Five steps to studying and learning from the Torah
Observing my kids playing, I notice how the same toy, no matter how many times they play with it, can reveal the most remarkable things. My daughter, with the vocabulary befitting a 1 1/2-year-old, will bring her ball over to me and point to a mark on it with a delighted grunt.
“How remarkable!” I will say with (feigned) enthusiasm. But to her it is remarkable; she had never noticed it before.
When I hear the phrase from Pirkei Avot (the Teachings of our Fathers), “Turn it around and around, for everything is in it” (5:21), the image of a toy jumps to my mind.
The rabbis of the Mishnah, however, were writing at the beginning of the Common Era in the Land of Israel and not in 21st century playrooms of North America, so I’m not sure they share the same association. Surely they were referring to the Torah and the revered text’s limitless insights and wisdom.
There is, however, something playful about the phrase. If we studied the Torah the way a child plays with a toy—repeatedly and open to the possibility of discovering something remarkable—then perhaps we would discover something remarkable.
Why should we make this ancient scroll our own? For starters, the Torah tells us we should.
In recounting the story when the Torah was revealed to Moses, the text begins by describing the journey of the Israelites to Mount Sinai.
“In the third month after the children of Israel went out of the land of Egypt, the same day [‘bayom hazeh’] they came into the wilderness of Sinai,” it says in Exodus 19:1. If the Torah were retelling something that already took place, it should say “on that day” not on “this day.” Rashi, the 12th century French commentator, says we should look to the Torah as if it is being given on this day. The Torah is being given, and revelation has the potential to happen anew each day.
Nice words, but how might we really experience this? While Shavuot offers us a moment to focus our attention on Torah study—all-night learning tikkun style awaits at many area synagogues and JCCs—the esoteric musings of a Talmud scholar at 3 a.m. may not be the kind of revelation we seek.
Try this activity (which I learned from dear friends Rabbi David Ingber and Ariel Rosen.) It’s called “Find your (Uni) Verse.” Here’s what you do:
Step 1: Open the Torah (the scroll, book or even an online version).
Step 2: Randomly point to a verse (this may be easier with a book version).
Step 3: Read the verse a couple of times. The first time is to understand the plain meaning. The second and third times are to play with different interpretations of what the verse might be saying. Consult commentary on the verse if you like.
Step 4: Consider the lesson that you might learn from this verse. What wisdom might it impart?
Step 5: Try to apply the lesson to your life in the coming weeks.
Some Torah verses may have immediate relevance to you than others. “Honor your father and mother” and “Love your Neighbor as Yourself” may be clear at face value and easy to apply. Other verses from Leviticus, like ones that speak about people stricken with tzara’at, may take a bit more parsing. (Luckily, commentators understood tzara’at as “motzi shem ra,” one who does not speak truthfully about another person, an aspect of gossip to which we may relate more readily.)
Even (or especially) if you don’t think the verse relates to you on face value, sit with it for a while. I promise, you will find some meaning.
My husband and I did this activity last year with our community. We just had a disagreement about some household matter and were a little tense going into the holiday. The verse he selected was “Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 12:7).
The lesson was clear: Don’t let the everyday stresses of your life cloud the experience of these precious holidays. Safeguard them, honor them. You can get back to your stress when the holiday is over, but for now, let it go and rejoice!
How a verse selected at random can be personally relevant speaks to the power of the Torah and the potential for its wisdom to be revealed to us.
“Your Testimonies are my delight/play thing, they are my counselors,” it says in Psalms 119:24. On Shavuot, turn your selected phrases of the Torah around and around in your mind. The words will become for you a beloved toy.