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Last Summer at Nishmat: How Torah Learning Refreshed my Soul
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JOFA Blog

Last Summer at Nishmat: How Torah Learning Refreshed my Soul

As a psychotherapist, I am the instrument of my work. 

In addition to my degree and education, my own personal experiences and the work I’ve done with myself are what I bring to the individuals and couples who entrust me to help them with their pain and their challenges. 

I also bring my relationship to God. That relationship sustains me, and I have worked hard to keep that connection a part of my life. One of the ways I have maintained that connection is by hosting and teaching a Shabbat afternoon class for women in my home for the past 14 years. Studying and delving into Torah texts have given me the strength, perspective, and faith to face whatever challenges came my way over the years and to do the work I have chosen to do. The Torah texts strengthen my connection to God, which serves as the scaffolding beneath me.

Last summer, I underwent a particularly difficult experience in my personal life. It was also the summer I decided, for the first time, to go to Israel specifically for a week of Torah learning. I chose to learn in Gush Etzion at Michlelet Herzog’s yemei iyun in Tanakh. I arrived at my hosts in Gush Etzion tired and emotionally drained. What I encountered was a smorgasbord of Tanakh learning—the most exquisite Torah learning from giants of teachers, imparting their insights. It was breathtaking to see thousands of men and women, from Israel and abroad, moving, with great efficiency, from room to room, tent to tent.

The wheel of fate does turn, with God directing. The Tanakh texts transported me to a world where God is close and Man/Woman is not alone. The text had supported me and held me aloft once again.

The texts began to speak, reminding me of God’s personal involvement in our lives—narratives that reinforce within the reader stronger emunah (faith). I was receiving a life-giving infusion from narratives such as that of Avigail (1 Samuel 25), who was put in the position of needing to save her family after her husband, Naval, triggered King David’s wrath. But then Naval died, and Avigail married King David! The wheel of fate does turn, with God directing. The Tanakh texts transported me to a world where God is close and Man/Woman is not alone. The text had supported me and held me aloft once again. 

Another Meaningful Opportunity

That meaningful experience led me to find another opportunity. This past summer I participated in a week of learning at Nishmat. In contrast to the Herzog smorgasbord, Nishmat was a gourmet meal, with a daily schedule that allowed for more in-depth learning and havruta (partner learning) time. The theme of Nishmat’s summer program was “Power, Leadership, and Responsibility”; these topics were explored through the lens of Tanakh, Gemara, halakhah, and Jewish thought.

Learning at Nishmat, I was surrounded by the echoing voices of sages from long ago, and, once again, the famous personalities of Tanakh with whom I was so familiar came to life. I was thrilled by the dramatic world of King David and resonated with the private supplications of Hannah. I followed Levi from his birth through generations of descendants. I absorbed the energy of the time of the Prophets, those who still heard the voice of God, who spread their message to keep the faith, and who encourage us to hear, through our own still voice, the word of God. 

A Click, and Then Understanding the Gemara

I had grown up with a shul in my basement. My fantasy, as I lay in bed on Shabbat mornings, was to cut a hole through the floor and slide down the support pole so I wouldn’t need to exert myself by using the stairs. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was to be a mom to 12 children (this was after reading Cheaper by the Dozen) and to be a rabbi.

At first, I was frustrated, trying to understand and analyze what the Gemara was saying. There is a unique type of logic to the text that takes getting used to. However, at one point, after great mental exertion, it clicked—I understood the Gemara! The feeling was euphoric.

In the 1980s, rabbinic leadership was not an option for young women and neither was serious Gemara learning. At Nishmat, there was a significant amount of Gemara learning. In the beit midrash, my mind was challenged in a new and exciting way. At first, I was frustrated, trying to understand and analyze what the Gemara was saying. There is a unique type of logic to the text that takes getting used to. However, at one point, after great mental exertion, it clicked—I understood the Gemara! The feeling was euphoric. 

I am not a stranger to knowing how to connect with others. However, a new process for me—or, rather, one that I had not engaged in for many years—was havruta learning. I observed with fascination the process of putting two strangers together and having them meet over the intellectual exercise of study. Initially, there was an awkwardness in this encounter for me. My havruta was a stranger. On day one, I was aware that we were feeling out each other’s strengths. She liked to read the English, I the Hebrew. We soon realized that we would cover more text if I followed her aloud English reading in the Hebrew text with my eyes. The next day, we began straying from the actual text, sharing our ideas and the insights we had from our internal libraries of textual experiences. On day three, we began sharing more personal parts of ourselves. I began to feel an emotional connection. On days four and five, I felt as if I were learning with a good friend. I am left in awe of the power of the havruta relationship. 

The text once again has helped me feel more connected to God. I bring that sense into my office. It fills my being. I am reminded that I am the instrument of my work.

I listened intently in the mussar (moral teachings) class to see how psychotherapy dovetailed with mussar. Rabbi David Sperling taught how to work on one’s middot (character), using the Ramban’s letter to his son as a text. In addressing anger and how not to get angry, he spoke about being able to see the other person’s perspective. This got me very excited, as much of my work with couples involves helping each spouse hold two realities. I was so excited to hear him describe something that I was so passionate about that I went over to him after class and handed him my pen, on which “Hold Two Realities” and my website were printed. It didn’t take long for my internal self-doubting voice to question whether I had been too forward, at which point I quickly engaged my reassuring voice and said with a quiet chuckle, “The therapist and the man of mussar probably share the attribute of not judging others.” 

I returned to the United States looking forward to resuming my work. Reality now seems to have a slightly different shade of color. There is a sense of well-being inside me. The text once again has helped me feel more connected to God. I bring that sense into my office. It fills my being. I am reminded that I am the instrument of my work.

Dvorah Levy, LCSW, is a psychotherapist specializing in individual, couple, and family therapy. She maintains a private practice in Cedarhurst and Brooklyn, New York. 

Posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.

If you’re interested in writing for JOFA’s blog contact dani@jofa.org. For more about JOFA like us on Facebook or visit our website.

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