Knowledge, Life and Shavuot

TBO Youth Leader Danielle Shaposhnikov at the International Reform Zionist Gathering for young leaders in Jerusalem. (Photo supplied).

by Rabbi Gila Caine

Rabbi Gila Caine

(AJNews) – Our shul’s youth leaders, who deal with our tweens and teens, have lots to say about education. And as they themselves are in their late teens, it’s always refreshing to hear them describe their struggles and discoveries. One, Danielle Shaposhnikov, wrote to me “… we are dedicated to provide our participants with a safe community to absorb the skills required to become innovative leaders in a progressive Jewish environment.” What an apt statement of Jewish education! We are all teachers and students in the communal project of learning.

Torah is seen as the “Tree of Life” so whenever we teach or study Torah, we sit together at her roots and on her branches. Being in a Reform Jewish community, we understand our duty to tend the Tree of Life as a person tends her garden – we are entrusted with the holy work of knowing the tree, of watering and pruning and enjoying its fruits. There might be other wonderful trees in the garden, but we were given the duty to care for this one. Which takes us back to education. The mindset of our educators should be as one who is travelling among the thick branches together with their students. The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman), tells us that the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge were both planted in the very same hole in the Garden of Eden. They would have looked like one big tree, not two. If we use this image of the trees, then our Jewish education is about Life in all its manifestations, and knowledge in all its complexity, and the ways in which they are intertwined.

After Purim this year I talked with our other youth leader, Noam Wein, who recounted a complicated learning moment he’d gone through with the kids just before the festival. They were all making Hamentaschen and he was telling them the story of Esther. Suddenly he blanked out on the names of the two guards plotting to kill the king. The story was told perfectly well, but Noam said “…if a leader gives even the smallest mistake in the telling of a story then the people listening to this story might forever make the same mistake! There is a good chance that the kids do not remember those guards’ names, but ever since then it has been burned into my head in a way that those names would not leave any time soon…I want to know all those small details because to me knowledge is power!” Teaching Torah is like feeding our children and those we love; we want to make sure they have energy and power to grow – physically and spiritually.

Interestingly, when the rabbis were discussing what kind of plant the Tree of Knowledge was, we find Rabbi Yehuda telling us: “It was wheat, as, the child does not know how to call [his/her] father and mother until he [she] tastes the taste of grain.” (BT B’rachot 40a). This midrash ties together knowledge, language, and wheat. We find here another way of tying together the different aspects of Shavuot, the festival of receiving Torah, with the more ancient (and Biblical) festival of the wheat harvest offering. In this sense, our “going off target” vis a vis the Tree of Knowledge is redeemed and even sanctified by our celebration of Shavuot, when we gather Torah (Tree of Life) and wheat (Tree of Knowledge) and celebrate them together.

The festival of Shavuot invites us to unpack the complicated relationship between knowledge and life and offers us an opportunity to celebrate this complex relationship. The more we study together, the more our roots and branches will join, and the stronger our community will be.

I said nothing about covid-19 up until this moment because this teaching is for all year and every year. How much more so for our times now. May we find in ourselves the creativity, courage and strength to create meeting places or learning and life, and may our community grow stronger and wiser from these moments of Torah.

Rabbi Gila Caine is the Rabbi at Temple Beth Ora, Edmonton’s Reform Jewish Congregation. 


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