Thursday, September 07, 2006

Learning Torah on One Foot

I was leading Shacharit in shul last Shabbat, trying to place all my weight on my left foot, when the irony of my situation suddenly dawned on me. Here I was, standing there with a broken foot and reciting Psalm 34: "God guards all [my] bones; not one of them breaks." I smiled in spite of myself and hoped that no one noticed.

I'm not exactly sure how I fractured my third metatarsal, but the x-ray reults were unequivocal, as were the doctor's instructions: "Minimal walking, and no running for six weeks." This charge has proven both frustrating and debilitating. For the past two years, my feet have traced a continuous path throughout the streets of Jerusalem. Only rarely do I lift my feet from the surface of the ground – not because Eretz Yisrael is holy, but because I am a lover of texts, and my reading and learning have always been intimately connected to walking. Whenever possible, I read novels set in Jerusalem, and then visit the places described – the YMCA stadium where David Grossman's Rhino used to watch soccer games in Someone to Run With; the old Arab house where Batya Gur's Zahava was brutally bludgeoned in Murder on Bethlehem Road.

My study of Talmud, too, connects me to the geography of the city. The streets in my neighborhood are all named for the sages whose statements comprise the skeletal structure of the Talmud: Shimon ben Gamliel; Yochanan ben Zakkai; Elazar Hamodai. When I wake up each morning, I go for a walk or a jog with my Ipod, listening to a Daf Yomi (page-of-Talmud-a-day) lecture while I get my exercise. Sometimes it is difficult to follow the line of the argument without the Talmud page in front of me, but I follow the directional cues of the text: I take a left on Rabbi Akiva and then a right on Hillel, and note how, in a moment of concession, Rabbi Hisda turns into Rabbi Meir at a quiet intersection. .

Each week I xerox the portion of the Torah that I will be reading in synagogue the following Shabbat so that I can practice chanting aloud from the xerox pages while walking to work. When people ask me why I learn my Torah reading while walking, I cite the Talmud in Tractate Eruvin: "A person who is walking along a path and does not have company should occupy himself with Torah." At this point in my life, I often find myself walking alone; I feel fortunate to have Torah as a constant companion.

Two weeks ago, with the start of Elul, I began reviewing the Yom Kippur service on my feet, singing the Hineni and the Vidui prayers aloud as I retraced the steps I have taken over the past year – the streetcorner where I inadvertently left my cousin waiting for me for a half hour; the coffee shop where I really shouldn't have stayed out late gossiping with friends. I planned to continue preparing this way until the holidays began. But now, with the fractured metatarsal, I'm stuck at home. A person cannot learn while walking if she has only one good foot.

We are, of course, in the season of good and bad feet. Our lives hang in the balance – will we put our best foot forward or stumble over the obstacles in our path? Will we be inscribed for life or death? The liturgy of the Al Chet, the long confessional prayer recited many times on Yom Kippur, links most of the sins to the parts of the human body: "For the sin of wanton eyes; for the sin of being stiff-necked; for the sin of the evil tongue." And then, of course, there is the line that involves feet: "For the sin of running with our legs towards iniquity." At least I can't do that one in my present state.

I hope that my foot is healed by Yom Kippur, a day that involves long hours of standing -- especially since I'm leaving just two hours after the fast ends for a marathon of business meetings in Frankfurt. But if I'm still hurting, I can rest assured that I'll be in good company – Ravina (also a big walker and traveler) had an injured foot on Yom Kippur as well. As we learn in the Talmud (Yoma 78a):

The exilarch was invited to the city of Hagrunya to visit the beit midrash of Rav Natan. That morning, Rafram and all the other rabbis went to Rav Natan's class, but Ravina did not attend. The next day, Rafram came to Ravina to find out what had happened, in an effort to exonerate the absent student.

Rafram: What is the reason that you did not come to the class?
Ravina: My foot was hurting.
Rafram: Then why didn't you put on shoes and come to the class?
Ravina: It was the top of my foot that was hurting, and shoes would not have helped.
Rafram: Well then you should have worn sandals.
Ravina: There was a pool of water on the path, and I would have had to cross it.
Rafram: Could you not have crossed it wearing sandals?
Ravina: No, I hold like Rav Ashi, who says that a person may not cross a stream wearing sandals on Yom Kippur.
Rafram: Why does Rav Ashi say this?
Ravina: Because a sandal is more likely to fall off, leading a person to pick it up and carry it [which is forbidden].

Like Ravina, I'm going to have to stay off my feet as much as possible during the next few weeks. Perhaps this will enable me to turn my gaze inwards and focus on the teshuvah that is incumbent upon us during the month of Elul. As we recite in the Yom Kippur liturgy, "God searches all the inner chambers of the stomach and checks the kidneys and the heart." God, then, is the ultimate x-ray machine, and we would do well to follow His example.

Teshuvah begins with self-examination; we are required that we think long and hard about all the ways in which we have not behaved in accordance with God's commandments. According to Kabbalah, these commandments, which number 613 in total, are intimately connected to the human body: There are 248 positive mitzvot, which correspondent to our 248 organs; and 365 negative mitzvot, which correspond to our 365 sinews. Our good deeds and our sins are once again mapped on to the parts of the body. We can only hope that with every step we take, we are drawing closer to God. Our world is fractured enough; we owe it to ourselves to do everything in our power to bring about wholeness and healing.

3 Comments:

Blogger Chas said...

Get well soon.

You have 613 commandments!!!
We (Christians) have trouble keeping 10!

Peace, Chas

2:02 AM  
Anonymous Jenny said...

Bavli Makkot 23b - Rabbi Simlai says there are 613 commandments, 365 corresponding to the days of the solar year, and 248 corresponding to the limbs of a person.

Kabbalah my foot.
(he he he.)

5:09 AM  
Blogger Chas said...

Chavatzelet,
I hope you do not mind. I borrowed a paragraph of your translation of Yoma 84b to post on emspeace.blogspot.com

Thanks, Chas.

4:52 AM  

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