This past Shavuot, I had the opportunity to accompany my 13-year-old son, who celebrated his bar mitzva only three months ago, to one of the largest synagogues in town to do some Jewish learning ahead of the all-night study and cheesecake fest in which many Jews would be participating.
There was an evening session for middle school-aged kids that parents could also participate in, a great way to bond with your child while avoiding the consequences of pulling an all-nighter more than 20 years after graduating college.
To my surprise, we were the only family that showed up for the guided learning part, led by one unofficial teacher with two kids in tow. He passed out materials with various biblical and Talmudic sources, and I realized there would be little for me to contribute with my public school background. Surely my son, who attends a yeshiva day school and is already a whiz at Gemara, should do most of the talking!
But I found the discussion exhilarating, even with its minute focus on a dilemma that only the rabbis of the Talmud could dream up. In this case, it centered around whether a boy who recited the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) before turning 13 had to repeat it while still satiated from the meal after magically reaching the age of Jewish adulthood — when the mitzva was fully incumbent upon him. An unlikely scenario, to be sure, but one that sparked a fascinating discussion as do so many of those posed by the sages.
Our “teacher” (he later said he was not a formal educator) then compared the situation to that of an onen, a mourner who is not able to sit shiva until after his loved one is buried. With such a limbo status, the onen is exempt from fulfilling many positive commandments or mitzvot — including the Birkat Hamazon. Ahh — but what if — just like the bar mitzva boy, he ate a meal as an onen but continued to remain satiated after coming home from the cemetery?
Our teacher’s wisdom was to allow my son and me to reach the conclusion independently — that the bar mitzva boy, because his obligation was less than fully incumbent upon him to ‘bentch’ before turning 13 (although highly recommended for the purposes of chinuch, educating a child in Jewish practice), he did NOT have to repeat it, while the onen, who temporarily was suspended from the commandment, was indeed required to recite it since it had been his obligation all along.
That “a-ha” moment was intoxicating, and when the hour of learning was up, I left the shul on a high. Even I, with my limited background — we won’t get into the argument of women studying Talmudic texts here — could participate in this critical thinking exercise and make sense of the whole debate!
The experience certainly left me craving more text study. But how does one make up for missing 18 years of day school education? Not to mention becoming fluent in biblical Hebrew, and the Aramaic of the Gemara?
This year, Shavuot ended a day before Shabbat, so in between getting our car serviced and other pre-Shabbat errands, I pondered the question. Should I return to “school,” in this case the Drisha Institute, a women’s learning program in New York City that offers some subsidies for intensive Jewish studies and encourages women to become scholars of the texts?
Aside from the humorous fact that my spouse — in an interesting role reversal — would be a kollel husband, working to support his wife in Jewish learning, the fact remains that we need both our regular salaries while our kids are in day school. It’s just a reality.
I informed the program coordinator at Drisha that at this time it is not possible to engage in full-time study while my children are in school. She said there are plenty of part-time opportunities as well, and I hope to pursue some of them.
So while some parents may be either working and/or at the pool this summer, I just might find myself some evenings in an (air-conditioned) beit midrash, savoring both the sweetness — and the intense debates — that arise from the depths of Torah learning.