“Soakin’ It Up”
By Rabbi Danielle Upbin
On our first day of studies at the Seminary, one of the professors adjured us to make the most of our experience and to study as much as possible while we had this glorious uninterrupted opportunity. To remind us of this advice, he addressed the group with the following blessing:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ לַעֲסוֹק בְּדִבְרֵי תוֹרָה
Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvotav V’Tziva’nu La’asok B’divrei Torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the Universe, Who has commanded us to be involved with words of Torah.
La’asok is typically translated as “to occupy, to involve, or be busy with”. But the professor’s twist on the classic translation made a deeper impression. He explained to us that when we say “la’asok b’divrei Torah,” each morning in prayer, it is a reminder to “soak it all up” – not only words of Torah, but the whole experience of a vibrant Jewish life. When we soak it up, the feeling of Torah permeates all of our activities, our actions and interactions. The words become part of us and part of all that we do.
The plea to “soak it up” has resonated with me throughout the years. But, I found this blessing is more than just a play on words. Most of the time, when we recite a blessing for a commanded activity, the blessing is immediately followed by the action associated with it. For instance, lighting the Hanukkah candles, waiving the Lulav and Etrog, or partaking in a meal. The blessing and tandem action are in close proximity in order to sustain the continuity of intention (kavanah). However, the blessing for Torah study is unique in this regard. One can recite the blessing early in the morning and literally not attend to a single word of text until late at night. Yet, the blessing still holds for that entire time. An explanation is offered:
The reason for this is that our activities during the day are not actually a distraction. If a busy physician goes to synagogue in the morning, rushes home, sees patients, and then finally in the evening, sits down and learns Torah, ten hours might have lapsed between the blessing and the Torah study. But there was really no interruption at all, because healing the sick is a commandment in the Torah. Similarly, the blessing is valid for a business person who rushes from prayer in the morning to work all day and only sits down to study Torah in the evening. The purpose of making money is to support one’s family and to give to the poor…. Whatever your profession is, it is somehow connected to Torah. There is never an interruption. … All of our activities should ideally be directed toward one goal: following the teachings (i.e., being involved with the words of the Torah. (Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth, Guide to Jewish Prayer, 30-31)
The goal of involving oneself with Torah is not limited to the attainment of book knowledge. The goal is to absorb and to elevate all of our actions (even our distractions) to the level of Torah. The Hebrew word Torah literally means “light” or “direction”. So when we thank God for the commandment to “soak it up”, we are directing our hearts to soak up the light and direction where ever we find it and where ever we create it. We pray that everything we do – our vocations, avocations, even our down time, will serve as meaningful and purposeful expressions of the light, wisdom and good we have absorbed through our study.