“When Yitzchak grew old, his eyes weakened from seeing” (Genesis 27:1)
What a great example of a biblical verse with different interpretative possibilities! Did Yitzchak really go blind in his old age, or did he willfully turn a blind eye to certain unsavory realities that he’d rather not examine too closely? Or maybe what happened was that old age, not deliberate choice, turned things murky and confusing. The only thing that’s clear is that things became more complex for Yitzchak as he aged…or vastly simpler. In fact, there’s nothing clear at all about his weak eyes, and we’ll forever be uncertain about what exactly happened to Yitzchak.
I’m aging, too, just like Yitzchak, and this pasuk resonates in a particularly strong way over these past few months. For many years, I was staunchly in the “turn a blind eye” camp: I used to take great pleasure in deliberately glossing over the issues that others found irritating, annoying, or of great importance that required endless discussion. This approach served me well, as I could get on with accomplishing without being weighed down by the albatross of tedious analysis. I was never one for punditry: is Bibi good or bad for the country? Is Open Orthodoxy a legitimate option within halachic Judaism? Should the shul board convene to discuss matter X? I “weakened my eyes from seeing” early on, tuning out the endless talk on so many of these matters as hevel hevalim — totally useless, distracting me from serious productivity.
Take this example: around fifteen years ago, I was asked to participate in a panel discussion entitled “Women in Talmud Torah: The State of Affairs.” I declined, telling the organizers I didn’t want to talk about talmud Torah — I just wanted to learn and teach Torah. I didn’t want to analyze what was going on. I didn’t even want there to be a field called “Women and Judaism” — I was just a Jew who loves to learn and teach! What does the fact that I was born a woman have to do with it? I was truly confused, and had nothing to say on the matter (just like I have nothing to say about Bibi, or about Open Orthodoxy — and definitely nothing to say about shul boards, other than they take themselves far too seriously).
Well, now old age has set in, and my eyes have been dimmed in a different way. It’s getting harder and harder to feign naivete. Where I once stubbornly held fast to that “wide-eyed innocence” of my youth — where I looked the other way, overlooked a lot, looked beyond, pretended I didn’t see — now I see far too much. Maybe when Yitzchak’s eyes dimmed in his later years, it was from dejection — a downcast, disappointed consideration of affairs. Gone was the unjaded, enthusiastic vision of young Yitzchak — now, he had seen in excess, and his vision was clouded.
I feel old, and I’ve seen too much. Back when I saw far less, I’d have run the other way from participating in a discussion of women and Talmud Torah. Now, when asked, I trudge to that panel table with stories to tell, though I wish I was as I once was, with nothing to say.
It is specifically this time of year, leading up to Zman Matan Torateinu, when my eyes have been forced open to the politics of Talmud Torah. Over the last many years, I’ve experienced the gamut of what it truly means to be a teacher of Torah, who happens to be a woman: I’ve been asked to teach, then had my invitation rescinded, because the organizers decided women shouldn’t be on the roster. I’ve been told I could only open my shiur to women, not to a mixed audience; that I could only teach in the first slot, so that men wouldn’t have to walk out of the program when I took the shtender; that a man must teach parallel to me so that men wouldn’t “be forced” to listen to a woman; that I could teach, but not from the bimah; that I could teach, but not in the shul; that only men can teach on leil shavuot, but I may teach during the day if I wish. I’ve been told specifically by organizers of these events to dress a certain way, told that once a woman reaches a certain age and is no longer considered attractive, then more opportunities might become available, so I should wait patiently until my covered hair turns gray and then we won’t need so much hand-wringing over the propriety of it all. And all the while, I wonder: the Torah that I study and teach is not for women, it’s not about women — it’s about Am Yisrael. I’ve just finished years of work on a second sefer, unrelated to the first but still a work of Torah — should only women read these sefarim?
Some of these shiur policies have shifted over the years. Sometimes there’s a communal clarity which cuts to the heart of the matter, exposing these policies as guided by fear, insecurities, and fragile egos. Sometimes common sense prevails over silliness and absurd inconsistencies. Sometimes…but not enough, as often one step forward is followed by two steps back. And, to my sorrow, much of the beauty of Talmud Torah is darkened by the shadow of false piety.
To be frank: I’ll be happy to leave this all behind me. We are moving to a place where the communal pre-Shavuot celebration is billed as a pageant of new babies born this past year, new families that have moved in, a quiz contest with questions like: “Who was the first on the moshav to stop milking by hand?” “Who had the first telephone on the moshav?” And, of course, an exhibit of the latest agricultural equipment with hands-on demonstrations. There’s an innocence in the description of that event that reminds me of a younger Yitzchak, and a younger, more countrified me.
What tikkun leil Shavuot will be like in Sde Ilan, I don’t yet know. But I’m very much hoping that my new neighbors will naturally and openly follow the precept of R’ Yehuda HaNasi:
אל תסתכל בקנקן אלא במה שיש בו
Do not look at the vessel, but rather at its contents.
May this Shavuot, and the ones to come, be a moed where our eyes are not dimmed, but are open, clear and bright!