Learning Torah with a broken heart
TorahParshat Shemot

Learning Torah with a broken heart

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

I have always been drawn to the ways we experience God through the brokenhearted, the shevurei lev. Psalm 147:3 refers to God as the Healer of the brokenhearted, the One who binds up their wounds.

The past five years have challenged the way I think about God. I find it unbearably hard to maintain my faith through the disappointments, losses and tragedies of these turbulent years — the trauma of three devastating years working as a frontline palliative care chaplain during the pandemic, followed by 12 months of numbness and rebuilding, then the attack of Oct. 7, followed by this relentless, excruciating war.

I had a lot of questions for God throughout the pandemic, but I didn’t stop believing. I attended more death and tragedy in those three years than anyone should over a lifetime. But my idea of a compassionate God that held us, sheltered us, cried alongside us gave me strength.

Since Oct. 7, I feel lost and fearful. I question the compassion I used to attribute to God.

There is a creative tension in Jewish life between past and future that has kept Judaism alive for millennia. I have held fast to this tension as long as I can remember, referring to it as being aware and respectful of my role as “a link in a chain.” I look to those who came before me and see them look back at me; I understand that the world is mine now and I hear them ask me what I will do with it. My answer has always been to choose to link up, to do my part to maintain connection between my ancestral heritage and my life.

Onenut is the rabbinic expression that defines the liminal and literal space between hearing of a loved one’s death and their funeral. During this time, the bereaved is not expected to perform mitzvot. They are even excused from learning Torah. Since Oct. 7, I have felt like an onen, as if my freshly sutured world was newly ripped open. The tragedies keep coming, lapping like waves on the shore. I see, hear and feel the wailing of the Jewish people around the globe every day — a result of their shock, betrayal, fear, disbelief; whether it’s an eruption of trickle-down generational trauma or actual, current, social and political threat, existential or otherwise.

The horror is real. I fear that by writing about my own pain, I am taking up the space of someone who is suffering more than I. I’m also somewhat afraid of exposing myself to hatred.

This week we read Parshat Shemot, the first of the book of Exodus, the textual birthplace of ethical monotheism. Judaism repeatedly reminds us that because we were slaves in Egypt, we are commanded to show compassion toward the stranger. I chose to write this week’s d’var Torah many months ago because I wanted to write about the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter and how the collective compassion of these women, from different social classes and nationalities, birthed the ancient ethic of caring for the stranger that Judaism so cherishes. I value that our tradition demands that we love our neighbor and have compassion for the weakest among us.

At the beginning of Chapter 3 of our parsha, we see Moshe in Midian, a grown young man tending his father-in-law’s sheep. The text describes him driving the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness.

This is a literary set up for the next phrase in which he arrives at the mountain of God in Horev.

Next, Moshe will see the burning bush and encounter God for the first time. Some commentators remark that the text goes out of its way to note how far afield Moshe meanders. As an accomplished shepherd who knows the wilderness well, this seems an extemporaneous insertion. S’forno, a 16th-century Italian commentator, sees Moshe as a spiritual seeker in this wandering. He remarks that Moshe is drawn deeply into the wilderness because he is searching for God. I would add that he was searching for meaning in his circumstances.

I connect to S’forno’s comment, capturing a sense of where we are as a nation right now. Existentially bereft, we strive to

I search for solace in the vast, silent, unbridled wilderness. I hope that like Moshe, in our spiritual wandering to the cusp of this moment, we will find a sign of God’s compassion. PJC

Rabbi Kara Tav is a Pittsburgh-based educator, chaplain and counselor. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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