I have been studying a perek (chapter) of Tanach (Torah, Prophets and Writings) every day since December as part of an Israeli project called 929 (So called because there are 929 chapters in the Tanach). Every day, I get access to the text of the perek plus dozens of other commentaries and articles on their website. Because it is an Israeli project, everything is in Hebrew, though I admit to checking English translations a couple of times because my Biblical Hebrew isn’t up to scratch. I always wanted to study Judaism in a consistent, formal way but never found (or made) time. My involvement in the project, therefore, began because it seemed like the most practical way for me to engage in ongoing Jewish study as a graduate student.
After completing two books of the Torah, Bereshit (Genesis) and Shemot (Exodus), comprising 90 chapters total, I want to take a moment to share some of the lessons I have learned and connections I have made.
1) The Torah is an amazing text. Though I’m sure I have, over the course of my life, read all of it, I have never read the Torah as a book– sequentially, seriously and critically. Because I only study one chapter each day, but I do it every single day (except Shabbat), I have formed a much closer connection to the text. The Torah is no longer just the book of my people, but it is my book. At times it is full of stories that make me smile or grab my hair in frustration (the binding of Isaac, Joseph being sold in to slavery, the wisdom of Yitro, etc); it has moments of such profundity that I get goosebumps (revelation at Sinai); and it has sections that are so dull that I wonder why they were included in this way (building of the Mishkan). Reading the Torah every day makes me believe in the power of the text while questioning all of the words and stories in it, and that is such a great feeling.
2) Some of the lessons of childhood are coming alive…. and others are falling apart. Though I have read the story of the binding of Isaac dozens of times, my experience with the story as part of 929 was incredible. Because I got the context of the story and could see the character development of Abraham and Isaac, I had a particularly fascinating time reading it. Conversely, though I love Passover and have recited the 10 plagues also dozens of times, I found the lead-up to the exodus from Egypt hard to stomach. The destruction and suffering that G-d brings to Egypt, all seemingly to make a point to the Israelites of G-d’s power, felt unnecessary and cruel.
3) The Torah cannot stand alone. My experience would be nothing without the commentary on 929. Every day there is a short summary of the perek with a few “important points”, and a three-ish minute video of a discussion between two Biblical scholars on why the perek is important. In addition, there are always many other essays, commentaries and works of art. I don’t always have time or patience to read multiple commentaries in Hebrew, but I committed at the beginning of the project to always read the text itself, the summary and watch the video. I also try to read any commentary written by a famous person (they have political and cultural figures contribute regularly, which I think is so cool). On days when the perek is dull and full of laws and proscriptions, the commentary is a saving grace, helping me find meaning and inspiration to continue.
4) Sometimes the Torah is really boring. There are great stories, but there also are about half a dozen chapters that seem to all say exactly the same thing (hello, building of the mishkan). More than once I contemplated skipping reading the text itself, or even skipping the day entirely. But I never did. Every single day, I found some value in my study. For example, the first perek where we get a laundry list of laws (Exodus 21) comes immediately after the Revelation at Sinai, meaning I had a bit of emotional whiplash going from the story of revelation to a series of laws about what to do if a donkey falls in a well. But, because I had the bigger picture, I began to think about what the list of laws means for the overarching story of the Jewish people that is the Torah. In that context, I saw the laws as a form of nation-building, which informed my experience of the Seders and my understanding of Passover this year.
5) In case it wasn’t obvious, I feel so proud of myself for doing this. I am finally doing something I always wanted to do for the simple reason that it brings me great joy. In the face of endless homework and friends and work, I remain committed to this completely selfish practice. While I now see the value of a chevruta (a study partner), I also feel myself growing because I do this alone. No one but me cares if I skip a day or quit. Yet when I feel too busy to make time, I somehow find a few minutes to continue, and am always glad I did. With 839 chapters to go, I am obviously nowhere near finishing. Even so, I started thinking about where I will be when I finish the project, more than two years from now. Will I make it to the end? What else will I learn? Who will I be?
And if you ever want to discuss a little bit of Torah with me, PLEASE let me know!