Breathing Torah: A Special Practice
Rabbi Alan Lew z’’l wrote that “when we put the charged words or phrases or sentences [from the Torah] together with the charged moments [in our lives], we may find a significant rhyme, we find that one instructs us about the other, and that both taken together are extremely significant for us, telling us something we really needed to know.” In his memoir Be Still and Get Going, Rabbi Lew described his spiritual practice of sitting silently, entering a meditative state, and then turning to each day’s aliyah — one seventh of the weekly Torah portion. With a mind, body, and spirit that are attuned to the present moment, he turned to our holy text to find the sacred intersection. When I read about his practice, I knew I wanted to attempt it.
I set out to begin the annual cycle last Simchat Torah. Though I had been meditating sporadically for several years, I found that when attempting this practice by myself, I was not able to keep it up. I gave up within the first month. The next year, I tried again, only this time, I first formed a group of other people who wanted to try the practice together. For the past nine months, we have each been sitting on our own throughout the week, meditating on the day’s aliyah, and then gathering every other Sunday evening to explore our practice and discuss what has come up for us in the weekly Torah portion and in our lives. We each take turns facilitating and all contribute to veggie potluck dinners.
The dozen of us make up a diverse practice group. Some of us were new to meditation and some were seasoned practitioners. Some of us were raised fairly secularly and some of us were raised in very Jewishly observant homes. Most of us did not know each other when we embarked on this project. Now we are a supportive spiritual community. Each week, the facilitator sends out guiding questions for our spiritual exploration based on the Torah portion. We have held two weekend retreats to deepen our practice and our relationships.
This spring, when we came to the book of Numbers I had a realization. Two years ago, at this time, a friend of mine gave a dvar torah on entering the wilderness. He emphasized how necessary it is for each of us to take a journey into the great unknown in order to become the people we are meant to be. His message spoke powerfully to me because I was just beginning my Wexner fellowship, readying myself to venture into the wilderness of New York City where I knew few people. I was scared. So I appreciated it when he told me that heading into the wilderness was exactly what I need to do to become who I needed to be.
But this year, as I meditated on the weekly torah portion Bamidbar (literally, “In the desert”), what struck me is that the Israelites are in the desert, and they are scared, but they are not alone. The bulk of these four chapters is a description of how the Israelites are grouped into clans and within those clans into families. They live with their clan. They work with their clan. They travel with their clan. Bamidbar teaches the importance of community. It illuminated for me why I needed to create a support group of other folks who wanted to have the power of a clan to support our daily meditation practices. I no longer feel like I’m wandering in the wilderness alone.
Rachel Ackoff is a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Class 24, studying at New York University’s Skirball Center for Jewish Studies and Wagner School of Public Service. Rachel has served as the Associate Washington Representative for the Sierra Club’s Labor and Trade Program where she set the lobbying and grassroots strategies for the organization’s global economy work. Prior to joining the staff of the Sierra Club, she worked for United States Student Association, the nation’s oldest, largest, and most diverse student organization, as their Electoral Project Director. Under her leadership, the program registered over 110,000 students to vote, educated them on the issues, and turned them out to vote in the 2008 election. Rachel can be reached at email@example.com.