On Simchat Torah, fifteen of us Jacob Project "pioneers" began reading Torah together, but before we dove in, we looked at a few ways of approaching the reading of Torah.
First, a survey: What book, movie, or other work has really impacted you, or was particularly memorable for you—a "standout"—and why? As always, a wonderful diversity of responses—everything from "Star Wars" and "Snoopy Come Home" to "Life is Beautiful" and "The Holocaust." What many of these have in common, though, is that each offers a lot for our minds to make sense of. Yes, even Snoopy Come Home is replete with emotional dilemmas: Do we root for Snoopy to go back to his true owner or to stay with Charlie Brown? And can't the hospital make an exception to their "No Dogs Allowed" policy for Snoopy? This is a lot for a child's brain to chew on! In all of these works, there are things that just don't sit well with us, and the struggle to sort out our conflicting thoughts is often what can make a particular work memorable to us.
Next, we looked at an essay by Sarah Vowell from The Partly Cloudy Patriot in which she grapples with her love/hate relationship with America. Clearly, she loves the ideals for which America stands. However, she constantly struggles to reconcile the images she loves with the uglier aspects of our history, like the slave trade and the Trail of Tears. "I like the telegraph and the railroad and the Brooklyn Bridge… How many times have I wished to go back there, to live once more in the country I thought I lived in as I stood on the stage of the second-grade Thanksgiving pageant, singing ‘This Land is Your Land' in a cardboard turkey suit?" Of her job selling American artifacts—maps of colonization and drawings of the Europeans meeting the Indians—she says, "The hardest part… was biting my tongue." Makes sense, but what does all this have to do with reading Torah?
This (admittedly unconventional) approach to reading Torah was by no means an attempt to equate Torah with the works of Charles Schultz, Steven Spielberg, or Sarah Vowell. However, when you encounter Torah as an adult, with other adults, and from an adult perspective, you will find that, as with the works mentioned above, there are things that won't sit well in your mind and aspects that are challenging to reconcile. Sure, we all love the parts about leaving the corners of our fields for the poor, the stranger, and the orphan, but what about the parts that are less likeable, like God getting angry, animal sacrifice, and laws and customs we may disagree with? Torah offers a lot for our brains to chew on, and I encourage you to chew loudly and not bite your tongue. Your experience will be richer, as will our discussions, if we each, as we are commanded, "engage" in the words of Torah, actively and out loud, so I hope you will take advantage of the opportunities we will have to do this together in the coming weeks and months.
A portion from another Sarah Vowell essay completed our "frame" for approaching Torah. She writes, "The more… I learn, the more the world fills up with stories. Just the other day, I was… enjoying a chocolately caffe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle's Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much…When you know such trivia, an act as mundane as having an overpriced breakfast drink becomes imbued with meaning, even poetry." So, in our ongoing effort to imbue our Jewish lives with meaning, and even poetry, we went around the room, each reading a paragraph from the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Genesis.
Hope you'll join us next time...
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