For the first time since the pandemic, I was blessed with the opportunity to study together, in person, with a community of learners during last Sunday night’s celebration of Shavuot. Shavuot marks the giving and receiving of the Torah, and we engaged in a tikkun leil Shavuot (an all-night study session) until the break of dawn on Monday morning.
In true Beit T’Shuvah fashion, the occasion featured a line-up comprised of current residents, staff, and Beit T’Shuvah clergy – more than forty teachers. The theme of the evening? Willingness, surrender, and letting go of our attachment to self in order to connect to the Holy. The lessons shared were drawn from a combination of sacred texts and stories of personal struggle and sacred living. And experience ended with the traditional unrolling (and communal enveloping) of our Torah scroll.
Many of the teachers showed great courage by sharing inner truths about their fears, demonstrating a willingness to live a life of authenticity. Teacher after teacher shared about the ways they had been enslaved by the bondage of self and about the eventual pathway that emerged which allowed them to move beyond the misery, loneliness, and disconnection that often accompanies this affliction. These many variations on the journey out of slavery and toward freedom reminded us of the Torah account of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. One brilliant teacher, drawing from the Israelites’ response to G!D’s gift of the Torah – of “we will do, then we will understand” – shared how she has learned to surrender her attachment to certainty and control by embracing an emerging sense of acceptance and faith.
The willingness to surrender our self/ego is a topic which is also addressed in this week’s parashah – by the “priestly blessing,” of all things, found in Numbers 6:22-27. If we listen to it carefully and consider how it affects us, we can gain insight. This well-known blessing is traditionally offered from parents to children on Friday evenings, as well as other times throughout the year. But the original instructions and blessing look like this:
G!D spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: “Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
May G!D bless you and protect you!
May G!D deal kindly and graciously with you!
May G!D bestow G!D’s favor upon you and grant you peace!
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”
Much commentary has been explored about the significance of G!D’s instructions to offer this blessing, as well as its actual meaning. But one point that stands out in these verses is how G!D makes it abundantly clear that the originating (and ultimate) source of any of these blessings is G!D, not the priests. Accordingly, with G!D serving as the source of blessing, it is then up to the priests and people to be willing to receive and share what G!D has to offer. However, as Rabbi Shai Held writes:
… the question facing the Israelites is whether, now that they have left Egypt in body, they can leave it in spirit as well. At the deepest level, you cannot receive blessing against your will; without at least a modicum of openness and receptivity, blessing becomes impossible. (The Heart of Torah, Vol. 2, p. 107)
This is the same question that many of the teachers spoke about on Shavuot: Are we willing to let go of our fears, negativity, and selfishness in order receive the blessings in our lives? We – as well as all of mankind through the ages – face this on a daily basis. Nor is the battle to surrender our self/ego an end in itself. The Torah is providing us with the formula for receiving and sharing blessings: the act of surrender is the means to keep us right-sized in order to be able to share our best parts with the world.
And yes, it’s often easier said than done. My experience on Shavuot reminded me that sometimes we need to surround ourselves with others who can share their own “modicum of openness and receptivity.” It’s through this type of collective sharing – where we find ourselves as both givers and receivers of blessing – that we can deeply connect with our Holy Souls. As I continue to re-emerge from the restrictions of pandemic life, these lessons help me stay focused on what I’m blessed with and how I can share it with others.
Chaplin Adam Siegel