Parshat Behar-Bechukotai: Standing Within and Bridging Outward
Many years ago, I was working my way through the Royal Conservatory of Music grades and requirements for completion. I started playing piano at a very young age, along with my siblings. I always loved it, and was working with the same teacher well into my teen years, hoping to complete the Royal Conservatory’s entire certification program. We hit a bump when I had to pass the exams in music theory.
My piano teacher was an avid church going woman and she and I would have great conversations about religious practice. Her social engagements (as she put it) always revolved around her church groups. These personal exchanges would never be long conversations, since time for the piano lesson should never be compromised — she was a very stern and serious teacher. She was the first person in my life where I would attach the phrase ‘prim and proper’ to her demeanor. As we both grew older, the piano lessons moved to her place since I eventually drove and she officially stopped teaching.
My piano teacher showed me how to create tea essence rather than quickly use a teabag, an inexcusable shortcut in her eyes.. I saw how a china teapot could sit on the counter with the tea essence that would then give the base tea for all the cups of the day…did I mention she was several generations Canadian and proud of her British heritage? In time, I would go to her basement apartment earlier and earlier so we could have our talks and not take time from piano time. Once, she told me that her brother was a pilot in the Canadian Air Force and had been killed in the Second World War. I saw a swell of tears, that she quickly overcame, and closed the discussion by saying ‘so many people were so hurt, and so many others bear their scars.’
So much more than piano lessons occured in our time together. Once, she asked me why I had begun to put question marks at the end of the things I said, even when they weren’t questions (I had a brief period of ‘up-talking’ in middle school–she put an end to it).
The only time we had a disconnect of understanding was when I had to book my music theory exam. We were nearing the last stages of the program and I had left all the written exams to this point. The booking needed to be done by the teacher and she was filling out the forms, trying to secure a date. Every date she mentioned was a Saturday. I told her I can never take that exam on a Saturday. I outlined the problems getting to the Conservatory on a Saturday, as well as the problem of writing anything. We went over possibilities of staying in the neighbourhood and could I do the exam orally. No variations on the exam were possible. Rules were rules. This was back in the day when not only would no institution accommodate difference, but no one wanted to highlight that they were different. I was blocked, and there was nothing I could do. Worse, my teacher felt frustrated and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t negotiate around the problem with a religious leader. She asked me why my rabbi couldn’t just give me a dispensation to write the exam. That was our moment of disconnect –I didn’t understand what she was referring to.
As much as we had spent years discussing the vast differences between us, I had also spent those same years growing personally from our moments of difference. This instance, her question, my inability to understand the possibility she accepted as the solution, resulted in our two worlds separating. I never took those exams and after all our years of preparation, and her commitment to see it through with me to the end, she felt I had let her down, and I knew she felt that way. We grew apart.
I think of her when we read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Behar/Bechukotai. The very beginning of the parshah states: “When Moses was at Mount Sinai (behar)”, which is geographically correct, but ignores the literal layers of the word ‘behar’. While it does mean ‘at the mountain’, it also means ‘in the mountain’. The revelation at Sinai is not an experience that is lived, it is an experience that is entered. At one point, Moses asks to see God, and God says no. Instead, God tells Moses to enter a nook in the rock so God can pass over Moses’ face and Moses will then feel the Divine Essence. God could easily have done the same thing to Moses while standing in open spaces, but God instructs Moses to stand inside the mountain. Some things can only be felt and understood while standing within them.
The revelation at Sinai, and ‘behar’, tell us that our Judaism is best understood while we stand within it. Not everything will make sense, and life will probably be more challenging, but ration and ease are not the pre-conditions on which we choose to enter. When we step inside, we see the world differently, we understand that Judaism, like nature, will evolve over time, and we are part of that evolution. We find our place within.
The Torah reading this week invites us to enter our Judaism and ask all our questions while standing inside, protected with the solid rocks of ancestry. From that position we build bridges and the world connects.
My piano teacher enriched who I am, and my measure of gratitude for this woman is always high. When I think of her, I also feel some regret that in the end, we stood so far apart. I like to believe that we had an unusual and unique bond, as I stood within one nook in the rock and she stood within another.
By the way, her favourite composer was Mozart.