For hundreds of years, we Jews have had the custom to complete our yearly Torah reading in the synagogue on the day of Simchat Torah and to immediately begin all over again. This tradition requires renewed close examination. (1) Why the hurry? There is nearly no time to contemplate what one read last year! Why not read a very small section over several years and discuss it in the synagogue as part of the service? (2) What is the point in reading something which, for lack of time, cannot even sink in? Why not take a year off to re-examine what we have read previously? What, in fact, is the meaning of this annually repeated reading?
There is indeed a need to re-examine what one read last year, and no doubt this is part of the commandment to study Torah. Every yeshiva student does it. It is necessary to repeat and study until one fully (?) understands what one has learned. But, there is also a danger involved. Repetitious reading often results in stagnation of the text. Once a text is studied in a particular way and then repeated several times, what often results is a dogmatic reading. This imprisons the mind and blocks totally new ways to interpret the text. It becomes mind imposed and loses its creative potential. Once this happens, the essence of the Torah is partially lost. The possibility of chidush, novelty, of looking into the same text with completely different eyes is essential. The call for new interpretations, and not just repeating what we or others have said, is fundamental to genuine Torah learning. Surely one needs the background to know how to do this, and only intensive learning can guarantee an authentic new interpretation and insight, but without it Judaism will not be able to survive.
Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1531-1586), disciple of both Rabbi Josef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, and Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508-1600), famous Torah commentator, writes in a most unusual text (Parashath Balak):
“Concerning the faith in the (contemporary) human being, it is said in Parashath Nezavim (Devarim 29:13) ‘And not with you alone did I establish a covenant …but with those who are here with us and with those who are not here today….’ Therefore each and every one of us, our children and grandchildren until the conclusion of all the generations who have entered the covenant, are duty bound to examine the secrets of the Torah and to straighten out our faith concerning it by accepting the truth from whoever says it…. Neither ought we be concerned about the logic of others – even if they preceded us – preventing our own individual investigation. Much to the contrary …. Just as (our forebears) did not wish to indiscriminately accept the truth from those who preceded them, and that which they did not choose (to accept) they rejected, so it is fitting for us to do….. Only on the basis of the gathering of many different opinions
will the truth be tested. Thus it is valuable to us to complete the views (of our predecessors) and to investigate (the meaning of the Torah) in accordance with our own mind’s understanding. And even if in the course of investigation into the secrets of the Torah through our love for it, we err, it will not be accounted for us even as an unwitting thing because our intent was for the sake of Heaven. But we shall be guilty if we desist from investigating the secrets of our Torah by declaring: The lions have already established supremacy, so let us accept their words as they are….. Rather, it is proper for us to investigate and analyze according to our understanding and to write our interpretations for the good of those who come after us, whether they will agree or not …..
You must struggle to scale the heights and to understand our Torah …… and do not be dismayed by the names of the great personalities when you find them in disagreement with your belief; you must investigate and choose, because for this purpose were you created, and wisdom was granted you from Above, and this will benefit you…..”
Indeed, this great wisdom is often forgotten in certain religious circles (3), a phenomenon which has been detrimental to the future of a living Judaism. Surely there are rules of interpretation and nobody can just disagree with the halachic foundations of Judaism, but within those parameters the call to fresh thinking is fundamental in order to guarantee the Torah’s eternal message.
This, we believe, is the reason behind the need to begin the Torah reading again immediately after completing it, leaving no time in between for the listener to carefully contemplate its meaning.
The hurry is to prevent the text from settling in our minds in a particular fashion. It functions as a kind of first reading in the sense that it has the impact of something totally new. Often, a first encounter is the most exciting one. It keeps all possibilities open; nothing has yet been fixed or determined. If man would just take notice of that moment, he would see things which a second reading would no longer allow him. As when he is struck by a lightning bolt, man is suddenly enlightened by an overwhelming understanding which may override all his earlier insights. Getting used to a text often means killing the text, as “familiarity breeds contempt.”
“Sitting on” and contemplating a text is no doubt a very important part of Jewish custom, and without this delving our tradition could not have become what it is. Still, a fast reading, though it often leads to superficiality, holds the possibility for total novelty.
There is still another element to all this. Focusing on one or two verses at one time may often result in getting too narrow a view of the narrative, or even of the commandments. The sequence of biblical narrative and the order in which the commandments appear is of crucial importance. One must see the forest beyond the trees. A global overview, in which complete stories are told “in one go”, is therefore a guarantee that the whole picture is seen and not just its details. The same is true about the commandments. As part of a complicated structure, the commandments appear in a masterful order in which random does not play a role.
This, then, could be the purpose of the Torah reading in a synagogue. It is not conventional Torah learning but, rather, somewhat of a wake-up call. It has a therapeutic function by which man needs to be shocked by the text before he even has a chance to get used to its deeper content. And although he has read it for years before, the fact that the story appears again an entire year later, and no earlier, gives him a chance to forget it and then rediscover it as never before. In this way, it remains fresh and continues to amaze the reader with its multiple possibilities and its grand image.
1. See also Thoughts to Ponder 122 and 156, www.cardozoschool.org/
2. See Rambam, Hilchoth Teffila 13.1, stating that there was once a custom to read the Torah in three years. There was even a custom to read it in three and a half years.
3. See the controversy about the most original “Hamesh Drashoth” by Rabbi Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik z”l (translated into English by Tal Oroth Institute: Five Addresses, 5743) in which Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach z”l, head of the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Berak severely criticizes Rabbi Soloveitchik for devising “from his own mind (ideas) which were not handed down to us from earlier generations” (Letters and Articles, Vol. 4, pp. 35-40). Compare this with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s statement: “Halachic man is a man who longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original. The study of Torah, by definition, means gleaning new, creative insights…” (Halachic Man, p. 99).