GenesisThe Torah of Beginner’s Mind
Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis: 12:1-17:27)
The day after I became a rabbi, I taught a room full of men how to sing the alef-bet.
The men in the Jewish Spirituality Group at the Essex County Jail, where I served last year as the Jewish chaplain, had requested I teach them some Hebrew. And so, on Sunday I was ordained, draped in a tallis and called rabbi for the first time in front of hundreds of people, and on Monday I wrote the letters up on the board and we sang the familiar song in call-and-response. Alef bet vet… alef bet vet. Gimmel daled hey… gimmel daled hey. We sang the alef-bet over and over, and then my students trained their eyes to read right to left, first the letter, then the vowel beneath and then across to the next letter. Just as I was starting to wonder whether this activity was boring or altogether foolish, one of the men exclaimed, “This is so fun! Why weren’t you teaching us to do this all along?” Hearing his comment, I realized that learning the alef-bet couldn’t possibly be boring—that there is something vital about being at the beginning of the learning process, deeply focused and curious, when anything is possible.
Leaving the prison to walk back to my car through the parking lot, I considered the irony of the previous twenty-four hours. After all my years of sitting in the beit midrash, learning to navigate a labyrinthine daf of Talmud and the various modes of nusach for different times of day or year, after sitting with complex texts ranging Biblical, Rabbinic, Classical, Modern and Postmodern eras of Jewish theology, after grappling with gender and queer studies as they applied to the Jewish canon, after learning to officiate funerals, baby namings, and weddings, after all of this training, I found myself in the front of a classroom singing Vav zayin chet tet… yud kaf chaf, feeling the magic of the Hebrew letters float through the years, back to me.
Mainstream culture has recently adopted the idea of “beginner’s mind” from Zen Buddhism: an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions, even at advanced levels of study. This concept elevates the qualities of someone embarking anew on a path of learning, inverting the expected hierarchy that a person with more knowledge of a subject is a better student of it. A paper published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2015 by Loyola University Professor Victor Ottati reports that “self-perceptions of expertise increase close-minded cognition.” It’s a bit threatening to think about — that a symptom of being an expert might be a mind too closed to think at a high level.
In the first verse of this week’s parsha, God tells Avram to set out, commanding: “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) The instruction is clear: In order to serve me, God seems to say, start again from scratch. Avram’s journey is quintessentially the Hero’s Journey: he must leave his roots, his kin, and the known world around him, to set out for something mysterious and new.
Joseph Campbell famously coined the notion of the “Hero’s Journey,” a pattern of narrative found in literature, psychology, and mythology. An archetype known as the Hero leaves home, undergoes transformative encounters and trials, and later returns deeply changed, carrying some kind of physical or metaphysical treasure. Similarly, the tarot deck begins with a card titled “The Fool,” who, as the protagonist of a great journey, travels through various archetypes of human experience and ends the cycle as “The World,” an evolved and integrated self.
The parsha tells us “Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.” (Genesis 12:4) This is not the story of an eighteen-year-old leaving home to attend college and live alone for the first time. Rather, Avram is like the learners who show up to the bet midrash of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, where I teach. In many cases, these learners have never cracked open a Talmud or read a text in Aramaic, though they have been masters in their fields or parents of now-adult children for decades. Avram is like the newly engaged activist who has voted in numerous elections but had not called her elected officials or participated in mass demonstrations before this year and now finds herself driven to act. And Avram is like the men of the Jewish Spirituality Group at the Essex County Jail, who after lifetimes of survival, resilience, mistakes, recovery and struggle, willingly and eagerly sang the alef-bet song and entered into that enlivening state of beginner’s mind. And maybe Avram was me that day after ordination, after six long years of study, going back to the basics of lamed mem nun… samech ayin pey fey.
My mentor Rabbi Benay Lappe asserts that the goal of every religion is to cultivate a certain type of person, and that by studying their texts, we discern the type of person each religious system seeks to create. Avram is referred to in this parsha as HaIvri, which we could translate as “the Hebrew.” Ivri comes from the word la’avor, to cross over. Perhaps Avram models for us what it means to be a crossing-over-person, a Hebrew — one who can repeatedly enter the realm of the unknown, to embrace the world through fresh thinking, an open heart, and the humility of a beginner. And indeed, last week’s parsha ends with reference to Avram’s earlier family sojourn, reminding us that an ivri is someone who journeys multiple times within a life, flexibly able to return to beginner’s mind not once, but over and over as the world calls him to attention.
We are all the fool right now. In this whirlwind of political crises, amidst climate disasters and heedless disaster relief, heightened white supremacist activity, religious persecution and gender-based violence, we are all ivrim, crossers-over. When the world changes, the Torah tells us to set out as beginners. When we finish reading from the scroll, we wind it back and start from the top. Though we shouldn’t abandon our hard-won lessons and wisdom, Avram’s story reminds us to allow for surprise and curiosity.
May we be brave enough to humble ourselves before the mystery of learning, and may we all be transformed, from the beginning, again.
Rabbi Mónica Gomery is a lover of questions, community, language and song. She was honored to receive ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2017 and is the new Associate Director of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, where she builds queer Jewish community and teaches Talmud. She is also a founder and co-organizer of Let My People Sing! transformative Jewish singing retreats.
Learn more about the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College on November 6 at Ta Sh’ma (Come & hear), a Fall Open House & Day of Learning for prospective rabbinical, rav-hazzan and cantorial students.