When completing a tractate of Talmud, it is customary to recite a text known as the Hadran. “Hadran” comes from the word for return, and in modern Hebrew it is used to refer to an encore. The prayer begins, “May we return to you, and may you return to us.” May we have the opportunity to do chazara and study this tractate again, because inevitably we’ll forget some of what we learn; and may the tractate come back to us, because we hope that some of our learning will continue to resonate.
This prayer gives voice to my fervent belief in the power of learning to make the world endlessly interesting; there is always more to learn, and so there is always a reason to turn the next page and look forward in hopeful anticipation at what lies ahead. But in classic talmudic wordplay, hadran, from the word hadar, also means beauty and glory. So, the prayer can also mean, “Our beauty is from you, and your beauty is from us,” which conveys the notion that each of us, with our own individual life experiences and our own unique perspectives, can beautify the study of Talmud, and the Talmud can beautify us. For me, both meanings of the term are intimately related: It is the quest to seek out the beauty in the text — the poetry, the intricate craftsmanship, and the rich texture of the discourse — that sends me back to the text again and again, ever seeking out that encore.
To thrive, we need beauty and meaning to which Ilana Kurshan points in the Hadran. While we seek them in conversation with companions, that quest is greatly enriched if we also have access to the voices of wise sages recorded in sacred texts for millennia.
The Hadran addresses these texts as living interlocutors because their words virtually become audible to us. We can almost hear the tenor of their voices. The ancient sages who populate a rabbinic text were surely searching relentlessly to live with purpose and with beauty, and they address the modern student as well as each other. When we open a page of Talmud with a chevrutah, a study partner, our dialogue seems often to merge with that of our ancestors. Past and present connect. A conversation started long ago can be accessed, joined, and applied to a new world.
We are comforted knowing that our tool box contains more than our own meager resources. We stand on the shoulders of centuries of thoughtful, seeking people. I love to return to Hillel and Shammai’s debate about how to kindle Hanukkah lights, to be reminded how the opinions of both schools were words of the living God, and to revisit the words of Rabbi Joshua, a second-century sage, that Torah is no longer in Heaven but in human hands. Journeying with these sages has made my path so much wiser and more beautiful.
Writing that “…each of us, with our own individual life experiences and our own unique perspectives, can beautify…,” Ilana Kurshan aptly signals what inspired me to translate the prayer Hadran Alakh in my senior year of rabbinical school. I resonated with the double meaning of the word, hadran, “return” and “beauty/ glory,” and I agreed that both people and texts were sacred. I chose to focus on the Hadran Alakh prayer because it is about saying “goodbye.” I wanted to acknowledge not only the ending of my rabbinical studies but also the ending of a chapter in my life that comprised dear relationships with unique people, each a story, each a sacred text.
Just as we dedicate ourselves to studying our holy texts again and again in order to learn another lesson from them, the translation of this prayer acknowledges that we learn from each other, as one sacred text to another. Just as we commit to return to our literal texts, we should also commit to return to our precious relationships. As we recite the Hadran on completion of study, shouldn’t we also recite it when we complete a portion of time with loved ones, friends, and communities? Had I known of the prayer, I would have recited it when we took my father off of life support and said goodbye. This sort of recitation gives us opportunities to acknowledge how our relationships reciprocally beautify each other, acknowledging that relationships are as sacred as studying our holy texts time and time again.