Simchat Torah, or “Rejoicing of (the) Teaching,” will be celebrated by the worldwide Jewish community beginning tonight through tomorrow. It marks the end of the yearly Torah-reading cycle and the beginning of a new one. We’ve been doing this for at least (best guess here) 2,569 years; when we reach the last words of Deuteronomy (“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses … [with] all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel”) we immediately rewind to “In the beginning of G?d’s creating heaven and earth…” To paraphrase a line from Guys and Dolls, among other things Judaism can be called the oldest established permanent floating book club on Earth. No matter where or when in the Jewish world you go, you’ll find Jews browsing, studying, perusing, arguing over, sifting through, commenting on, theorizing about and otherwise grooving on Torah. As one of our prayers puts it: “It is our life and the length of our days.”
Why do we do this? Aside from the fact that it’s a Tradition?
There’s something compelling about Torah; not just the text itself, but in studying it with other people. Although our rabbis tell us that one person studying Torah has great merit, the Book of Books is best approached as a group experience. You go deep not only with the text, but with each other (and each other’s perspective), learning a lot about how people interact in purposeful groups. You might think it gets old, reading the same thing over and over again, but it doesn’t: every time you read the text, you bring another year’s experience (and scholarship) to the proceedings. The Torah grows as you grow; just as your favorite movies reveal new depths of meaning with each viewing, so it is with Torah.
How does one begin? Just open it up and start reading! It helps if you have some commentary (http://www.jewfaq.org/biblio.htm offers a handful of recommendations). It also helps if you stick with the weekly portion; not only will you be joining all Jewry planetwide in study and contemplation, but you’ll be consuming the text in assimilable chunks. If you can read some of it in the original Hebrew, do so; if not, don’t worry about it (at first, anyway — Hebrew is full of subtle wordplay and shades of meaning that don’t translate well into English, and the more you do, the more you’ll want to understand).
Whether you hold that Torah was dictated in its entirety to Moses on Mount Sinai, or was stitched together from various ur-texts during the Babylonian Exile, you’ll find many contradictions and incomplete stories (as well as some things both shocking and disturbing) that cry out for interactive interpretation. Go for it! Because with each re-reading, you may come to know that Torah lives in you. As Rabbi Akiva Tatz puts it: “Torah is written in the hearts and minds of those who study it — but it’s written only there. That’s the difficult thing to understand.” So? Let’s get started.