You have always known Torah

Rachel Petroff Kessler
May 1, 2012
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“Is that story true?” That is what my students always wanted to know. Did the sea really part? Did God really speak to Abraham? Did Adam and Eve really eat fruit and end up banished from the Garden?

And never was my class of six year olds more incredulous than after hearing the midrash that all Jews were present when the Torah was given at Sinai. “I was there,” they wondered, “But that can’t be true, I don’t remember!” Why did this, more than any other text or tale bother them? Was it because it presumed to place them as active players within the story? It is one thing to hear a fantastic adventure that happened to our ancestors many thousands of years ago. It is quite another to see ourselves as having been freed from Egypt, having been present at Sinai having received the gift of Torah personally.

In this month’s NiShma, the text expounded upon is from Deuteronomy: “For the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it (Deut 30:14).” This verse is, I think, meant to be empowering (and to remove any possible excuses for straying from the Torah’s word): you don’t have to go on an epic journey or seek out a great sage. You already know what to do (You’ve always had the power to go home)!  And yet, as Glinda teaches Dorothy, one must often go on a journey in order to understand what was in us all along. How do we find the strength to go looking for something within ourselves when we might not confident it is even there to be found?

I was young when I first heard the story: before a Jewish baby enters the world, their soul is up in heaven, learning Torah with God and the angels. When the time comes for the baby to be born, an angel escorts the soul down to earth and into its mother’s womb. In the instant before the child enters the world, the angel gently presses a finger to the baby’s lip, causing it to forget the knowledge it gained before entering the world. This, they say, is why we have a small indentation above our lip – an artifact of the angel’s gentle touch. And why a baby cries upon entering the world – they are bereft over the loss of their Torah learning.

I recalled this story many times early on in my pregnancy, and as I grow more and more attached to this future person who is just beginning to let me know of their presence, I wonder: are you there? Are you growing in awareness within me? Should I be playing you classical music and reading aloud Shakespeare while my husband introduces you to math (a baby book we read actually suggested this – the father should say loudly, “one” and then poke the mother’s growing belly once. “Two” and poke it twice)? Or are you busy learning in the greatest Beit Midrash ever while we are stuck handling the exciting, weird, and stressful changes that my pregnancy has brought into our lives?

When the time comes, God willing, that you enter the world with a loud bellow, will we recognize you for who you are: a unique soul whom we have been blessed with the privilege and responsibility to care for? Will you know what you have lost, and will you crave getting it back? Will you trust yourself enough to know that the deepest truths our Torah teaches never left you at all, but just have to be unearthed from the recesses of your beautiful soul?

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Rachel Petroff Kessler is the Family Educator at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland. Originally from upstate New York, Rachel has worked as a Jewish educator in a variety of settings, including Hillel at Binghamton, Kutz: NFTY’s Campus for Reform Jewish Teens, and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Rachel graduated from HUC-JIR’s New York School of Education in April 2010 with a Masters in Religious Education and was a summer fellow at Yeshivat Hadar in 2009.

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