By Rabbi Paul David Kerbel
Saturday night, May 23, through Monday, May 25, we have a Jewish perfect storm as Memorial Day weekend and Shavuot converge. Images of beaches and barbecues give way to blintzes and hours in shul, Tikkun Leil Shavuot, and the recitation of Yizkor in memory of our loved ones.
On Simhat Torah, we celebrate the completion and the beginning of our Torah reading cycle. On Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz cites Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk as asking why we call the events at Sinai the giving of the Torah and not the receiving of the Torah. He responded, “The Torah was given once, but we receive it anew every single day.”
We celebrate the Torah, but we have a problem. Fifty-two weeks a year, we read 54 Torah portions. Over the years we have gotten to know the Torah.
We know the differences between Genesis and Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. We have read the Ten Commandments and know the Ten Plagues. Each Shabbat we have the opportunity to listen, to learn, to read a comment, to hear a d’var Torah or sermon. We can go online and read commentaries, go to a class, listen to lessons on a PC.
You get the idea: We can discern the ebb and flow of the story lines of the Torah.
Here is the problem: we study the Torah consecutively, but the Torah makes up only five out of 36 books of the Hebrew Bible. OK, we read the Book of Jonah if we come back for Mincha (the afternoon service) on Yom Kippur, and we read the Book of Esther on Purim. But what about the other books?
When we think of Judaism or the word “Jew,” we evoke images of books or Torah scrolls or sacred texts. At the core of Judaism is our encounter with sacred texts: the Torah, the prayer book, the hagaddah.
We are the people of the book — but sadly, we don’t know the book. If we were to offer a quiz to every Jew on the main ideas and themes, names, and historical events in the Bible, we wouldn’t do so well.
Guess what? At the yeshivas dotting the landscapes of New York and Baltimore, Gush Etzion and Bnei Brak, they also do not emphasize the study of the Bible. For the yeshiva world, the Talmud and codes of Jewish law take precedence over the teaching of the Bible.
I wish our ancestors had given us a way to study the Bible the way we read the Torah. I had a teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary named Dr. Hayim Tawil. He began every class by urging us to read a chapter of the Bible every night. Every week he repeated that message. I did not always follow his advice, but I have never forgotten his message.
Here is my question for all of us to think about as we finish counting the Omer and prepare to celebrate Shavuot: What have we learned cumulatively from our years of reading the Torah, and what major ideas can we glean from our study of Torah?
I will share five ideas as a starting point for our own readings, study and discovery. For me, the following is the essence of the Torah:
- There is one G-d, and that G-d is with us and has played a tremendous role in human history and Jewish destiny.
- In the Torah, we move forward and rise in holiness from the patriarchs to the 12 tribes to peoplehood, from Abraham to b’nai Yisrael (the children of Israel). We are a people in covenant with G-d, and Shavuot celebrates our marriage, our partnership with G-d.
- G-d gave us the Torah to lead lives that would model how G-d wants human beings to behave in this world.
- G-d gave us a land, and we are entitled to keep this land if we observe the commandments and maintain our covenant with G-d.
- Judaism is a religion that teaches us to lead meaningful lives through commandments and rituals, customs and special holy moments.
The commandments are not meant to be a check-off list but rather to be tools to help us learn to live holy, ethical and moral lives through observance.
I will conclude with the words of the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary Dr. Arnie Eisen: “We either teach Torah or something else at every moment. … If we do not teach Torah enough of the time, the opposite of Torah will prevail in the world.”
What have we learned from this weekly project called kriat hatorah, the reading of the Torah? What could we gain if we studied the Torah and the entire Bible a little more? I am hoping it will lead us to ask: Are we leading the kinds of lives that G-d wants from us? Are we where G-d wants us to be?
Some thoughts for us to think about over ice cream and cheesecake.
Rabbi Paul Kerbel serves as one of Congregation Etz Chaim’s rabbis and serves on the board of trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.