Root Yourself in the Text

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By staying connected to the Torah and modern Jewish text, we learn how to better the world.

by Beth Kissileff

The last command of the Torah, the 613th, is that each Jew should “write yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel” (Deut 31:19), that the song/poem/Torah may serve as an ed, a witness. This last mitzvah is an attempt to connect the words of the Torah to the world outside them. For my 614th command, I want to extend this notion of actively participating in communicating the text: Root our lives in the text.

What do I mean by “text”? The Torah is the most important starting point, containing the oldest and most significant source of meaning for Jews. There are other texts of Jewish life we can connect with secondarily, which may include a dose of Jewish mysticism, law, ceremonies, or Jewish-related news or fiction. We need to create time for immersing ourselves in these texts, each day or week, as a way to understand how we as Jews see our collective place in the world and understanding of one another, as well as a lens to create a new future.

I try to read one aliyah of the weekly Torah portion each day of the week so that I’ve finished by Friday. That way, I may re-read it Friday night, and again in synagogue on Saturday, so that I’ve reviewed the text the requisite three times. (Some weeks go better than others with this goal.) I also regularly peruse a few different Jewish websites like Ha’aretz, The Forward, Tablet, Mosaic, Lilith, and the New York Jewish Week. Then, I try to see what the newest Jewish writers of both fiction and non-fiction are up to, both because I care and because I do book reviewing professionally.

The beauty of Judaism being a tradition based on a written text is that it leaves room for interpretation and amendment. Yes, a printed text is fixed. However, from the time that comments were annotated in the margin, to the current practice of readers commenting on a piece posted online, fluidity rules over even the fixity of print.

The beauty of being rooted in some sort of Jewish text is that we can modify our view of the past. Once something is written, it can be reviewed and, subsequently, understood in an entirely new way. When King Ahasuerus can’t sleep, he asks to have his “book of memories” read to him (Esther 6:1). Because there is a written record of the occurrences in his realm, the king is able to reward Mordecai for his [previously unknown] loyalty in saving his life. The entire plot of the Book of Esther turns on the device of deeds having been recorded. Other significant uses of writing in Esther are when “books were sent out” (Esther 3:13) with decrees against the Jews, and when written proof of Haman’s plot against the Jews is furnished (Esther 9:25) to display the substance of evil.

Without texts and a sense of being rooted in them, we can never re-envision our past and imagine new ways to think about it. No wonder, then, that the central image of the High Holiday season is the Book of Remembrance in which each person records his or her own deeds, that they may be reviewed by the One in Charge. It is only when we visualize ourselves reviewing an actual written text of the past that we can recognize deeds and patterns that require change for the future. Cultures that don’t have a written record can do this orally and can gather to hear the text recited by one who has it committed to memory. Yet the ability to open and review at will, without recourse to the memory of another, lends an acute awareness to the process of reviewing the past.

Why is this important enough to make “rootedness in the text” worthy of a commandment of its own? If we take the time to know what the text has said, we can decide how to relate to it and why it is important to us. To be our best selves, as we strive to do on the High Holidays and hopefully the rest of the year, we must be constantly reviewing our deeds and asking ourselves whether we are satisfied with the book we are creating with our lives. Absent a written record, we won’t know what has really occurred either in our own lives or the lives of a Jewish community of record. If we root ourselves in the text, we have an advantaged memory, one which consists not only of our own deeds, but also of those of our people as a whole.

Jewish sages teach “Talmud torah k’neged kulam,” the “study of Torah is the equivalent of all other deeds” or “more basic than all other deeds.” Through study, we can gain an understanding of the totality of the tradition. Study is not a substitute for action, but something that can lead to it. By being rooted in Jewish tradition – through both reading the text of the Torah and also modern-day texts – we can learn to act in ways that better the world.

About the Author

Beth KissileffBeth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014), an anthology of academic writing about the Book of Genesis, and has completed a novel that is under consideration for publication. She has received fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Lilly Endowment, and the The Humanities Center at Carleton College for work on her second novel. She has taught Jewish studies, Hebrew Bible, and English literature at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College. She spent two years studying Jewish texts in Jerusalem.

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