INQUIRE, STUDY DEEPLY, STUDY REPEATEDLY
Why do we read the entire Torah in annual cycles? Every year, starting and ending at Simchat Torah we read, in the same order, the same words from the five books of Moses. Is there not some concern the repetition will become rote or even boring? Might we not just stop paying attention to that part of the Shabbat service? Might the Torah service be the cue for Kiddush Club?
There are a number of traditions that concern themselves with the careful study of Torah and other sacred texts and with the repetition of that study. In the book of Leviticus, in chapter ten after the death of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Moshe inquires about some irregularity in the daily offering. This, in itself, appears unremarkable. The key here is that the Torah uses repetitive language to describe his inquiry. It does not say he inquired; it uses the verb meaning inquire, darosh. twice, “darosh dorash.” When a verb is repeated it is usually for the sake of emphasis. That is, Moses inquired diligently or deeply. Tradition has it that these two words are the middle words in the Torah, right dead center. From this, since the Torah does not waste words and “there are no mere coincidences” it has been deduced and inferred that the diligence and depth are central to the study and understanding of Torah. In Pirke Avot, a Mishnaic tractate, chapter 5 verse 24 tells us “Ben Bag-Bag taught hafoch ba, hafach ba, study it and review it (or turn it over, turn it over)- you will find everything in it”. Additionally, we are told the Torah has seventy faces meaning that there are many different ways to un understand a verse, a narrative, or a law.
The point of all of this is that with each re-reading, with each fresh look at the text, with each different teacher discussing or expounding upon a text there is a new angle, a new insight, a new way of understanding. A rabbi’s sermon or a teacher’s lesson is regularly called a d’rash or d’rasha. This is the same terminology as was used to describe Moshe’s inquiry; it is a deeper search for new understanding. I can tell you, based on my own experience over the (approximately seventy) years of following the cycle of Torah reading, that each time we read a new/old parasha or even the haftarah for a given week, I find a new understanding of a mitzvah or a parallel (or irony) between two portions of the narrative or just a new way to view the story line or some character in the tale.
Just consider one example. At the beginning of parsha Va’yichi, the last reading in the book of Genesis we are told that Jacob lived in Egypt for seventeen years before his death. Until this year I never made the connection between this statement and the beginning of the Joseph narrative where we are told that Joseph was seventeen years old when he was sent out to find his brothers and they ultimately sold him into slavery. I then saw the beautiful parallel that Joseph spent the first seventeen years of his life protected and doted upon in his father’s home and then Jacob spent the last seventeen year of his life protected and doted upon in his son’s home. The parallelism of the time-frame is prosaically striking. But, more than that, it makes one think about the cycle of weakness and strength, of independence and vulnerability of the whole dynamic of the parent/child relationship. I have seen a bumper sticker that says “be good to your children, they are going to choose your nursing home.” Well, yeah, it is the child that Jacob doted on who is most involved in his well-being at the end of his life. This is just one small example of the many times new insights have jumped out at me. It takes some effort; it takes some real caring about the real meaning of our traditions but in the long run the intellectual and spiritual rewards are real. “The Torah has seventy faces” the tradition says. Well in about seventy cycles, I am still seeing new ones. Frankly, it is part of what makes Torah study so much fun.