9 October 2015
26 Tishrei 5776
Last Friday I spoke to our students about one of the extraordinary moments that occurs every Simchat Torah, a moment that communicates so much about the Jewish approach to life and learning.
On this holiday that epitomizes through its name the value of finding joy and meaning in our relationship with our tradition, and, more broadly, in the process of study, we conclude the annual cycle of reading the Torah. One might think that, after an entire year of reading the Torah, we would give ourselves a break or, perhaps, move onto another book. However, amidst all of the excitement, singing, and celebration that occurs when we finally read those last words – “l’einei kol Yisrael – before the eyes of all the people of Israel” – we (literally or metaphorically) immediately roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and start again: “Breishit bara Elohim – And God created the world.”
We can learn at least two essential principles from this ritual of beginning the cycle of reading and learning again just moments after we finish. The first is the principle of chazara, review and repetition. At some point in our lives, most of us have experienced the power of really learning something to the point of mastery, and we know that it rarely happens on the first try. To truly deeply understand something or to acquire a skill requires constant, consistent, dedicated, repetitive practice and review. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell made famous the concept of 10,000 hours. Artists and athletes understand this well, as do many of us who recall drilling multiplication tables. From both intellectual and spiritual perspectives, it is through the process of chazara that we make what we learn our own, that we internalize it, and that it becomes part of who we are.
This notion of chazara may seem mundane, repetitive, even boring. How many times can I read the same stories or practice the same skill without this becoming a rote, boring exercise? However, the second essential principle that our beginning again teaches us is hitchadshut, renewal. Why do many of us love to watch our favorite movies or read our favorite books over and over again? Because we can laugh at the same jokes, yes; but, more importantly and paradoxically, the better we know something and the more times we have seen it, the more new things we are able to discover.
This year our students will learn many of the same subjects they have been learning for their entire school careers and, in some cases, will relearn some of the same skills and content. But it will be an entirely new experience for them because they are new people who will approach their learning from a new place, which brings with it new possibilities.
Tomorrow we will read the opening stories of the Torah again. All of us will be reading through new eyes because we are different, and the world is different from year to year, even day to day. We have the sacred capacity and responsibility to practice chitchadshut, renewal – to turn that which might seem old, distant, or mundane into that which is alive, vibrant, relevant, inspiring. When we do this, we contribute to the ever-unfolding interpretive process that brings life and energy to timeless texts and ideas, and through our God-like creative powers, we bring newness, chiddush, into the world.
Rabbi Marc Baker