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Va-Et’hanan: Cooking Torah

Recently, I saw one of my favorite movies — Julie and Julia. In the film, which is based on a true story, a woman named Julie decides to cook her way through Julia Child’s cookbook and blog about it. She sets a deadline of one year to cook and blog her way through the 538 recipes in the cookbook. Then she invites her friends over for a dinner party to celebrate the completion of her project.

Well, I guess I should start planning a dinner party. Like Julie, I too set a goal for this year — writing my way through the weekly Torah portions as they relate to raising children. As we enter the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), the last book of the Torah, I feel a building sense of excitement as I approach the end of the Torah, and I’ve begun to reflect about what this process has taught me.

In the movie, Julie finds it comforting that if she follows the recipes precisely, the food will turn out right. Cooking became a reliable consolation. While many parts of her life (like the challenges she faced at work) were outside of her control, cooking was something she could count on.

For me, in preparing these columns I discovered the opposite. I found how little I could control Torah. Each Saturday morning, as the Torah is read, I jumped ahead to the coming week’s portion for ideas. When I finish reading the portion, a wave of panic inevitably comes over me. What will I possibly write about? Some weeks the Torah portion is especially inaccessible (such as the portions about skin diseases or ritual impurity), and I wonder how such a portion could possibly relate to my life. Other portions, like this week’s portion are so chock full of important ideas that I wonder how to choose where to focus.

Yet somehow, each week, an idea comes to me. My child (or a friend) says something, and the Torah portion comes to mind. I can’t make this moment happen on my own time frame (which is very frustrating), but if I wait, inspiration always comes. I’ve spoken to artists and poets who also described their creative process in a similar way.

This week’s Torah portion describes this dynamic. The portion called v’etchanan (which means “and I pleaded”) is an important one — as it contains both the shema which became Judaism’s central prayer and the Ten Commandments.

The first paragraph of the shema states: “And these words which I command you this day shall be on your heart.” The rabbis asked why the words are supposed to be “on your heart” rather than “in your heart?” Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk explained that often a person’s heart is closed. If the words are on the heart, then when circumstances open our heart, the words of Torah can enter.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s words describe precisely how this process has been for me. Each week, as I read the words of the Torah portion, there is no immediate response. But at some point, something causes my heart to open a crack and the words fall right in.

The rabbis taught that: “words that come from the heart enter the heart.” By writing these columns, I can only hope that the words of Torah that slip into my heart may enter yours as well.

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches biblical interpretation at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.

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