When I left Canada to attend rabbinical school in Philadelphia, I truly thought I was also leaving behind my identity as a skilled adult and a professional musician. I was about to enter a new world in a new country, and I would need to leave my “voice” behind. I felt like a rank beginner. Imagine my delight when, early in my first semester, the dean asked if I could teach singing to the forthcoming graduating class.
As a congregational rabbi for almost 20 years, I’ve encountered many folks with parallel experiences with regard to Judaism. Many who walk in the door feel unschooled or inferior, unable to voice their questions about Jewish identity, and especially about ritual lore and practices. So many adult Jews feel an uncomfortable uncertainty about the corpus of Jewish wisdom, never mind the very aleph-bet basics.
We have a very fun poster at home, from which my son learned the aleph-bet. Each letter-shape is formed by a lively drawing of one or two children, bending and stretching their limbs into the shapes of the letters.
Vav is easy. Just stand straight with your arms by your side, and you form this letter. Hey takes two. One bent over at a 90-degree angle, arms outstretched, and the other crouched down just under the hands.
My colleague Rabbi Howard Cohen has a drash about the word hallelujah that says a great deal about learning itself. The Hebrew word for “praise God” is formed of two lameds, two heys, one yod, and one vav. The yod is the smallest letter, just a jot – about a quarter or third of the length of the straight-line vav. For the lamed, picture a stork, and you get the profile of a lamed, with its head and neck craning up over all the other letters.
Rabbi Cohen points out that lamed is the only letter which, when written in the Torah scroll, protrudes above all the other letters. Hallelujah is formed with two of these tall shapes, plus the four letters that form God’s name – yod, hey, vav, hey. (If this is getting hard to visualize, borrow a Jewish school student or camper if you don’t have one in your household and get them to help you!)
The Hebrew word for learning also has two lameds, suggesting that to learn involves really stretching oneself, breaking through barriers, challenging norms.
So hallelujah is a great word for celebrating all of our learning.
“These two lameds can be understood to represent the learning we strive to bring together in two civilizations: secular and sacred. When we bring them together the result wants to be shouted out with a huge HALLELUJAH!” says Rabbi Cohen.
Whatever your starting point, and wherever you are in your cycle of growth and learning, your engagement in Jewish study is something to celebrate. At Or Haneshamah, we’re launching a learning “camp” – Machaneh Shabbat – for it’s been demonstrated that the immersive, experiential activities of Jewish camping have the deepest impact on solidifying Jewish identity, and laying the groundwork for lifelong Jewish learning. The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School is returning to Ottawa. It is a serious program for adult learners in four courses over two years.
Bend, stretch and celebrate learning. It’s a very Jewish thing to do, at any age or stage of life.