Parshat Bereshit: Genesis 1:1-6:8; Isaiah 42:5-43:10.
Let’s start at the very beginning, which is a very good place to start.
This Shabbat, we start reading the Torah all over again, having completed the last portion as part of the Simchat Torah holiday. Around the world, Jews will roll their Torah scrolls all the way back to the beginning, in order to start re-reading the Five Books of Moses.
I’ve always been intrigued by this practice. For literally thousands of years, since instituted by the prophet Ezra, we’ve been publicly reading the same text aloud, year after year, multiple times each week.
While the Torah is filled with incredible narratives that certainly maintain intrigue, I can’t help but wonder how our ancestors, over time, didn’t opt to sub-out Torah readings for some other textual selections from our traditional canon. Granted, the reality that many of them (and still many folks today) believed that the Torah was/is God’s own words and that they were commanded to read/study them with regularity likely played a part. And yet, I still find it surprising that this custom of publicly reading the Torah has lasted as long as it has.
When was the last time you heard someone read from the Torah (or read from the Torah yourself)? What was that experience like? Did it touch you in some way? Was there meaning in it/behind it?
Traditionally, we read from the Torah on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays and holidays. Our tradition likens the Torah to water, and the ancient rabbis taught that just as the human body needs water to be nourished; so, too, the Torah nourishes us as Jews, and we should never go three days without it. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 82a).
It’s interesting to note that for many contemporary Jews, if they attend prayer services at all, gravitate to Friday nights, when the Torah traditionally is not read. Thus, public Torah readings are generally not a part of their lives.
Given that reality, should we continue with the public reading of the Torah as is traditionally done now? Should it be read on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays and holidays exclusively, or is it time for a new schedule?
As we begin this new cycle of reading a designated section of the Torah each week, if you don’t regularly attend services, consider reading along on your own; or even better, find a study-buddy to read/study along with.
The Five Books of Moses – the Torah – is the core part of our heritage and narrative, has had outsized impact on the world and remains relevant today in ways large and small. Every person in our community having at least a cursory familiarity with our traditional text should be both individual and communal goals.
Some of the stories in the Torah make sense. Some are erotic. Some are just downright unfathomable given our contemporary views of right and wrong. But it’s ours, and we read it from beginning to end and back to the beginning, year after year.
As first century C.E. teacher Ben Bag Bag taught his students: “Turn the Torah, and turn it again, for everything you want to know is found within it.” (Avot 5:25)
Let’s make it ours again.
Rabbi Dan Horwitz is the founding director of The Well, Metro Detroit’s inclusive Jewish community-building, education and spirituality initiative for young adults and young families. For more information, visit meetyouatthewell.org.