World of the Sages: Master chefs of the future

At the end of any event it is natural to assess the quality and impact of the experience. On occasion, we share these thoughts and feelings with those around us or with loved ones.

By LEVI COOPER
May 4, 2006 07:12
World of the Sages: Master chefs of the future

sage 88. (photo credit: )

At the end of any event it is natural to assess the quality and impact of the experience. On occasion, we share these thoughts and feelings with those around us or with loved ones. Other times, these emotions linger in our consciousness, perhaps guiding our future course. What sentiments accompany us at the conclusion of an encounter with the texts of our tradition? How do we leave the beit midrash (study hall)? The Talmud preserves some of the expressions of our sages that give voice to their feelings as they would conclude their study session. In one passage, two examples from two different study centers are juxtaposed (B. Berachot 17a-b). The first illustration is a heartening blessing: "May you see your world in your life, and may your end be for the world-to-come, and your hope for many generations. May your heart deliberate over understanding, may your mouth speak wisdoms and may your tongue bring forth song. May your eyelids make you look straight before you, may your eyes be enlightened with the light of Torah and may your face glow like the brightness of the sky. May your lips express knowledge and your insides rejoice in uprightness, and may your steps hasten to hear the words of the Ancient of Days, the Almighty" (see Daniel 7:9). Indeed a stirring articulation, citing numerous body parts and suggesting the entire being involved in the pursuit of the Divine. These parting words bespeak of hope for future interactions with our beloved texts and of the desire that the encounter just completed should not be left within the confines of the beit midrash. As we step into a reality laden with physicality, we pray that the Godly encounter in the beit midrash will accompany us on our journey, illuminating our existence as we travel through the travails of a world fraught with mundane stimuli. The opening of this parting blessing, however, is somewhat cryptic: "May you see your world in your life." What is described as "your world" that we aspire to experience during our own lifetimes? Turning to another example of parting words, we may be able to shed light on the aspiration of seeing "our world" during our lifetime. According to a second expression presented in the passage, our sages would quote a biblical verse: "Our leaders are laden; there is no breach and no going out and no outcry in our streets" (Psalms 144:14). The sages would add a short commentary to each phrase of the verse, explaining that "our leaders" in Torah would be "laden" with good deeds and the fortified wall of the tradition would strengthen participants, preventing betrayal of the values of our heritage. Thus the parting words would affirm the vigor of the beit midrash enterprise, recognizing the champions of the study hall and the potency of the educational venture, and coupling this avowal with a prayer for fidelity to our heritage. A truly encouraging expression to sum up the learning session. Here too, however, one phrase - the final request - is puzzling: "May we not have a child or a student who burns his dish in public." Surely, we cannot be so concerned about the culinary skills of our brood. It would indeed be bizarre if we parted ways after a meaningful experience with the words: "Be careful to turn the oven off!" Elsewhere in rabbinic literature, we hear of the folly of charring food as the sages discuss legitimate grounds for divorce (M. Gittin 9:10). According to one opinion, a husband should not divorce his wife unless he has found lewdness or unchastity in her. A dissenting opinion suggests that even spoiling a dish is valid grounds for divorce. The commentators mediate this harsh standard, offering a variety of explanations for the gravity of her culinary conduct that justifies the initiation of divorce proceedings. Some say that burning the food is only the tip of an iceberg of acrimony that holds sway in the house. Others suggest that the wife consistently and spitefully singes her dishes in an attempt to annoy her husband. However we understand the wife's culinary practices, it seems we are not suggesting that an inability to cook is grounds for divorce. Returning to the prayer for the child or student who will not singe the food: Here, too, we are not simply pining for talented cooks of the future. Hopeless cooking should be understood metaphorically as careless attention to the task at hand. Sitting in the beit midrash is akin to preparing a meal: We pore over the text with care, cutting it into choice bite sizes and letting it stew until ready to be digested. An exquisitely prepared dinner is starkly different from a dish carelessly thrown together, and a Torah passage studied with care and grace cannot be compared to a sloppy reading. As we depart from the beit midrash, we pray that we have produced master chefs with refined tastes and not a generation that sees fast-food as the crowning achievement of the food industry. We hope that our offspring and disciples have been trained in patience and precision, and appreciate the fruits of toiling over the texts of our tradition with the goal of producing a dish of the finest caliber. Returning to the first passage and bearing in mind the juxtaposition of the two parting formulae, we can now suggest a new understanding of the goodbye well-wish: "May you see your world in your life." What could be more "your world" than children and students? We dedicate so much time and effort to raising the next generation, and it is in this future that we invest so much energy. Our personal encounters in the beit midrash may be spiritually satisfying on a personal level, yet as we conclude we express the hope that we will see prospective cohorts with the diligence, devotion and patience to which we so aspire; a future with the necessary ingredients for an uncharred culinary masterpiece, the pinnacle of the beit midrash encounter. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.


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