2014-01-22 / Religion Column

Why do we read the same Torah portions every year?

RABBI EPHRAIM EPSTEIN
Congregation Sons of Israel

Parashat Mishpatim Ex. 21:1-24:18

An infrequent attendee at a synagogue once inquired curiously at the Kiddush after services, “You know I was here a year ago and the Torah reader chanted the exact same portion as he did today. Wouldn’t it be nice if they changed it up a little bit? Why read the same stuff every year?” After inhaling his pickled herring and sipping his cup of spirits, his erudite friend explained that the Talmud Bava Kama 81 states that under the guidance of Moses and later Ezra, Jews have been reading the same 54 passages for thousands of years annually; so we are not going to veer from that custom anytime soon.

I personally was inspired by the question and deflated by the answer. Although tradition is paramount in Jewish life, so is logic. So I have been considering why it is that we do read the same 54 passages annually. Parenthetically, I would like to add that it is quite an enriching exercise to discover the origins of our beautiful and detailed heritage. When we understand better why it is that we do what we do, it enables the ritual experience(s) to be celebrated in a much deeper way.

I would like to present three reasons why we read the same 54 passages every year:

Since Jews believe that the Torah was dictated by G-d and written by Moses, it contains an infinite amount of wisdom. Even after reading a Parsha 1,000 times, there is still much left to discover. The Mishna states in Pirkei Avot, “Hafoch Bah Vehafoch Bah Vekulah Bah”—turn it this way, then that way, and every way because it’s all in there—meaning that there is an infinite repository of knowledge and wisdom contained in the Torah—so keep on learning.

Secondly, It is reported that a great sage taught that the Jewish people collectively and individually live by the Torah portion of the week. Therefore, whatever is going on in our lives as a nation, a community, a family and as a person, the Parsha read that week speaks to us. This week, we will read Parashat Mishpatim, which contains 53 commandments as well as the narrative of the transcendence of Torah at Sinai. I invite you to peruse the Parsha this week; and I am confident you can find a fact, a Mitzvah, or a piece of the narrative that will speak to you and your life today. Try it.

Finally, the five books of the Torah review the creation and development of the world from Breishit—The Beginning of Year 1 until the day of Moses’ death in the year 2488. We are taught that the world was created specifically so that the Torah could be transmitted to the Israelites and passed down through the ages. Since Moses was the Torah Transcriber; when he died it was the end of an era. Every year we enter a new era as well. We live from Rosh Hashanah to Rosh Hashanah starting each year anew. Each year we extend each other New Year’s greetings with the hope that the coming era will bring forth good health, success and fulfillment. As Jews we have been presented with a manual to assist us with our pursuits towards a year of greatness.

The beginning of our new year corresponds with the reading of Breishit, the beginning of the world. By the time we conclude the annual reading of the book of Exodus it is time to celebrate Pesach; and we always read the passage of Bamidbar—The Desert, right before we celebrate Shavuot when we commemorate the Israelites’ arrival at the Sinai Dessert to receive the Torah.

Although the Torah contains narratives, it is much more than a book of stories. Although the Torah is rich with history, it is so much more than a history book. Although the Torah advances Mitzvoth—Laws, it is so much more than a law book. The Torah is the Book of Life and the Book of Mankind. It is our guide, our resource, our Life Elixir and the Divine Recipe for a life well lived.

One of the Mitzvoth advanced in the Shulchan Aruch—Code of Jewish Law—is to review the Torah Parsha each week. I recommend this Mitzvah to everyone. Fulfilling this Mitzvah will enable the timeless and boundless wisdom of the Torah to enrich and inform our daily lives.

Shabbat Shalom! .

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