We live in NYC, but my wife and I and our two boys spend summers in Israel. We have been doing this for fourteen years. Each time, on our way to Israel, we stop over in a different European country for about seven to ten days for a short family vacation.
About ten years ago we chose Berlin as our vacation destination. Our boys were four and six years old at the time. While the four-year-old was too young to appreciate the historical gravitas of this particular destination, the six-year-old was starting to grasp the significance of the experience.
Of all the sites we visited, for some reason, the remnants of the Berlin Wall made the biggest impression on him. He was extremely curious about the story of the wall and its subsequent demolition. He inquired about it, and we shared with him an age-appropriate version of its history.
After a few days it became clear to us that he was deeply impacted by the story and he kept asking us to repeat it. We of course obliged, repeating the tale again and again, keeping the basics of the event intact but adding something unique each time: a new detail, a different angle, or perhaps a bit more color. By the time we left Berlin, we must have repeated the story to him about thirty times.
Around this time of year, I am always reminded of this experience.
As we are embarking on a new cycle of Torah-reading it is hard to avoid a sense of deja vu: again we are going to read the stories told in the book of Genesis, Numbers, etc? Don’t we know them already?! Did we not hear them last year, the year before that, and the year before that?!
Well, that is not what our son taught us. He believed that one can listen to the same story multiple times and still find each reiteration vivifying and informative.
If that is true for stories in general, it is all the more so for the Torah, which we reread every year.
Mattan Torah, the students of the Ba’al Shem Tov claim, was not a one-time occurrence but instead happens anew every time we read from the Torah. Kri’at HaTorah encapsulates a modicum of Mattan Torah. We consequently encounter a “new” Torah every year, week after week.
While the texts we were originally given at Har Sinai are eternal and always the same, our existential experience of what those words tell us is new every year. Certain aspects of the Torah’s narrative and laws deeply resonated last year but could perhaps lose their resonance this coming year, and vice versa.
As Maimonides explains (see his Mishnah commentary at the end of Tractate Makkot), the vastness of the Torah was by divine design, precisely for this reason. The enormity is there so that it offers something for everybody. It is unlikely that all of Torah would resonate with us all the time. But with such abundance, we can always choose to focus on those aspects that enhance our religious journey.
This Shabbat, therefore, when the Torah reader calls out the opening verses of Parshat Breishit, allow yourself to encounter our covenantal text anew, to experience a personal Mattan Torah (see Zohar Shemot p. 106a). Perhaps you will discover something that was not there–for you–last year.
Allowing yourself to experience those tales anew, as if you never heard them before, could possibly reveal to you חלקך בתורה, the aspect of Torah that is uniquely and exclusively yours. And if you do not open yourself in this way, it perhaps will never come to light, depriving you of some aspects of Torah and also making the Torah incomplete and (metaphysically) pasul. A Torah that is incomplete is invalid, even if only a single letter is missing. You might be in possession of that single–so far missing–letter (metaphorically speaking).
For myself, I can’t wait to hear the current version of these majestic stories. Looking at them through the prism of the annual new lenses we bring to this encounter I will wonder: What is the story of creation? How does my perception of its particulars differ from the way I perceived them last year? What happened to Noach and his family when the world was wiped out by an unnatural occurrence? What were our patriarchs and matriarchs like? How did they grapple when tragedy struck (starvation, infertility, spousal and familial strife)? What can we learn from that? Can we infer from those experiences some guidance for our current situation?
Similarly, in what way will the legal edicts of the Torah be similar to last year’s and in what way will they be different, conceived differently by the new us that has so drastically changed since the last time we read them.
I am really curious.