We Keep Reading the Same Book

by Arliene Botnick, July 29, 2021

We’ve almost completed the cycle of reading Torah. By the end of September, we will be celebrating Simchat Torah, completing, once again, the book of Deuteronomy (Devarim) and returning, once again, to the book of Beresheet (Genesis). Year after year, the same pattern is repeated as, on each Shabbat, one of the 54 parashiot (divisions) of the Torah is read or chanted. There is only one other book that I know of that is read over and over and over again. So, one has to sit back and think about why. What do we learn from words that have not changed basically in some 2000 years? And in that very book, there are numerous repetitions, reiterations, and nuanced contradictions. From the Plaut commentary: “The core of Deuteronomy (6:4 – 26:19) is formed by its legislation, repeating, supplementing the Book of the Covenant in Exodus, the Holiness Code of Leviticus, and scattered priestly laws in Numbers.” We are also commanded from Deut 31:19: “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel: put it in their mouths…” (As a footnote, Solel is fulfilling this commandment by having our first commissioned Torah Scroll being written in honour of our upcoming 50th anniversary.) Basically, we are to read, reread, and continue to write words that, themselves, are repeated over and over.

Each year, each Shabbat, we are given the opportunity to interpret, to challenge, and then, to learn how to live by these words from Torah. God seems to want to make sure that we “get it,” and that we believe we “get it” from God. For some of us, reading or hearing these words read or chanted is just part of our Jewish lives. We may attend services infrequently, frequently, or not at all. We may listen, but not hear, and we may agree with or challenge what we’re hearing, and decide whether or not the words, the mitzvot, have any relevance in our lives. Some of us may be involved in daily Torah study either as part of a group, or on our own. When we teach Torah in our junior school, it is taught in a very storybook fashion. We simplify for the younger children. Nuance is not introduced. Adam and Eve are the first two people – no questions asked. The children have visions of a long-haired Eve and her partner Adam strolling through an amazing garden. Then, the concept of tempting is brought with the serpent tempting Eve – no questions asked. I know many children then begin to think that snakes are really wicked, awful creatures. Later on, Moses becomes some kind of superhero and younger students have visions of Moses raising his staff and the Reed Sea parts – no questions asked. I could go through many biblical stories and talk about both the way it’s taught and the way it’s understood by children, but the beauty of our reading it year after year is that we mature, and we start asking questions and delving into deeper meanings. We don’t remain children; we grow, we experience, we suffer, we rejoice, and we learn that the words of Torah may stay the same, but we and the world in which we live does not stay the same. And that’s why we must keep reading Torah, because each day, each moment, the world and we change. The weird and unexpected are always at our doorstep.

All we have to do is look at the past year and the experience of a pandemic, which last happened about 100 years ago. We are definitely not the same now as we were last August. Not only has the pandemic changed the way we may view the world or our own mortality, but the political situation, the environment, issues of discrimination and antisemitism, have all impacted who we are and perhaps have changed how we understand God’s words.

So, as we begin the month of Elul and begin preparing for Rosh Hashanah, we will hear the shofar blasts that are to wake us up from any lethargy or indifference that has overtaken us. We will be reading the last few chapters of Deuteronomy in the next two months, and we will be ready to start again at Genesis and learn and benefit from the words that our tradition has given us and has kept us alive as a Jewish people for over 2000 years. Is the Torah going to continue to be a meaningful, integral part of our Jewish lives, and if so, are we going to learn its lessons?

In the month of Tishrei, we will be celebrating our new year, Rosh Hashanah, a joyous celebration with apples and honey and round challahs, and hopefully, some great family time. Then, we will have our Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – leading up to Yom Kippur, a solemn day focused on searching our soul (Cheshon Hanefesh), assessing what we have learned, and about taking responsibility for both our personal and communal wrongdoings over the past year. We will do Teshuvah, mend our behaviour. Then, on Sukkot, we will build, visit, or read about a Sukkah, enjoy the beginning of the fall season, and a have a little bit of Jewish Thanksgiving. Next, we will come to Simchat Torah, where we will complete the book of Deuteronomy and in the very next breath, we will start Genesis, because the cycle of reading and living is just that, a cycle. It’s not smooth, it’s not consistent, but thank God, it keeps going on and life continues. We will be continually challenged by life, by both the expected and the unexpected, by the good and the bad, by the hopeless and the hopeful. But somehow, if we can be sustained by the words of Torah, if we can be comforted with the knowledge that God is somehow in control and that we can make it through, we will make it through. So, enjoy the last few parashiot from Deuteronomy that will be chanted each Saturday at Shabbat services, and perhaps spend some time reading them on your own. Think about what they may have meant to you 2000 years ago, what they mean to you today, and what they may mean to you a few years hence. The words stay the same, but we and the world do not. Anticipating, hoping for, praying for a better and happier and healthy new year! An early Shanna Tova to all!

Filed under: Educator's Message

« Read more articles