the knowledge gained so deep and life-changing, that the experience of learning was intensely pleasurable. I finished that four-part session on a high as great as any act of physical intimacy. This is the potential for revelation that exists in every one of us each day.
Shavuot begins Saturday night, May 26. I invite you to find a local Tikkun Leil, an all-night study session, and bring your whole self fully to a night of discovery that, perhaps, might change all of us in an amazing and uplifting fashion.
Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at RabbiBooth@kolemeth.org.