Learning How to Read on Shavuot

The Torah remains our greatest inheritance and our heaviest piece of baggage—simultaneously an elixir of life and an elixir of death depending on the spirit in which it is imbibed.
June 2, 2022

Starting With Aleph

When Akiva was forty years old, he had not yet learned a thing. 

So goes the origin story of the great Rabbi Akiva, recounted in the “Avot D’Rabbi Natan,” a collection of Jewish aggadot, or legends, from the latter half of the first millennium. 

One day, according to the tale, Akiva was looking into a well. Perplexed by what he saw, he asked his companions how the stone inside the well had become smooth. They answered that water had carved the stone. With a hint of mocking, they added that Akiva would have known this had he read the Book of Job, wherein it is written that “water wears away stone; [and] torrents wash away earth” (Job 14:19). 

Akiva paid no mind to the condescension of his fellows, but rather continued to stare into the well — transfixed. He reasoned: “If water, which is soft, can carve stone, which is hard; how much more so could the words of Torah, which are as strong as steel, carve my heart, which is but flesh and blood.” 

Without delay, he went off to study Torah. He joined his young son at the children’s schoolhouse. He sat at the feet of the teachers and took a slate in his hands. 

They taught him the letter aleph and he learned it. 

They taught him the letter bet and he learned it. 

Eventually he reached tav, the final letter of the alphabet, and from here, he began to read the book of Leviticus, and on and on until he had read the entire Torah. 

There are many messages that one can take from this story. One of them is this: To study Torah, one must first learn how to read. 

Standing at Sinai

In Rabbi Akiva’s story there is an echo of another story — a story both ancient and archetypal, as fundamental to the Jewish people’s shared identity and fate as the story of the exodus from Egypt.

In this great story, we swap out Akiva at the feet of his teachers for the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai on the day they received the Torah — the day when the people became the people of the Book. 

Shavuot, discussed in the Torah as an agricultural festival connected to the barley harvest, became associated with the Sinai revelation in the rabbinic era. In our own era, however, Shavuot is often overlooked. It is far less observed than Pesach or Hanukkah, and Jews who fast on Yom Kippur are unlikely to attend a Tikkun Leil Shavuot event, at which people gather to study Torah late into the night and potentially until the break of dawn.

Shavuot simply doesn’t speak to many of us, and this is because we don’t understand its language. 

Shavuot simply doesn’t speak to many of us, and this is because we don’t understand its language.

The Torah remains our greatest inheritance and our heaviest piece of baggage—simultaneously an elixir of life and an elixir of death (BT Yoma 72b) depending on the spirit in which it is imbibed. Coming to the Torah, we may find it impenetrable. We are put off by the Hebrew and the profusion of commentaries on each and every verse makes getting started seem like an impossible task. 

We may find it primitive. Its morals are strange to us and it contains much that seems so contrary to our modern sensibilities. 

We may find it bewildering. There are spinning, flaming swords wielded by cherubim. Fire and brimstone rains from the sky. Seeking spiritual peace or inspiration, we may wish to look elsewhere. 

Whatever it may be, we are estranged. Like Akiva, we are lacking the one skill that would open up the entire Torah for us. We haven’t yet learned how to read. 

Learning How to Read

In April, when I learned that my former professor, Ilja Wachs, had passed away, I rushed to my closet to grab a box of mementos that I keep on the top shelf. I hauled it over to my desk and began rifling about until I found what I was looking for — a photo we had taken on the final day of the semester, sitting out on the stone steps of Andrews House. Ilja would have been in his late seventies then. I was twenty.

Ilja occupied a somewhat mythical role at Sarah Lawrence College. His seminar, Studies in the Nineteenth-Century Novel, was as celebrated as he was, and though I knew little about him and had equally little interest in nineteenth-century novels, I took it on faith that one should — at the very least — make an attempt to get into the much-ballyhooed seminar. To my great surprise, I got in. 

In the years before I studied with him, I would sometimes see Ilja through the window of his office as I walked past. Through the glass, he looked to me like an old man — a tweedy academic with a wisp of white hair that was always pointing in a different direction like a weathervane. 

Face-to-face, he gave a different impression — one of vigor and joy. Much of this came from his voice, which was sonorous and benevolent, capable of commanding any space in which he held court.  

In a way, this shift in my perception of Ilja mapped onto a parallel shift in my perception of nineteenth-century novels. If, before Ilja’s class, I had been inclined to see these novels as stodgy, stilted, and forbidding; afterward, I came to see them as vivid renderings of the human experience, brimming with wisdom, beauty, and vitality. 

When it came time for our class to conduct independent studies, I chose to read “Daniel Deronda” by George Eliot. Over the course of the next couple of months, Ilja and I would meet weekly in his office to discuss the book together. It was here that we began to know one another as individuals, and it was here that our greatest differences were articulated.

I was just beginning to delve deeper into my Judaism. Ilja was a principled and passionate atheist. On the topic of Jewish identity, we stood on opposite sides of a great historic divide. Ilja revealed to me that he was a Holocaust survivor, separated at age six from his parents and left alone for an entire year in his family’s Vienna apartment, looked in on by a housekeeper and unsure of when or if he would see his family again. 

There is a great deal more to this story, but this was all that Ilja told me at the time. The rest I have learned only since his passing — a story of reunions and separations, narrow escapes and foiled plans, heartache and courage. 

After this experience, Ilja never forgave. He was finished with religion, and now he wouldn’t so much as attend a seder. Nevertheless, we came together each week over the Kabbalistic musings and proto-Zionist themes of “Daniel Deronda.” 

More than any one corpus of literature, what Ilja taught was the craft of reading well, and though he may have balked at this application of his teachings, I believe that what Ilja knew about reading could be helpful to those Jews who find themselves estranged from the Book of Books.

On this Shavuot, it is to these Jews that this essay is addressed, though it is to Ilja that it is dedicated. 

The Actual and the Ideal

When approaching the Torah, we confront a gap between an actuality and an unrealized ideal.  The actuality is the text in front of us. The unrealized ideal is all those notions of what scripture ought to be — or could be. In the gap between the two, there is often disappointment. 

After all, the Torah is supposed to be the literal word of God, or at least our best human attempt at creating a home for God within language. 

We speak of it in the most vaunted terms. We call the Torah a tree of life. We are told that those who hold fast to it are happy and that its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are paths of peace. In mystical literature, it is taught that the Torah is the very blueprint of creation and the Mishna tells us to “turn it and turn it for everything is in it.” 

When we open it up, however, this is what we find: There are stories with an often confounding moral logic. There are laws — a great many of which have to do with animal sacrifices and ritual impurity. There are skin afflictions and oozing members, liver protuberances turned into smoke on the altar, and fornicators impaled on a rod. In summation, much of it is boring, some of it is offensive, and a significant portion of it is unseemly.

A similar gap between the actual and the ideal is found in nineteenth-century literature. As Ilja said in a 2010 lecture, though nineteenth-century novels take place within history, with all the attendant “societal constraints that delimit and distort the self,” they nonetheless strive toward transcendence, “struggling to suggest new human possibilities — harmonies and reconciliations of opposites that are in effect utopian in the sense that they cannot be fully realized in the moment of history in which they are written — or in our moment of history.” 

This is precisely how we should approach the gap between the actual and the ideal in the Torah. 

Take, for instance, this verse from Parashat Ki Teitzei in Deuteronomy: “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).

In this passage, God’s justice and compassion are extended even to the birds — but not completely. The law concerns itself with the mother bird, but not with her young, and only to a certain extent. Her pain is mitigated, not eliminated. The traveler’s appetite is checked, but not forbidden. 

The law thus seems to fall short, but in its limitations, the negative space of an unseen ideal is articulated.

Instead of a doctrinaire precept, there is the suggestion of narrative, replete with what Ilja called “sensuous concreteness.” We see a traveler upon the road. He “chances upon” a bird’s nest and, with the voice of God in his ears, the scope of his moral vision (and ours) expands. Within the limits of the actual, he reaches for utopia.

Meeting the Torah On Its Own Terms

The Torah is more than the sum of its genres. 

Though it contains elements of history and epic, philosophy and verse — it is neither history nor epic, neither philosophy nor verse. As the great thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz put it, “as a means of moral education, perhaps Sophocles’ “Antigone” or Kant’s “Metaphysics of Morals” are superior; as philosophy, Plato and once again Kant are more important; as poetry, perhaps Sophocles or Shakespeare are better; as history, certainly Thucydides is more interesting and more profound.”

Only when considered “as the words of the living God” does the Torah become “incomparable to Sophocles and Shakespeare, Plato and Kant, Thucydides or any other human creation.” 

A similar idea is found in the Zohar, phrased in a more mystical idiom: “Woe to the person who thinks that Torah comes simply to tell stories and speak of earthly matters. If that were so, even in our times we could make a Torah, and we could do a much better job of it … Rather, all the words of the Torah are sublime matters and deep secrets.” 

In other words, we must meet the Torah on its own terms. 

This was how Ilja met each and every novel that he read.

As the author Brian Morton once said of his time studying with Ilja, “He had nothing to say about literary craft. He had nothing to say about the handling of dialogue or the use of the third-person point of view. It took me a while to see that Ilja was going after things of much greater consequence than that.” 

Indeed, he had no interest in those courses on offer at Sarah Lawrence that read literature through some explicitly ideological, political or theoretical lens. This was too narrow an approach, one that failed to take each novel seriously as a unique human expression and a world within itself. 

As the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber might put it, he didn’t see literature as an “it” to be categorized, compared and dissected, but rather a Thou — an infinitely complex subject with which to enter into relationship. 

The Biblical Gestalt

The narrator is usually an unobtrusive figure in a book — ever present but somehow unseen, striving to keep up the appearance of objectivity. Not so for the narrator of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” who watches over her characters with tenderness and concern and often departs from the plot to rhapsodize about the human condition. 

“And certainly,” begins the narrator in one such moment, “the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.”

These interludes are some of the most enjoyable parts of the novel — far more entertaining, to be sure, than the interminable descriptions of local political goings on. For this reason, Ilja had once endeavored to publish them as a collection. He went through the entire text, finding and gathering Eliot’s best sayings. What he discovered, however, was that the finished product was unsatisfying. 

“I realized,” he told us, “that the narrator can’t be separated from the characters and the plot.” 

A similar temptation exists with the Torah. There are certain passages, certain chapters, and certain portions that we would — if we could — raise up as somehow more important than the rest. To do so, however, would be folly. 

A story is related in the introduction to the work “Ein Yaakov” in which the sages hold a sort of contest to see who can identify the most important passage in the Torah. 

Ben Zoma suggests the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

Ben Nanas suggests: “Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

Then Shimon Ben Pazzi suggests: “The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening” (Numbers 28:4). 

At this, Rav Ploni rises and declares Shimon Ben Pazzi the winner of the contest.

The Torah is more than its greatest hits. Its wisdom can only be apprehended by those who are willing to delve into its less quotable and more challenging material.  

The meaning of this koan-like story is anything but clear, but one takeaway might be this: The Torah is more than its greatest hits. Its wisdom can only be apprehended by those who are willing to delve into its less quotable and more challenging material. 

As was taught by Maimonides, the great philosopher and legal codifier of the 11th century, the Torah is entirely holy, and there is therefore no difference in holiness between the passage “I the Lord am your God” (Exodus 20:2) and the passage “and Timna was a concubine” (Genesis 36:12). 

To believe in the holiness of “and Timna was a concubine” is an act of faith. To realize it with the heart, however, is an act of commitment — a matter of sitting with the text, along with the commentaries — until the significance of the passage becomes clear. 

As it says in the Midrash collection “Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu,” “the Torah was given as wheat or flax in order to have flour or garments produced from them.” Put another way, the Torah demands our participation, our contribution, and our effort. 

Reading for Reading’s Sake

We live in a culture that prizes ambition and goal-oriented activity, and we inevitably bring these postures into our relationship with reading. We read to have read, or to be well-read, or to acquire some specific knowledge. 

Such an attitude was anathema to Ilja. Reading was, for him, a pleasure first. Indeed, it was one of life’s greatest pleasures. To read for the sake of something else missed the point entirely. 

In the books we studied, we savored all that was tender, humorous and thrilling. We lingered over the scenes that captured life at its richest and most sensual, such as the time-bending tempest in “David Copperfield” (“a dread disturbance of the laws of nature”) or the joyful and bizarre “sperm squeezing” scene in “Moby Dick” (“I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me”) or the mystic mowing chapter from “Anna Karenina” (“He thought of nothing, wished for nothing … He heard nothing but the swish of the scythes.”).

We must come to Torah not to take from it, but to spend time with it.

Torah, too, must be read lishma — for its own sake. We must come to Torah not to take from it, but to spend time with it. For this reason, we pray each day that God make the Torah “sweet” in our mouths. 

When God grants this prayer, we will find much in the Torah that is tender, humorous and thrilling. We will hear Sarah’s laughter. We will be awed by the strangeness of Jacob’s visions. We will fear for Joseph in the pit. We will be moved to find Ruth curled up at the feet of Boaz. We will be charmed by Rahab and her apartment in the wall of Jericho. 

Certain passages will seem to wink at us. Certain images will linger in our minds. Certain laws will move us to tears from the sheer force of their moral vision. 

Transcending Solitude

When the seminar ended, Ilja gave us a piece of advice as a parting gift: “Join a book club.” Reading, he believed, is something that we do together. 

As James Atlas — a member of Ilja’s own fabled book club — wrote in a 2014 New York Times essay, “To read a book is to burst the confines of one’s consciousness and enter another world. What happens when you read a book in the company of others? You enter its world together.” He added, “In the end, book groups are about community.”

So is Torah. 

The Talmud puts it this way: “Why are matters of Torah compared to fire? … To tell you: Just as fire does not ignite in a lone stick of wood but in a pile of kindling, so too, matters of Torah are not retained and understood properly by a lone scholar” (BT Taanit 7a).

Judaism, in its own way, is a book club. 

photovs/Getty Images

We tend to meet on Saturdays in synagogues. We read our book aloud and discuss it with one another. Interpretations are offered. Connections with contemporary issues are drawn. Like at any good book club, wine is poured and a meal is served.

We are a diffuse group, spread across the globe. Our membership includes the living and the dead. Rashi sits beside us, along with Ramban, Ibn Ezra, the Tosafists, and the Hasidic masters. 

We are a diffuse group, spread across the globe. Our membership includes the living and the dead. Rashi sits beside us, along with Ramban, Ibn Ezra, the Tosafists, and the Hasidic masters. 

In the Beit Midrash, these voices from the past call out to us from the margins. They become as real as anyone else who reads beside us — living presences who bring us into the text’s hidden architecture, revealing to us the subterranean chambers that lie beneath a verse or the skylight bringing light into a word. 

Beginner’s Mind

Rabbi Akiva never really moved on from aleph. Though he became the greatest sage of his day, a master of Torah, he never lost his concern with the letters themselves — the building blocks of all that can be known and expressed. 

Indeed, he was even concerned with the so-called “jots and tittles” of the Torah’s calligraphy. As one aggada has it, when Moses ascended to heaven, he saw God busy writing decorative crowns on the letters of the Torah. Moses asked the reason for this, and God replied that he was doing it for Rabbi Akiva, who would someday derive great meaning from even these little markings. 

As we get older, we tend to stop seeing letters. Indeed, we even stop seeing words. We fail to notice their shape. We ignore the way the look of a word — its texture and size and font — affects the way we understand it. 

To return to such things is to cultivate what the Zen tradition calls “beginner’s mind.” 

As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki puts it, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Rabbi Akiva never lost his beginner’s mind. Neither did Ilja, who read “Anna Karenina” every year for some four decades and never stopped delighting in it or seeing it with fresh eyes.  Learning to read well, then, is a matter of forgetting — a matter of returning to our beginner’s mind. 

On Shavuot, we have a rare chance to do just this — a chance to return to the start, when we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and began learning how to read. As taught by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, when God spoke at Sinai, the Israelites did not hear a word nor a whole commandment, but rather one letter alone, the first letter of the decalogue, which is also the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

First an aleph. Then everything else.

Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.

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