This is a speech delivered by Rabbi Dov Linzer at the YCT Annual Tribute Dinner in March 2017
Barukh atah Hashem ha’melamed Torah li’amo Yisrael. Blessed are You God who teaches Torah to your nation, Israel. This second birkhat ha’Torah follows אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו לעסוק בדברי תורה, the mitzvah-blessing for Torah study. For while commandedness is our point of departure for all things, learning Torah cannot just be about duty and obligation. Torah is our spiritual sustenance, it is the air we breathe and the water we drink – כי הם חיינו ואורך ימינו; it is our source of joy and pleasure and even our source of fun, לולי תורתך שעשעי אז אבדתי בעניי.
והערב נא – Please God, make the Torah sweet in our mouths. Let us desire it and yearn for it. Let us taste its deliciousness. This is at once highly personal and subjective – each person’s taste experience is his or hers alone. One will be drawn after chassidut, another after Gemara. Reuven will experience the religious joy that comes from learning a Sefas Emes, and Sarah will revel in the intellectual thrill of dissecting a difficult Tosafot. And at the same time, this feast is a communal one– ובפיפות עמך בית ישראל – it takes place in the exhilarating cacophony of the beit midrash, in the lessons of the classroom, and in the sermons and adult-ed classes of the synagogue. Torah creates a religious community with God and holiness at its center.
ונהיה אנחנו… כולנו יודעי שמיך ולומדי תורתיך לשמה – Let us all learn your Torah. Let us make sure that everyone – rich or poor; Orthodox, Reform or unaffiliated; straight or gay; cis- or transgender; those with disabilities and those without; white, black, or brown – that every Jew knows that the Torah is for him or her, and that he or she has a place in our schools, synagogues and communities.
And let us be Yodei Shemekha – God, let us know your name. For the kabbalists, all the words of the Torah combine to form a name of God, and God can be found in the spaces between the letters. For after the destruction of the Temple, God’s presence dwells not in the mikdash, but in the words of Torah. The Torah is the center of kedusha; it is the space where God can be encountered.
Barukh ata Hashem ha’melamd Torah li’amo Yisrael. You, God, who teach Torah to Your nation Israel. But, in truth, it is not God who teaches us Torah; it is our teachers who do so. Just as the Kohanim represented God in the Temple, it is our rabbis, our Torah teachers, who represent God to us. It is they who are an embodiment of the Torah, its laws and its ethos, to all whom they teach and engage. If they are authoritarian, critical, or judgmental, then that’s who God will be to the people. But if they are warm, engaging, inspiring, and sensitive to ethical concerns, then God and God’s Torah will be welcoming, uplifting, and ethically charged. And just as God was experienced in the mikdash in the empty space – the space between the kruvim¸ the space above the aron – God is experienced in the classroom in the empty space; at those moments when the teacher stops talking, welcomes the student in, allows the student to think, engage, and question, allows the student to encounter the divine in the Torah.
Blessed are we, the Jewish community, and all of us here, who have such teachers of Torah, teachers who welcome and inspire, teachers who let us taste the sweetness of Torah, teachers who empower us to know and experience God. Blessed are you God, who teaches Torah to Your nation Israel.