The Torah is “stalking” me, demanding its relevance. Let me explain.
I teach Torah through a method called Bibliodrama. Invented by Harvard Professor Peter Pitzele, who took it from psychodrama, it is not acting but rather a kind of midrashic, psychospiritual roleplaying. Participants step into the shoes of characters and speak out their emotions, thoughts, doubts, and dreams. Due to the psychological aspect of it, and the deep personalization of the Torah involved, it often touches emotional places in the participants.
I had been doing Bibliodrama for over two decades when the outbreak of coronavirus caused the world to become connected up virtually. Challenge accepted: I began to do it weekly on Zoom, and a nice little community of people from different countries began coming together regularly to learn Torah in a new way.
The week of October 7th marked the beginning of my fourth yearly cycle through the Torah. Since neither I nor anyone else in my group could think of anything else but the Hamas pogrom, that week I chose as my topic “The world after the first murder”. I saw that Bibliodrama could be a vessel for us to process our emotions and that the Torah could speak clearly to us in our here and now.
As many have noticed, in the weeks that followed, various parts of the weekly portions resonated with current events. The word “hamas” appearing just before the flood story. The flood story itself, with its wide-scale death. The conflict between Abraham’s and Lot’s shepherds. Lot being taken captive and rescued. The story of Ishmael and his destiny as a violent man. Each part touched on a different aspect of the Israel-Hamas war. It almost to me seemed as if the Great Author in the Sky had designed this conflict based on the book of Genesis.
At some point it struck me that it was too much, and that I, at least, needed a break. Rather than a place to confront and channel all my pain, anger, and fear, I needed the Torah to be a haven from the relentless reality. So then I deliberately chose topics that would take us far away from it: Abraham’s daughter, Rebecca’s pregnancy, Joseph’s youth, the topic of dreams.
However this week, when I was deciding on the topic for the portion of Vayigash, I found I once again could not escape. It felt as if the Torah was stalking me, so to speak, loudly insisting that I explore the cruel and long parting of Jacob and Joseph after Joseph is kidnapped… the years of separation, the not knowing…. and finally their deeply moving reunion.
I knew that this story would inevitably echo the experience of the hostages being kidnapped and forcibly separated from their families – an ongoing situation, and an indescribably painful reality for Israeli and diaspora Jews.
Indeed, one of my participants told me the topic was too “raw” for her. I reminded her there was a happy ending. That was the only reason I could allow the Torah to grip me in its loud demand for relevance to current affairs. That was the only reason I could risk having my participants go through the wringer of this story. And yes, this Bibliodrama in fact brought tears.
We who have been watching the hostages reunite with their families, understand better this year what Jacob and Joseph must have felt.
We, who are waiting and praying for the rest of the hostages to come home (including my cousin’s cousin, Tamir Nimrodi – Tamir Ben Herut), pray that the happy reunion we read in this week’s parsha will also be reenacted speedily for every hostage and their family. May the Torah continue to reflect current affairs, but with the positives of the Joseph story and its resolutions.
And I have no doubt that the Torah will continue to insist, you cannot put me on the dusty shelf. I am relevant, I am alive.
Poem written for this week’s Bibliodrama:
JACOB AND JOSEPH, AFTER 22 YEARS APART
Your once blazing eyes now dimmed,
your once strong gaze now frail.
While hunched all those years in jail
I thought ever and always
of your eyes. You could never disguise
what you thought and felt from me
always between us, a truth so rare
and that truth hung long after, in the air
of our cruel distance, a faint fragrance,
heaven scent while I was amongst
strangers, keeping me free of dangers,
keeping me true. So I never forgot
the essence of you,
and it preserved me for myself too.
Looking in your eyes now, as we embrace,
through a fog of tears, I see
the fire banked by those hard years.
I gaze firmly at you, my eyes give you fire
be alive, live. I am here.